The Department of History welcomes Elizabeth Chatterjee, who joined the faculty last month as Assistant Professor of Environmental History and the College. Below, Chatterjee talks about her research, teaching, and multidisciplinary background inside and outside the academy. 

What is your research about? 

I specialize in environmental history, the branch of history that examines the relationship between human societies and the rest of the natural world on which they rely. My research focuses particularly on India and its changing use of energy, from independence from British colonial rule in 1947 to the present day.

This interest was shaped by my growing awareness of climate change and its dangers. The rich countries of the West are responsible for most of the human-generated greenhouse gases already heating the atmosphere. But the key drivers of climate change today lie in the huge countries of Asia. In 2019 China accounted for 30.3% of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels, compared with 13.4% for the United States. Indian emissions (6.8%), too, are poised to overtake those of the whole European Union (7.7%). I think it’s high time we started paying more attention to the world beyond the West.

My research concentrates on the history of the energy sector, far and away the single biggest source of emissions today. I am currently writing an energy-centered history of India, Electric Democracy. It explores why it matters that India began the world’s greatest experiment in democracy before most of its people got access to “modern” energy sources like electricity, and how the politicization of energy has repeatedly thwarted the country’s economic development. My goal is to highlight the very different dynamics that have driven carbon-intensive development in postcolonial Asia, and thereby to help write the rest of the world into our usually Western-centric histories of climate change.

What were you up to before coming to UChicago?

It’s been a winding road. I started out as a history major, but my interests took a turn towards the contemporary. After a couple of internships with Oxfam and Unicef, working on topics like gender and toilet usage (still a topic close to my heart!), I decided the NGO route wasn’t for me. Instead, I completed a doctorate in international development at Oxford. “Development studies” doesn’t really exist in the United States—it’s a guilty hangover of Britain’s imperial past—but it brings together history, politics, anthropology, and economics to understand the structural obstacles to the flourishing of the formerly colonized world.

Before arriving at the University of Chicago’s history department this January, I taught in the political science department at Queen Mary University of London. This interdisciplinary background infuses my research and teaching. History is crucial to understand how we got into the planetary-scale ecological predicament we’re in today. At the same time, our historical understanding can be enriched by insights from Earth System science, critical geography, comparative environmental politics, and more.

What course are you most excited to teach next quarter?

That’s a tough choice. I’m looking forward to teaching “South Asia After Independence,” an undergraduate course which surveys the diverging histories of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. It should be a great introduction to the action-packed recent history of the region, complete with military coups, ethnic and religious conflict, and nuclear weapons.

But the course I’m really excited about is one I’m teaching for the first time, “Environmental Histories of the Global South.” Open to graduate students and undergrads, this course will explore how environmental histories have made the postcolonial world. We will analyze how ecological ideas and colonial practices of governing nature shaped the notion of the impoverished and pathological tropics. In turn, we will see how the “Third World”—later the “Global South”—was forged as a potent international force through new forms of environmental politics, culminating in a simulated international climate negotiation.

Looking ahead to next year, I’ll be drawing on my background in international development to teach a course on “How (Not) to Save the World.” We’ll look at the long history of attempts to export development and humanitarian aid to the poorer parts of the world, and explore why so many of them have gone disastrously wrong. I’m excited that the next Melinda Gates or Muhammad Yunus might be in my class, and might take away at least a couple of useful lessons.