Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on January 17, 2015 at 19:00

Final Reflection on Current Debates in Environmental History (2014)

Attended seminars:

3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
3/3 Alf Hornborg: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
6/6 Kristina Persson: Climate and Policy
8/9 Sverker Sörlin: The Role of Environmental History
22/9 Libby Robin: History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia
3/11 Joseph Tainter: Collapse of Complex Societies
17/11 Joachim Radkau: The Age of Ecology
8/12 Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature

Complementary Task:

14/10 Kenneth Worthy: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Enviroment

Chaired seminars:

6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
6/6 Kristina Persson: Climate and Policy

Introduction: no red threat but a good turn

In the following I will reflect on the texts I have produced along the current debates which were held over the last year. While reading my reflections and comments I was searching for something like a “red threat”, a line of thought that developed over time. I did not find a clear one which does not mean that my thinking has not changed over time. Quite the opposite is the case: now, after three semesters, I feel more inspired by and dedicated to our discipline more than ever. This might be due to an unexpected but fruitful postmodern turn in my understanding to the extend that the past, present and future never have to be the way we believe it was, is and will be. The aim of this “reflection diary” is to explain why and how I came to that optimistic glimpse. Five themes which stood out in my contributions should serve here as illustrations.

Environing everything, now and ever
It’s too bad that I don’t have the notes from the first meeting in our programme with me while writing this reflection. Anneli asked us to write down how we would define environmental history and what we expect from this Master programme. I think I strongly associated the discipline with the historical explanation for today’s environmental problems and the posing of social alternatives to them. Now, after three semesters, I would say that my idea of environmental history still resonates with these goals but in a different way. The discipline, I would say, does not begin but rather end with outlooks for “problem-solving”. More precisely, I see it’s starting point at the moment of “environing”. Referring to this I wrote in my reflection on Sverker Sörlin’s discussion of our discipline: “In this way writing environmental histories can actually be a way of closing the gap between humanities and the social and natural sciences: by elucidating how people have been situating other things around them in the physical world and how this affects their idea of the ideal self, society and world”. From such a perspective our current state in the world is the expression of a certain “environment” which is the present formation of an ongoing environing process. How this thought leads me to a political ethos should be discussed in the latter part of this “diary”.

Divided mind, divided nature
I guess if there is one theme which we encounter most in our studies it is the one of “division”: between mind and nature (Bateson), between individuals and their environment (Ingold) or between the Western way of living and its global consequences (Hornborg and Worthy). These divisions play a central role in environmental history, most dominantly as the postulated main cause for ecological deterioration. In retrospective I can detect a certain caution of using this word in my reflections: not because I claim that these divisions do not exist but because I started to consider “divisions” and its opposite (“harmony”, “connection or what you want to call it) as social constructions. This does not mean that they are not useful in describing the current state of the world and its becoming – environmental history would probably not exist without the alarming image of modern societies losing touch with their natural environment. But I think we should not forget that “divisions” are concepts which should make something comprehensive; they are not realities which can be found in an objective way. That is why I think environmental historians should not dedicate their time to “prove” that humans are “divided” from “nature” (like Kenneth Worthy tries in his book for example) but rather how this “myth” has played a powerful role in history. In contrast, environmental historians could argue for a more dynamic use of these concepts in order to comprehend human relationships with other entities. A quote from my reflection on Gregory Bateson illustrates that well: “Does the line need to be clear or can it be dotted as well? The last idea gives me hope: as we humans have always drew lines we should think of how tight we want to do that. In one instance we can think of ourselves as non-distinguished from nature, in terms of the planning and constituting of societies that are “sustainable”, “resilient” whatsoever. But in another instance we could or I would say even should see ourselves as quite individual and human: because we invented ways to be not in the same struggle for survival as animals and our ancestors were, through technology and collaboration in its broadest sense. The question then is not how can we achieve a life with all other beings or just “among us” – it entails the search for the “good life”, something only us humans can conceive in order to continue dwelling in the world”.

Academics should look in the mirror and then forward
Another motif I can find is the one of demanding something one could call “ontological and epistemological honesty”. In this regard the reading Mary Fulbrook’s “Historical Theory” was eye-opening: I realized that every academic work is based on certain assumptions about how the world is constituted and how knowledge about that world can be required; and more importantly: that a lot of disciplinary and interdisciplinary clashes are the result of differences between these assumptions. Throughout my reflections I have been alert of that and critiqued authors who I felt were trying to “sell a certain truth” to their audience without revealing their academic assumptions. This has been the case with Alf Hornborg and Joseph Tainter. Although both have been very convincing in their argumentations they were lacking a clear positioning in terms of ontology and epistemology. This is, I fear, the case for most works in environmental history. This does not need to be a problem if one thinks that historical analysis should aim at revealing an “objective image of the past”. But if one takes a more social constructivist view (like I started to do during my studies) such a “traditional” position becomes teethless in terms of societal change. This can be best illustrated with Joseph Tainter’s fatalist conclusion that our civilization will sooner or later collapse because humans will always choose to sustain their accustomed way of living – which inescapably requires an increasing amount of resources (Tainter 2012: 01:26). As I reflected: “This becomes highly problematic in particularly one regard: a certain image of human is projected back into history and ahead into future – which diminishes any space to think about different ways of thinking, valuing and practicing as an individual, group or society. The past, the present and the future become nothing but different versions of the same story”. If there is one insight we should have gained from the postmodern turn it is that history is contingent. And it is this understanding which makes our discipline so powerful compared to others.

A personal struggle against ecological modernization
While reading through my writings I notice that the knowledge which I acquired in the field of environmental history over three semesters has led to a pulsing anger against proponents of ecological modernization. “Anger” is an emotion which might not be considered as adequate for an academic reflection but it would be an understatement if I would call it something different. I see the reasons for this in the lack of broad historical analysis in that political vision. As I defined ecological modernization in my reflection on Kristina Persson’s lecture: “In a nutshell, the driving forces of production and consumption are inherently good – it is due to the misallocation of capital and values that companies and consumers contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions and the harming of the environment in general. Thus the solution is to steer both forces – the market and consumerism – into the right direction, that is green new products and services. What is suggested is a rather reformation than a transformation of economies and societies. “Change” is understood as altering the components of the system and not its logic”. As a young environmental historian I can not accept this political strategy, simply because it not only neglects a longue-durée analysis of modern society but excludes any discussion on the rather harmful involvement of technology, capitalism and economic growth. It is – just as mentioned in the critique of Joseph Tainter above – another version of the same story of Western civilization. Unfortunately, ecological modernization is on the best way to become a new paradigm in politics. The best example offers Kristina Persson herself who has become a minister for “future challenges” in the new Swedish government.

Environmental History and its missing link with politics
The longer I study environmental history the more I am surprised that the discipline is not at the forefront of a critical movement for an alternative discussion, politics and lifestyle on environmental issues. Sometimes it seems to me that environmental historians have been too occupied with describing the environmental past of human societies that they miss any reflexion on the present or future. Maybe I am pointing to that because I studied political science before and started to wish for a different way of politicizing environmental issues. If we want to change what the impact our societies has on their environment we need to understand how the material world changed in accordance to the shifts in human ideas and norms, which is nothing but what our discipline does! This does not imply that this is easy: lots has happened since the developing of the modern world and history and politics have left out natural aspects for too long. Not to say that environmental history can bear “the” answer to how to alter our complex relationship with the natural world. But if there is something which it can tell society already it is the contingency of our environmental past. It is what I once called, doing “history forward” which entails “not take any institutional environment for granted but to conceive it as something that had become – and has to be rearticulated to stay in the present.”. In that sense, environmental history could work in a genealogical way: by elucidating the socio-environmental paths history has taken until today and emphasizing the openness of its future course. It is here were environmental history crosses with the concept of environmentalism. As Joachim Radkau writes in his “Age of Ecology”:“Environmentalism may offer an alternative, in so far as it emancipates from the ‘American way of life’ and returns to its original aim of improving the quality of life; this would imply a new sense of self-esteem and a reevaluation of traditional lifestyles suited to the ecological conditions of particular countries” (Radkau 2013: 428). This reconsidering of traditional lifestyles does not have to be an “either or” against the dominant lifestyles of today. It rather implies as I wrote somewhere else “a reflection on current and traditional ways of living and then choosing the most convenient, simple and harmless ones to combine them”.

Finally: mediating between truths about the environment
To conclude, from a political perspective environmental history becomes a most powerful tool in the way of considering but also re-considering the past, the present and the future. Coming back to myself, as this overall reflection should be quite personal, I can say that what I am studying has strongly influenced what I do now and want to do after I am finished with my Master. By being granted with the space of reading, writing and also living in new directions, I have environed myself with new ideas and practices, abolished old ones and granted space for future ones. In terms of career I found a certain confidence in working with the issue of climate change. Not as someone who tries to defend a particular truth against others but rather as someone who shows why and how we constitute these truths and who moderates a discussion about which truths we should agree on in order to deal with it in a better way. I think this is what I can tell people from now on when they ask me the – potentially uneasy – questions “what I want (or even can) do with a Master degree in that subject”: bridging the gap between the taken-for-granted and the not-yet-imaginable in the relationship between humans and nature. I think that this optimistic feeling is already a success for this “experiment” of a Master programme in Global Environmental History.


Radkau, Joachim (2013): The Age of Ecology. Polity Press.
Tainter, Joseph (2012): Collapse of Complex Societies. Lecture. URL: Accessed on November 12th 2014.