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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.

She concludes:

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.


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© Anneli Ekblom, CEMUS and Uppsala University