Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Author Replies
Markus # Posted on December 18, 2014 at 14:58

Comment on Ellen Lindh’s reflection, Alf Hornborg, March 3, 2014

You point out the two things I too see as Hornborg’s greatest contribution to the debate about what global environmental history can be, namely that a world-system approach can deepen our understanding of environmental change over time, and that the nation state as the unit of analysis does not sufficiently explain environmental change. With this said, I find your point of “micro history” being lost, or forgotten, in the effort to find the “macro history” interesting and important.
I believe this to be a problem with calling our discipline “global”. Calling our discipline, and our program, “global” environmental history is of course in critique of the nation state perspective on history, encouraging us to look beyond the man-made borders in our persuit to understand environmental change. But at the same time, the word seems to me a bit ill-chosen exactly because it implies a global approach. It sounds like the history of empires and continents, with gargantuan statistics of flows and interconnections. It does not sound like the history of the particular, the “micro”.
The way I think about it, “global” in this context is exactly what Hornborg is arguing for, that is, that a fundamental understanding of environmental history is that things separated in space and time are still connected. Mining in South America has an impact on the forests in Europe, for instance. But many times when I have had to explain what it is that I am studying to someone, it has been obvious to me that the term “global” is anything but intuitive for people not familiar with the discipline of history. In their ears, it sounds like my discipline is one intent on producing histories of “the world”. I think this to be unfortunate since many people are not really interested in “world histories” at all. I think perhaps there can be other terms that are more apt. Maybe “systemic environmental history” could work since it is the (world-) systemic approach to history that we are talking about. The drawback then would be that “systemic” sound like a methodological standpoint, that this is a history of computor models and excel sheets rather than narratives. I think maybe, therefore, the best approach would be to get rid of the whole “global” thing all together and simply call our subject “environmental history”. The systemic and global nature of a history of the environment is implicit anyway.