Anticipatory histories of landscape and wildlife

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Geography


The network aims to explore how different ways of researching and writing about the past shape our understandings of contemporary environments, and how we envision what might happen to them in the future. In particular, the network proposes to investigate the ways in which experimental accounts of past environmental change can help prepare us for uncertain futures, and become enrolled in processes of mitigation and adaptation. We refer to this as an experiment in anticipatory history.

Through a series of workshops, the network will test and develop the concept of 'anticipatory history' and assess its potential contribution to cross-disciplinary research in the histories of environmental change. The network is keenly interested in exploring how such histories might travel outside the academy, and be taken up by people in various contexts. To this end, the network aims to
develop working collaborations between academics and practitioners. Participants in the workshops include representatives from organisations such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. It is intended that the outcomes of the workshop will make a tangible contribution to management, interpretation and communication around issues of environmental change.

This network will achieve its aims by working through two case-studies: landscape and wildlife history. It will do so in the context of the county of Cornwall. Cornwall is a region with a long history of nature study and, as a peninsula and wildlife haven, is particularly susceptible to sudden weather events and to longer term environmental and climatic change. The network will gather together a diverse group of practitioners and academics to advance thinking in the areas of landscape and wildlife change and to explore innovative approaches in the production of environmental histories and futures.

Workshops will allow academic researchers and environmental writers to present their research on histories of the environment to organisations who are involved in the management of the environment. These discussions will be organised such that they allow these organisations to learn from and take on board these ideas. In turn, the organisations will be able to discuss with academic specialists the specific issues and challenges they face in their work. These discussions will aim to assist public and other organisations in the development of strategies for the communication of environmental management policies and decisions.

The ideas developed in the network will be documented in an original publication, produced in collaboration with the book artist, publisher and writer, Colin Sackett. This publication will experiment with creative forms of presentation and narration to offer a tangible demonstration of the potential for anticipatory histories of changing places and populations. The book will communicate the outcomes of the network, and will be a useful education and communication tool for many of the groups involved in the network and in related fields.

Planned Impact

This network will benefit a range of audiences, directly and indirectly. Direct beneficiaries of this research include charitable and voluntary organisations; community groups and interest groups; and the local wider public in Cornwall and the South West. In the longer term, policy-makers within national, local and devolved government and government agencies will also potentially be able to benefit from the network and its outcomes.

Specific beneficiaries and relevant benefits:

1 Charities and interest groups that address issues of wildlife and landscape change in their work will benefit by the acquisition of creative strategies for explaining and communicating about past and future environmental change.
2 The wider public will benefit through an enhanced understanding of environmental histories, which may provide the basis for a more informed and engaged adaptation to future environmental change.
3 Participants in the networking activities will benefit through the opportunity to share their expertise and insights with a range of academic and non-academic partners, including people engaged in popular publishing and broadcasting activities.

Strategies to engage beneficiaries and ensure the delivery of impacts:

1 Workshops will be organised thematically, to ensure that specific user groups are targeted with relevant interaction and networking opportunities.
2 Workshops will be open to additional participants, which will allow for the strategic expansion of the network to include representatives from other groups and agencies as the project develops.
3 The final workshop will be widely advertised to attract participation from interested members of the general public, with targeted invitations to people involved in communication and community engagement activities around issues of environmental change.
4 The project will produce a book-length publication to communicate the outcomes of the network regarding the complex connections between histories and futures of environmental change. The book will be distributed widely through the networks of participating organisations and other channels.


10 25 50
publication icon
DeSilvey C (2012) Making sense of transience: an anticipatory history in cultural geographies

publication icon
DeSilvey, Caitlin; Naylor, Simon; Sackett, Colin (2011) Anticipatory History

Description We are often told that we are facing the real prospect of an increase in the rate and scale of environmental change in our lifetimes. Many of these changes-if predictions are correct-will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited-usually cast in terms of loss and guilt-and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.

From September 2010 to April 2011 we gathered people in a research network to explore the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support. It is common to think in scientific or policy terms when dealing with these matters. However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these fraught debates. We framed our network around the concept of 'anticipatory history'. The term itself is adapted from the concept of 'anticipatory adaptation', which is used in discussion of climate change to describe action taken before impacts are felt, as distinguished from 'passive' or 'reactive' adaptation strategies. Practitioners of anticipatory adaptation strategies seek to identify vulnerable places or populations, and then weigh up the costs and benefits of different adaptive interventions, with a focus on 'no regret' measures that will provide benefits even if the predicted change is never realised. Although supportive of this principle, it was our feeling that such work would benefit from looking back as much as gazing only forward; that in a variety of ways the past has much to contribute to our preparations for the future. This might include using archives of environmental change to appreciate or re-interpret present circumstances; or even the production of experimental accounts of historic environmental processes that could help us to apprehend unforeseen paths towards desirable futures.

Background assumptions about succession and stability (in animal and plant populations) and conservation and constancy (in landscapes, particularly those we value) often obscure the dynamism that shaped these places and their inhabitants. Species loss, erosion, accretion, and climate change are part of the past in these places, not just part of their future. History that calls attention to process rather than permanence may therefore help us to be more prepared for future change; to respond thoughtfully and proactively, rather than in a mode of retreat and or regret. This is not then an activity in nostalgia, which begins by assuming its job is to highlight and lament decline or loss over time. It is also not necessarily anti-managerial. Indeed, it is often pragmatic calculations that drive the need for a historiographical or philosophical shift in thinking in the first place.

This network actively explored the implications of this kind of thinking by bringing together academics and practitioners to talk about how the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future 'plausabilities'. Our exchanges wove together theory and practice, representation and interpretation, experimentation and application. We asked how past, present and prospective changes are constructed and communicated, but we were also interested in discussing how we might engage with these narrative processes.

One of the areas where anticipatory history thinking may offer useful perspectives is in reflection on the communication of scientific information. Science has provided us with a fairly consistent language with which to trace changes in nature, such that observations made several hundred years ago can still be referred to today, whether in terms of rainfall, temperature, flood events, changes to topography, or to plant and animal populations. Study of past records remains a cornerstone of much environmental science, will underpin many attempts to calculate future changes and will support any narratives about what is happening in nature.

That said, in our discussions it was noted that there needed to be more sensitivity with regard to the way arguments based solely on scientific facts and reasons were received; and perhaps even the incorporation of a range of other factors in decision-making processes. Shared exploration of values can also take place obliquely, through forums that encourage people to share their diverse understandings of landscape history. If people can be engaged early on (before difficult management decisions have to be taken) a conversation about the different versions of the past that people privilege and promote may help identify and anticipate potential conflict before it comes to a head. Such an application of anticipatory history thinking may be particularly relevant in situations where the prospect of environmental change is forcing a shift in management priorities.

Conversations about landscape history can be used to open up negotiation about landscape futures, flushing out potential points of conflict or disagreement before debates become calcified and contentious. The challenge here is to bring the right people to the table early enough for these conversations to make a difference. One tool to draw people in might be the practice of re-photography, which can make environmental change visible and help people understand that a landscape that seems timeless (and wild, in this case) is actually a very recent artefact. Environmental change is often too gradual to register in people's consciousness, but photographs can make this change visible and help people explore "past scenarios" as a way of opening up conversations about "future prospects".

Those who make decisions about landscape futures need to be sensitive to how people know the past in place-the dense weave of individual memories, shared experiences, and personally significant landmarks that makes up our understanding of where we are, and where we have been. Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the 'small stories' and 'lay knowledges' that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future. Lastly, in recording and acknowledging these intimate attachments to place, there is a clear role for the creative arts. Music, visual arts practice, and performance may be better able to reflect, and respect, emotional and embodied connections to lived landscapes than text-based narrative forms.
Exploitation Route Our network was funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and brought together voices from inside and outside academia, in partnership with the National Trust. We had participation from biological recorders, museum curators, radio producers, film makers, conservation professionals, and local government officials.

Clearly there is a place for 'anticipatory history' thinking on different registers, and in different contexts. In academic spheres, anticipatory history might contribute to the crafting of new research approaches, and new narrative strategies, that are both more relevant and more rewarding; work that moves into the world, and, in a small way, helps make it. In an applied sense, it can help us to reflect on current practices and share approaches that allow us to 'look back to look forward'. National Trust staff have commented that anticipatory history can work as a 'conceptual tool' for shifting expectations and guiding different - perhaps more open - forms of engagement between people and place, past and future. Others have suggested that anticipatory histories may help make possible the transition from 'incremental' to 'transformational' adaptation - a shift from changing what one does to changing what one is trying to achieve. Anticipatory history is an idea that is already being put into practice in all sorts of ways. There is an opportunity to name this work, and call attention to it. That is what our book, Anticipatory History, aims to do.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy


Leisure Activities

including Sports

Recreation and Tourism



Museums and Collections

Description This research network investigated the ways in which experimental accounts of past environmental change can help prepare us for uncertain futures, and become enrolled in processes of mitigation and adaptation. The project partner was the National Trust (NT). Network activities culminated in the publication of a book, Anticipatory History (Uniformbooks, 2011), which includes contributions from nine NT employees. The book was widely and positively reviewed in non-academic print and web publications and the research featured in 2012 film commissioned by the AHRC Landscape and Environment programme ( In 2012 the NT initiated a knowledge exchange project to disseminate the outcomes of the research within the organisation. The NT engaged independent consultants to work with the Co-I DeSilvey (with support from Open Innovation LINK funding) to design and deliver a series of workshops which translated 'anticipatory histories' thinking into tools and techniques that could be used on the ground. Pilot workshops were conducted at four coastal properties (all currently in the process of developing Coastal Adaptation Strategies). Additional workshops were held with the NT's Natural Environment Panel (an advisory group composed of external experts) and with the National Specialist Team. All workshop participants were given a copy of the co-authored volume. The workshops disseminated the research widely within the organisation, and demonstrated how collaborative research can generate significant ownership of research outcomes and a commitment to applying new knowledge in organisational policy and practice. Following on from the pilot project, the NT is developing the workshop model to provide training for regional advisory teams and enhance their ability to support property managers as they engage people in complex decisions around landscape change. The project was recently featured in the NT internal technical magazine, Views, which is distributed to the organisation's 4,000 employees and 60,000 volunteers. In a September 2013 article Phil Dyke wrote, "One of the key learning points I took from being involved in the project was that if we are to be effective in negotiating the transition from past to future, we are most likely under-investing in our use and application of social-science techniques and the way we draw on insights from arts and humanities" (the full article is available at:
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Policy & public services