The Policy Relevance of Environmental History

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Environmental history, like other ‘new’ historical fields such as women’s history, civil rights history and social history, was born or revived during the 1960’s and still bears significant connections to the socio – political movement which fostered its emergence. Environmental history aims to break down disciplinary fences and has drawn insights from arenas such as ecology, geography, economics, anthropology and environmental science. The field of environmental history has been forged predominantly by United States historians such as Donald Worster, Johnson Hughes, William Cronen and John Robert McNeill. Environmental historians study the past; looking at how human systems have altered the natural environment and how the natural environment can have just as substantial impacts on our lives; influencing human cultures, interactions and ways of life. Most environmental historians do this taking into account their own concern for the environment, in the hope of informing future decisions’ regarding its management. As renowned environmental historian William Cronen states, one of the most exciting challenges of this field ‘…is the chance to enlist historical scholarship in the service of improving human relationships with nature’. Therefore, the interplay between history and policy is particularly relevant for environmental historians with the aim of bridging the gap between the study of history as an academic discipline, and its usefulness in informing public opinion.

The methodology employed by environmental historians is aimed at discerning ‘…the threads that weave people and their environments together in particular patterns’. This requires an understanding of both human systems and the natural environment. Traditionally, these areas have remained separate paradigms with their own methods of inquiry and theories regarding how the world worked. However, the theoretical foundation of environmental history attempts to integrate the two disciplines of study by analysing how human action and the natural environment interact. According to Barbara Leibhardt, the key to environmental history is the recognition that ‘…human beings like other living organisms, share relationships with their natural environments that change over time’. This form of history puts human behaviour into a broader context in which we are not the only actors. To be effective in its pursuit, environmental history must be able to influence the opinions of not only those who study the past, but those who will play a part in shaping the future. In saying this, historians rarely make predictions or prophecies about what is to come. It is the role of historians to tell the stories of the past in order for society to better interpret phenomena in relation to present and future outcomes.

Environmental history has the ability to reach beyond the confines of the academy and can profoundly enlighten public understanding of modern-day environmental issues by placing them in a wider historical context. For example the history of fossil fuel emissions and human activity from the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century can help inform our present day understandings of anthropogenic climate change. Dr. John McNeill has pioneered work in this field and is currently working on his forthcoming book to be titled A Global Environmental History of the Industrial Revolution. In McNeill’s previous work he details how countless problems, which for thousands of years had been small and localised, have been rendered issues of global concern due to the scale and intensity of changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. Change has principally been the main focus of historians; therefore, looking at the changing relationships between humans and the environment over time is the central concern of environmental historians. Human changes to the environment are as old as humanity itself, however as McNeill and other environmental historians outline, in the last two to three centuries the mass production of industry has radically altered ecosystems and caused significant environmental variation. We now know that human activity in the form of carbon emissions causes the earth’s atmospheric composition to change. We know that if we continue to exhaust natural resources at an exponential rate, food security as well as human health will be threatened. These issues have been demonstrated though analysing the impacts of human interactions with the environment in the past. If we are to create a better world for the future, it is essential that these histories are told not only to other historians but to policy makers, big business corporations, students and the general public.

The issue of climate change is one of the key indicators that the study of the past is crucial to society’s current understandings of the impacts of human interaction with the natural world. There are various other examples; however, climate change is particularly pertinent in this context as it is a problem which affects all of humanity, not just historians and policy making elites. Most environmental historians aim to have their works contribute to contemporary environmental policies. In Cronen’s words, ‘…they want their histories to be useful not just in helping us understand the past, but in helping shape the future’. However, this is a controversial pursuit due to the fact that academic historians and the general public represent vastly different target audiences and attempting to please the needs of both may cause conflicting interests. Environmental historians must avoid becoming so narrowly academic that they limit the usefulness and practicality of their work to the broader community; yet they also have to circumvent being so present minded and pragmatic that they lose the ability to conduct “good history”. If the stories told by environmental historians are to be constructive in shaping a better world, a balance needs to be struck between rigorous and credible history and its ability to connect with everyday citizens outside the academic field. This balance can be achieved by systematically describing specific historical events in combination with general observations that may indicate to the general public the underlying trends that are occurring. It is also important to note that while history can be a fantastic tool in helping to comprehend past events, it may not always provide an accurate guide to the future. Despite this, it is important that environmental history is not only understood by academics, but by society as a whole in an attempt to create a more sustainable relationship with the natural environment.

In Donald Worster’s words, environmental history was ‘…born of a moral purpose, with strong political commitments behind it’. In following this premise, in order to be useful in making the world a better place, environmental history must be able to influence audiences outside the historical discipline. The fables that are told by historians have the profound ability to remind people of the enormous human power to alter the natural world and the even more immense power of nature to respond to these changes. We must learn from the past in order to avoid repeating its mistakes, therefore it is essential that histories regarding the environment ‘… reach beyond the walls of the academy to affect the views of people who do more than just study the past’. This is particularly vital in the context of climate change with food and water shortages, sea level rise and mass migration set to dramatically alter the path of both humanity and the natural environment in the future.

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