Seattle has a “pioneering spirit,” says Christof Mauch, one of the world’s distinguished scholars of environmental history. He will speak at a free public lecture on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at the University of Washington.

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Seattle is a pioneering city with a past more clear than its future, says one of the world’s leading environmental historians.

Visiting Seattle this week, Christof Mauch marveled at the remaking of Seattle’s landscape still in plain sight, from the leveling of the hills in the Denny Regrade to excavation of the Lake Washington Ship Canal to the hulking beauty of Gas Works Park.

“Seattle is absolutely fascinating,” said Mauch, co-director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. He is visiting for the first time, and speaking Wednesday evening at the University of Washington.

Free public lecture

Who: Christof Mauch, environmental historian, will speak at the University of Washington on environmental sustainability and lessons from the past.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: UW Kane Hall, Room 210

No cost: Free and open to the public

Source: Simpson Center for the Humanities

“It seems to me like a city where people for the longest time, and I don’t know how much longer into the future, have felt they could do things that were not done before. There is a pioneering spirit. It seems like a laboratory for the future.”

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The challenge for Seattle is what happens now, as the city accumulates wealth, Mauch said.

“This is one of those cities where you try to actually move mountains and change the landscape dramatically — for better and for worse,” Mauch said. “The type of innovation, the changes you create now with big corporations, that could be problematic. You lose many of the environmental-justice issues that are more on the radar screen of people earlier.”

But if anything, Seattle has a history of conflict and challenges to leadership that could serve it well now, Mauch said. Seattle is a place where leaders are critiqued and issues are disputed, he observed. “Out of that come great ideas.”

Seattle, surrounded by a beautiful landscape, is also a place that has destroyed its own ecology in some areas — the Duwamish Superfund site is just one example. In that way the city is a microcosm of what humans have done wrong, and what they have done well in the world, Mauch said. “It’s like a lesson in shortcomings and successes.”

In his public talk Wednesday evening, Mauch will reflect on what he believes true sustainability means, including the importance of staying nimble, ready to innovate and move between alternatives. “Big systems are not sustainable; we need to always be in search of alternatives to big, expensive systems,” Mauch said. Because whether a power grid or other entity, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

“We can only get resiliency through diversity,” Mauch said. “We need to think in alternatives.”

As an environmental historian, he is somewhat optimistic about the future as talks proceed in Paris to cope with climate change, Mauch said.

“I am calling for slow hope, small steps, realizing that we have to look back into history and see that we have achieved something,” Mauch said. “What has happened in the U.S. in the last few years makes me more optimistic. The awareness is there to an extent it never would have been 10 years ago.”

Mauch also sees a greater role for environmental historians in shaping and informing policy — instead of relying so fully on economics. “We need history. Short memory is dangerous.”

His talk is part of the Katz Distinguished Lectures in the Humanities series.