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

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Markus # Posted on January 10, 2015 at 16:46

Complementary task, Markus Nyström

I have a problem when nature is regarded as more or less peaceful and “in balance” until people came around and botched it up. My problem is twofold: firstly, I do not believe that nature without/before human societies were necessarily balanced or peaceful, and secondly, I do not believe that all human societies botched it up or changed their environment to the same degree.

Sörlin and Warde argue that nature ends when it is being recognized as historical. Nature then becomes “environment”, turned into an agent and no longer just a backdrop to human affairs. This seems fair and reasonable – indeed, it is a reasonable basis for our discipline to be called environmental history rather than natural history (which, of course, was already taken anyway).

But there is still something I find slightly askew with this terminology, which has to do with my opening remark: it seems to me that Sörlin and Warde are arguing for a divide, a dichotomy, between what is called nature and what is called environment. Constructing this dichotomy can be intellectually fruitful, academically practical, but it runs the risk of accentuating the divide between human and non-human, between nature and culture. Indeed, in their interpretation, nature is, well, nature, and environment is (broadly speaking) culture. When nature is “culturilized” it is turned into environment, hence their calling it “environing”. This dichotomy – between nature and culture – is a dichotomy which we have spent many a seminar, many a readings, trying to deconstruct and look beyond to see the “shades of grey”.

As an example of such a shade of grey one can mention the obvious fact that some landscapes have been more altered than others by human affairs. The tar sand landscapes of Alberta, Canada, has been altered far more than the slightly graced forest landscapes of middle Sweden. Does this matter? Yes it does if our terminology is an either/or terminology which, consequently, regards these landscapes as simply environments. Sörlin and Warde obviously recognize this problem, but, it seems, in lack of a better terminology, do not offer to solve it. In a way, landscapes or ecosystems which in no obvious way whatever have been altered by human affairs, are included into the heading of “environment” since the landscapes/ecosystems, wild as they are, has a cultural importance to human societies. In other words, even “wild” places are included into the (cultural) environment.

Indeed, it seems to me the best way to understand this divide between nature and environment is by chronology. Nature was that which was before environment, and environment is what we have got today. All of it. Even the “wild” parts. It’s an interesting and eerie thought that environmental history, through terminology that works like this, effectively kills nature as a concept in favor of environment. Of course, environment as a concept comes with the recognition of human dependency on “nature” – which may not have been that clear, especially through the modern period – in an attempt to bridge the gap between nature and culture. But if environment is defined as cultural, and then that all nature, to varying degree, environment then all that has been done is that we have gotten rid the concept of nature in favor of culture.

Yet another reason for my slight feeling of discomfort is that by labeling everything that is alive “environment”, “environing it” and thus including it into the area of human affairs, one also invites human mangement of it. When nature is turned into culture we are urged to “do” something about it or with it. Sometimes the best management of nature is to simply not manage it at all. This could potentially lead to an ethical dilemma for environmental historians. If we, as environmental historians, continually emphasize or uncover human involvement in seemingly natural landscapes and processes, we may also invite an interpretation that it is no big deal to mess about and “manage” such landscapes and processes more deliberately and extensively. An example might help: If I wrote an environmental history of Sarek National Park emphasizing how much sámi culture and reindeer herding has changed and influenced the landscape (which it probably has), and by that removing much of the “wild” understanding of the landscape, I might invite the interpretation that larger and permanent landscape changes might be not much of a violation since “we” have already cause such large changes. Or, perhaps the largest example of all: geoengineering. Because human societies has caused the climate to change (environing the climate), why should not human societies change it again, using global-scale and thus inherently dangerous technology, so that the climate change better fits us?

Michael Deflorian is pointing towards these problems too in his reflection, but from another, positive angle, with the example of the edelweiss flower. He argues that the flower is turned into something akin to an agent as it stands as a marker of class struggles. It is when the flower gets its social importance and meaning that people start to protect it, talk about it, be concerned about its’ possible extinction. Environing can thus be a double-edged sword – it can both create concern and mobilize action when needed. But it was also the process of environing the edelweiss that caused the problems in the first place – the flower would not have been picked so extensively if it had not had a social importance, and it was that social importance that mobilized its protection.

With all this said, I want to return to my opening remark, that nature (in Sörlin & Warde’s definition) is regarded as peaceful and “in balance”. Sörlin & Warde writes that nature cannot be unsustainable – unsustainability comes with environment. This is interesting and could potentially be a definition of environment in and of itself. But what I object to is that nature is regarded as inherently sustainable if left to its own devices. What it boils down to is how we define sustainability. I discussed this in my reflection to Joseph Tainter’s seminar. If by sustainable we mean “unchanging”, or maintaining current state of affairs, then nature has to be regarded as inherently UNsustainable since nature constantly changes, from cellular mutations to earthquakes and erosion. Nature (as defined by Sörlin & Warde) is violent, cruel, and , most importantly, forever in constant change. (I like to remind myself of Sisek’s comment every now and then that the oil and other fossil fuels that we use to run our technology on is the result of unfathomable catastrophy and death). In other words, nature is not unchanging, though it is to some degree self-regulating – but it never stays in the balance of self-regulation, it is always in flux. But if nature is, thus, regarded as constantly changing, violent and cruel, then what is sustainable about it? My point of this tirade is to come to the point that sustainability is a bad concept to use in relation to nature (as definied as Sörlin & Warde) since sustainability is so much a social, human, idea. In fact, I feel almost inclined to reverse Sörlin & Warde’s point and say that it is only environments that can ever be sustainable (since it is only environments that can be managed and humanly influenced by definition) whereas nature, in constant change and flux, outside the reach of human influence, is that which is never sustainable, constantly changing. But like I said, it depends on how one defines sustainability. Above, I have deliberately used a strict definition influenced by Joseph Tainter (a definition which I, in my reflection to his seminar, criticize).

I think Sörlin & Wardes history of the discipline of environmental history is encouraging. Of course, an exact starting date for the discipline is impossible to set. It is encouraging since they focus on how environmental history has been written extensively from writers outside the field of history. For me, personally, this is good to know since I am not a historian. It makes me wonder, though: why did not environmental history grow more strictly out of traditional history? Why was it anthropologists, ecologists, archaeologists and the likes that blazed the trail (mainly)? Perhaps it was because history has had a too long and powerful collingwoodian baggage, that good history is history of the mind (“what was Ceasar THINKING?”) and the environment does not have a “mind”? Or maybe that the tradition of narrative in history – that history is ultimately about writing good stories (Cronon) – is too strongly rooted to let in any interdisciplinary stuff from determinist natural sciences? The idea of nature’s influence into human history ought to be quite obvious to any historian, yet few, if any, historians drew any larger conclusions from it.

This is surprising at the same time as it is understandable. It is a case of disciplinary blindness, I suppose. In a way, I envy the simplicity of older history, the history of kings, wars and politics. As environmental historians, in a postmodern setting, it is sometimes crippling how relative and interdisciplinary everything has to be all the time. Everything hangs together, it seems, and no terminology is accurate enough, and everything can always be criticized. Even though I myself has contributed to the tradition of shooting down and deconstructing terminology in this essay, I too have to use a terminology in my work that can be equally deconstructed and shot down. But I suppose that is a good thing as it forces me, and others, to sharpen our arguments and not lean on the established dogma of the discipline.