Reply To: September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare Reply To: September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare

Author Replies # Posted on September 22, 2014 at 20:57

Reflection by Yongliang Gao

Today we had a platitude discussion about what is environmental history as a discipline and what the appropriate research methods will be, which we had repeatedly argued ever since the commencement of the program but never reach on a consent. But the questions we framed today are really good.Despite the depth and complexity, I think we all agree to a certain extent that environmental history is a broad concept that entails much research effort from multiple perspectives.

Personally, I view environmental history as an interactive relationship between human and nature. What I addressed at the seminar is that most environmental historians tend to highlight the human impact on nature instead of nature’s power on human activities. Like I said, I found the human dominated environmental history has been exaggerated in a lot of prominent environmental history work. One reason to the phenomenon is probably that we as humans always mistrust humanity and morality, which I believe is culturally rooted in the mass media and public propaganda.

For instance, whenever we watch environment related coverage on TV, newspaper or other social media, the conclusions usually fall upon the censure of human activities. Undoubtedly, people have done a lot to nature; we shape and change the earth we dwell in certain ways. But conversely, why there is no criticism on nature? For example, when natural disasters happen, we all reflexively revere Mother Nature rather than blame it for the catastrophic consequences brought to living creatures. Why? In my opinion, this is partially because we factitiously connect the natural disasters with human activities. However, if we are willing to cast away our prejudice and paranoia and scrutinize the nature from scientific angles, we will at least be able to notice that nature is way powerful than we ever estimated and human impact is indeed limited speaking of the interplay of the two.

Take the perpetual notion climate change as an instance. Many are obsessed with the credo that human production has contributed a large part to climate change. But how large is the part never bothers us. But watch this video (, you will realize that a lot of renown researchers have claimed that human productions have very little impact on climate change, sea-level rising and other environmental changes. Rather, they are enormously resulted from natural events per se, like solar activities, ocean currents and others that are irresistible to people. The questions I’d like to raise here are (1) why we never impose evil humanity on nature and embark on how to protect ourselves as vulnerable animals from omnipotent nature and reduce the nature’s impact on us? (2) Why we keep scolding ourselves of what we’ve done to nature if we consider humans have dominated the nature, supposing no one is certain about whether the domination is legitimate or not?

Apart from that, I have a concern about globalizing environmental history. I think it’s almost impossible to achieve it because environment is unique and exclusive from one place to another and no historian is capable of doing a global environmental history because we all have different cultural and academic background. In this case, how can a historian tells objective story about environment? Even it’s feasible to bring talented historians together, but how is it possible to montage the debris into a integrated, holistic and coherent environmental history?