0:15 The Industrial Revolution was a major event in history because it changed our relationship to nature. And it was the start of global warming.
0:28 But to me, I think, what is interesting about looking back into history is to look at specific cases of how people have managed to change a difficult situation. And so you have societies that were completely dependent on rainfall and you have like a 100 year drought. And how do they change from being dependent and vulnerable into taking action and changing society or transitioning into another way of living or moving out from the urban areas? We have all been trained in believing in evolution. And we apply that to human history. And that’s a very poor model of understanding our society, because it makes the person come out as if it was inevitable, like the logical outcome of the past.
1:23 And I think with such a view on history and such a view on our society today, we can’t change anything. Because we kind of lose the power and the imagination of making change happen.
1:40 And I can see– like when I look at history, I can see a lot of changes like breaking points in history where things could have turned out very differently. So rather than see it as gradual change towards – the hockey stick– what we see today, you can also choose to see history at those moments in time where it could’ve been different, or events could have happened in another way than what it actually did. Of course, there is a lot of micro history and so on that has been really excellent. But there’s no one that’s done the broad history on the basis of those micro events. So I can’t give good examples.
2:29 But to me, if I was to write the broad synthesis on environmental history or the relationship of nature and mankind, I think I would focus on different cases of where people have had to renegotiate their relationship with nature by being forced to switch their way of living or solve problems– environmental problems.
3:02 And I think we can learn a lot from that today. Like to look at what type of organizations could facilitate that rapid change. Was it driven by individuals or was it driven by a state or a similar state organization? For instance, questions that we can transfer to our society today.
3:31 Some historians use the ozone problem as an example of– as a bad example. But I think that is quite a good example of how a technological change can happen very, very fast. You can also look at some of the examples that are used as moral lessons, more or less, like the Maya collapse or cases where societies have collapsed. But if you look at the Maya society, it was an extremely densely populated society. So extremely, like there are comparisons with modern day landscapes.
4:17 But they managed to maintain these towns for a very, very long time. And often, we are so focused on looking at why they collapsed, rather than asking how did they ever manage to support this big population for such a long period of time under relative stability. They produced a lot of their food inside the town. So they were green cities. And yeah. I think that’s the most central thing. And as in many, many societies that are dependent on farming, they depend on good rainfall. So they have time mitigation for the years when the rain doesn’t come, because that happens all the time. And I think that is something that states at least have had mitigation for since states began.
5:19 And we are forgetting this now. Every time there’s a climate disaster, we’re like this has never happened before. And it was three years ago that the last disaster happened. I think Joseph Tainter has a really good explanation of how societies– complex societies– tend to solve problems by becoming increasingly complex. So I think we can see this with a global warming discussion. Today, what happens? We make committees. And those committees make new committees. And we travel the world. We have conferences. We discuss what to do about the problem.
6:01 Where is the solution? To some, at least, it’s quite easy. We have the solution already. We don’t want to talk about it. We can just do it.
6:16 So with evolutionary history, you tend to portray history and the present as if environmental overshoot– global warming– is the inevitable. Like that’s the price we have to pay for human rights, social welfare systems, and the technological advancements. But I don’t believe so. And I think it’s very tragic if we use history to prove that that lock-in is historically correct, because I think what is important is to see those events back in time where people did change, where they were in a lock-in, but where they did transform society. And if you look back in time, we can see that those things happened really, really fast. And if they did it in the past, they can do so today as well.
Humanity and nature: the long history of the world
What does history have to do with climate change leadership? Well everything, if you ask archaeologist and environmental historian Anneli Ekblom. In this video, Ekblom discusses why we need to reframe history in order to create opportunities for change – and how the Maya civilization may in fact be a positive example rather than a case of a civilization that collapsed.
Ekblom observes that the evolutionary model of history which we are all accustomed to may in fact inhibit our agency:
We have all been trained in believing in evolution and we apply that on history. That’s a very poor model of understanding our society because it makes the present come out as if it was inevitable, like the logical outcome of the past. With such a view on history and such a view on our society of today we can’t change anything because we lose the power and imagination of making change happen.
Evolution is based on the principle that the individuals most adapted to a particular environment survive. Evolution is often assumed to mean that species are getting “better” or more “complex” over time, as if adapting to one specific situation means they will be better adapted to all they may encounter. However, there are species which have survived over hundreds of millions of years, such as crocodiles (which have changed very little since before the dinosaurs), so have proved themselves to be well adapted to extremely different eras despite being “simpler creatures”. More recently evolved species, like humans, are no better for being younger, and may not be prepared for future selective pressure.
Even within genetic evolution, chance still plays a role, as the process relies on random mutations before selective pressure. The simplified evolutionary idea that societies inevitably progress towards a more sophisticated and superior state denies the role of chance and dismisses societies which have changed comparatively little over time. It also erases the agency of humans and other animals to decide how they might survive and thrive regardless of their social and genetic inheritance. To see these moments, historians look for “micro-histories” and focus on the lives of individual people or communities, revealing agency at a small scale.
Instead of seeing history as inevitable progress, Ekblom argues that we need to understand how societies have been able to change the relationship to nature they inherited from the past:
Of course the industrial revolution was a major event in history because it changed our relationship to nature and it also started global warming. But to me what is interesting is looking back to history in specific cases of how people have managed to change a difficult situation.
Ekblom suggests that we should find moments when things could have been otherwise, which reveal trends like increasing industrial expansion, global warming and biodiversity degradation to be contingent on the actions of humans and other animals, and chance events.
And if you look back in time, you can see that those things (events which transformed society) happened really, really fast; if they did in the past they can do so today.
© Anneli Ekblom, CEMUS and Uppsala University