Time Traveling

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself’ – Rachel Carson

Environmental History’s Audience Challenge

Tom Rogers at Emory University, November 13th, 2017

Thomas Rogers is an Associate Professor of Modern Latin American History and has taught courses on labor and environmental history, and Afro-Latin American history. His main focus of study is the link between societies and their environments.

At Emory, Rogers gave a seminar on “Environmental History’s Audience Challenge”, which was very good.  The readings for this class were even better: seven blogposts by several people involved with environmental history.

What is environmental history? I wondered while thinking about the seminar. I am very familiar with each of these terms individually, but had not considered them together. Simply put, environmental history studies the history of the environment, highlighting the interdependence between nature and society. There is a relationship between man and his/her surroundings, and environmental history studies exactly this relationship, this exchange, this interaction.

Stonehenge, England, 3000 BC to 2000 BC

Environmental history studies “show how nature and societies have shaped each other, and they challenge our conventional expectations of causality and maybe our arrogant confidence in human ingenuity” [in words of Lise Sedrez]. Environmental history studies make us see that the way we live now is not necessarily the same way in which people lived ages ago, and that the way Earth is today is very different from what it used to be. Our environment has shaped us, but more notoriously, we have shaped our environment.

Environmental History can show us where we stand, why we stand here, and how is this situation compared to the past: it enhances the understanding of our own reality. “The greatest strength we have as historians—our secret superpower—is the ability to take an apparently immutable existing status quo and show that ‘it was not always so’” [says Sandra Swart in her blogpost]. Our planet, warmer and with massive artificial amounts of CO2, was not always like this. We forget this fact. We see our planet’s deterioration little by little, and it strikes us only when we compare the current situation to ancient times [and sometimes not so ancient].

Muir Glacier, Alaska: August 13, 1941 and August 31, 2004. Photography by NASA

The key of historians is that their target is the general public: they write books for curious minds. Tom Griffiths talks about this phenomenon in his blogpost. This is historians’ way to influence people. Other two resources, mentioned in another of the blogposts [John R. McNeill] and highlighted by Rogers in his talk are influencing policy and becoming an expert on an issue. Historians can very well influence policy by broadening its definition and including more issues to the debate [like defended by Don Worster]. This is what Paul Josephson defines as “more public voice in describing problems and setting the agenda”, and we need to communicate in every way that we can [TV, radio, internet, etc.]

According to Stefania Barca, with which I agree, we have spent too long trying to influence politicians and decision makers in the economic sphere. However, environmental problems continue, and a lot of them have gotten even worse. The solution? Appealing to the public, to individuals.

“I am convinced that neither technology nor technocracy can save us. We need a profoundly new vision of human destinies that eliminates the dominant western-centric and ultimately racist narratives of human “progress,” and which makes space for new, multiple, and profoundly ecological visions of what the word should mean to us’ – Stefania Barca.

So is policy that important? I would argue yes [I am a political scientist myself], but the individual matters as well. Science should not only address decision makers; scientists should also address the common people. In a “democratic” world, informed voters are most of the times even more powerful than the decision makers – individuals are a source of change [and a very important one].

Public domain in the United States, Wikimedia Commons.

With this incredible introduction [from the readings done prior to the seminar], Rogers started his exposition on Brazil’s ProÁlcool national plan, which consisted on fomenting the production of ethanol from cane sugar [partly as an answer to the oil shock from 1973, partly as an initiative to increase social equality in the country]. This program fomented ethanol industry to the extent that rivers were extremely polluted [since the waste from the factories would be disposed in the rivers – “it is a cheaper solution”]. There was discomfort towards the military government from society: people opposed liberty restrictions from the military government, and added to this there was an important environmental crisis with polluted water. Both of these events propelled the creation of a national environmental agency and a system for environmental regulation.

Cane sugar waste (Public domain in the United States, Wikimedia Commons)

What lessons should we drive from Brazil’s example? ProÁlcool was a policy implemented by a military government [i. e. an autocratic decision] that did not have any measurement of the environmental impacts that such decision would bring. Pollution lead to an increase in public activism [both against the military in general and water pollution in particular]. People’s opposition forced the government to adopt certain standards that would protect the environment. The main challenge derived from this case [and History’s challenge in general] is to find patterns to lead future action. History reminds us of the past, it is up to us to modify it.

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