Incoming professor Angelo Matteo Caglioti is an environmental historian. Currently a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, he will be starting at Barnard this fall.
Reporting by Lilly Anderson
So tell me a bit about yourself.
Originally, I am from Italy. I was born in the South, in Calabria. I did my Undergraduate in Padova. After that, I studied at the University of California Berkeley for my PhD. After that, I was a fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. I missed the US, and I went back to Berkeley last year as a visiting lecturer. After that, I spent the summer in Germany at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and now I am here in Rome. I have a mixed background between Italy, Europe, and the U.S… I like to say that I’m a Calibrifornian: I’m from Calabria, but I spent a lot of time in California, and I’m kind of a mix of these two worlds.
I’m interested in, from a disciplinary perspective, how environmental history can shed light on European history, and vice versa.
What led you to environmental history as a subject?
There are a couple of things that led me to environmental history. One, of course, the current concern about climate change and the climate crisis… but also the experience of being in the US in the West, hiking. There is so much you can learn by going out and experiencing a new environment. Especially in California and the West where the legacy of empire on the environment are very clear. You can really learn so much from the land that you wouldn’t learn just by reading a book.
As an environmental historian, what is the most important lesson we can learn from history?
One of the important lessons for me is how we manage this crisis, adapt to it, try to fix it. A major issue is…how societies manage natural resources…in a shrinking economy. So what I’m looking at is, how things can go wrong. In the case of facism, that was in many ways a political regime about controlling resources, but limiting the amount of resources. In many ways, f didn’t believe that you could expand natural resources. With colonialism, developing world that live with the legacy of colonialism have a struggle to . How do we as a society organize? And also, how do we tackle the issue of global inequality and the legacy of colonialism when it comes to the environment? Here’s the thing about the climate crisis. From a scientific perspective, we know it’s bad. But it’s also a social and political issue. So, what do we do once we know these facts? For example, poorer countries will have a harder time transitioning to fossil fuels.
Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between colonialism and the environment?
Globalization meant the transfer of specimens, plants, animals, people. Colonialism itself transformed the world, by creating sugar plantations in the Caribbean, for example. In so many ways, colonialism was about transforming the environment. And in so many ways, Europe itself was transformed by this exchange. So I see colonialism as a project that changed Europe and the rest of the world through this exchange of these plants, animals, people.
The classic example is oil in the Middle East. A crucial commodity that also is involved in the climate crisis. There are several stories of commodities such as cotton and oil that show how colonialism changed societies.
Something I should mention, for students who are interested in the natural sciences, I think it’s really interesting to see how the forms of knowledge that we have developed to understand nature are part of the web of that encounter. The way we study nature were also the result of that encounter. The need of Europeans to develop a structure of knowledge to make sense of these far away places. How do we know the quality of a plant? How do we know what a plant even looks like? For students who are interested in the natural sciences, the connections to environmental politics and colonialism are also very important.
Oral history is something Barnard is integrating into it’s department, Oral History track. Do you think oral history has a place in environmental history and if so, where?
Yes, in many ways. I think something environmental history has tried to do is, when it began, it had a more radical approach. A crucial aspect of environmental history is also learning about how different communities experience nature. The reading of an outsider will have a very different experience will have a different experience of the climate. Europeans will show up in Somalia, for example, and try to understand the weather by measuring it: by calculating how much water, how much rain flow, the direction of the wind. Instead, Somali pastoral communities anticipated the weather by studying animal behavior: where they would graze, where they would move. So oral history can actually be particularly useful to learn about other forms of knowledge that might get passed on from communities.
What have you heard about Barnard and what are you looking forward to about being a professor here?
Oh my gosh, I’ve heard so many really great things about Barnard and I’m really looking forward to it. I heard that Barnard has brilliant students, I’m looking forward to having more interactions and conversations. Also, something for me that was really exciting is seeing my interests cross different fields, and knowing that I will have the freedom to teach across these different fields was very empowering academically. That freedom for me was key when I moved from Italy to the US, the sense of empowerment when you get out of traditional disciplinary limits.
What is the best history class you’ve ever taken?
In terms of my appreciation for history, I had a very inspiring teacher in high school, she had actually been my father’s teacher, too. She had a Marxist approach.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love swimming and hiking. I also love photography, I take a lot of specifically landscape photography. In New York, I’ll probably be doing more street photography.