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

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September 24, 2014 at 11:09 #14569

In response to Fu Yaqi:

Wow, your post was really quite poetic. It was very enjoyable to read. I do have to raise some criticisms to some of the tenants of your arguments however.

In the first half you say that humanity should follow the example of nature in order to be sustainable. The only problem with that is that we, humans, are part of nature. We can’t follow nature as we partially comprise it. I believe that collectively, nature, or the planet, can never be unsustainable. When components of nature experience disturbances, nature may change, but it doesn’t cease to be, or even become less. That is because you can’t really measure more or less nature, everything is part of our planetary system (unless of course Earth ceases to be, but the solar system will still continue, and if the solar system ceases to be the universe will still exist and if the universe ceases to be, and there is absolutely nothing, that is really beyond the realm of an issue that humanity should concern itself with so don’t bother thinking about it).

In that sense the entirety of nature can’t be judged to be sustainable or unsustainable, only components of the system can be evaluated so. Therefore following the example of nature as a solution to unsustainability is not viable.

I agree with you that history is a nightmare is a bit of a simplification. Perhaps, a better tagline would be (I’m going there again!) “History fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” (Sörlin 2009, p.2). So rather, history is a bunch of stories about our preoccupations. To prevent ourselves from being discussed as the nightmares of our descendants, the best thing we can do is try to create a world in which our descendants will be happy and preoccupied with pleasant issues.

Following nature is not really an option, and following the hints of history is also not really an option, because we write history. So, apologies for disagreeing with your hopeful closing statement. I did very much enjoy reading your post though.

September 24, 2014 at 11:37 #14570
Sabbath Sunday

Reply to Yaqi’s reflection from Sabbath

I have enjoyed your reflection Yaqi especially on the argument we share that the old histories narratives actually prepared ground for considering environmental history as a post modern way of historising human nature interaction from the time of evolution while emphasising on what drives man’s actions.

However, without particular reference to the old records of man’s history a modern scholar of environmental history will find himself at a loss if such data is only dismissed as a ‘nightmare.’ Man-nature relationship went through actions like domestication of plant and animals, improvisation of farming methods to feed populations, urbanisation and eventually the development of technology to enable man to manipulate his environment. All this did not happen devoid of social political organisation which in some instances brought conflict, wars, revolutions and reforms. So I wonder why a modern scholar like Sörlin can simply dismiss history as a ‘nightmare’ meaning that the only relevant discipline today is environmental history.

I also notice that nature and environment are different entities and that nature is not unsustainable but only our environments. I argue that nature is as old as the beginning of life on Earth and that environment is a human perception to in which all species are thriving. It is because that man has been utilising nature’s resources and now realises that they are getting limited in time and space that the issues of sustainability are being invented. Otherwise, nature itself is unstoppable because man and all other species may even undergo evolution and adaptation due to nature’s unintentional orientations. In this case man will have no control even if sustainability innovations are put in place.

Lastly, I further agree with you that environmental historians could trace the known trends of nature’s history and respect all man’s records about history in order to design a discipline that transcends all disciplines in order to study, understand and manage our environments for sustainability.

September 24, 2014 at 17:54 #14576

Reply to all by (with an overweight to Gao. No hard feelings I hope)

Ellen Lindblom on the Sveker Sörlins lecture and seminar 2014-09-21

Hi all! It seems you had a fruitful discussion at yesterday’s seminar. I am sad to have missed out but uplifted by your reflections! It is interesting to read and also daunting, everybody seems so clever!

What is environmental history? When people are asking me what I study I am always a bit bewilder about what to answer. I usually say something like; Environmental history is taking nature and the environment in account as a factor for social change and change society. It is how nature makes impact on human and how human make impact on the nature, an interactional relationship so to speak. Sörlin mention the sentence an “environmental informed histography”. He also talked about a new kind of knowledge circulating between science, humanities and social science. One example for explaining environmental history or the issues it addresses can be the climate, the topic you Gao choose to address. (This totally ignores methodology and otology, which you acknowledge as important Nisa). Climatic events have always affected humankind and it´s societies, just think of big volcanic eruption in history. Sometimes the eruption changed the weather for several years in a row on a whole continent and made impact on peoples life’s with crop failure, diseases spreading etc. Today we see climate change on a large scale implicated by human action, putting ecosystems in roll. We as humans are nowadays in possession of techniques that enhances our own force as species, hence the Anthropocene. For instance pumping up oil and digging up coal in a blink of an eye regarding to earth’s history, oil and coal that has been stored (by natural forces) in the earth for billion years. We are now enhancing certain natural events and make them appear more often or rapid, for instance the melting of the Siberian taiga which starts a process of leaking methane that in its turn is a severe greenhouse gas. There is also phenomenon as El Nino and La Nina that store or releases carbon dioxide in the seas, making the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere more or less high. Forests also store carbon dioxide and depending on season in the northern hemisphere there are more or less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus implying the human factor in deforestation as something important for climate change. There are several more examples of human-nature interaction in relation to climate change and with human acting as catalyst for certain natural events. I regard humans as self-conscious agents. We can reflect on our behavior even in in larger groups and that differ us from ecosystems – which are not self-conscious agents. Therefore it is naturally we focus on human action, be it individually, in countries or companies, when we acknowledge from scientific knowledge humankind has a part in the rapid climate change. I also think the issue is well debated from all angles. So Gao, to sum it up. I don´t agree with you criticizing the focus on human impact regarding climate change. I agree as scholars we always should and need to reflect on our assumptions and where they are coming from and why they are made. But we are in the humanities and not in science so naturally it will be an overweight or call it focus on human action. Climate change for me is not a just human force, neither a natural one, it is the interaction between these elements which make climate change. There also exist adaptation movements and theories out there for them who don´t think we can solve the climate issue and that it will be a matter of survival in a change world. Maybe you should look in to adaptation theories? (Unfortunately I am not familiar with them so I can´t give any tips.) I think the climate exmple goes hand in hand with the thought Sörlins text draws upon from Hastrup and the study of Iceland, on how to learn to act within and adjust the society to the environment – the “Life world”.

Yaqi you focus amongst other things on the assumption Sörlin does about nature as sustainable and environment not. Two things come to mind; the theory of a natural balance in nature if not intervened with humans, routed in ecology, a heavily criticized theory and the human as a moral agent. Sustainability is a concept coined by a moral agent and as you say we have to approve on that notion. I don´t think we can talk about good or bad regarding nature, as long as we don´t regard nature as a moral and conscious agent. Though we might ask ourselves, what is human if not a part of nature?

Talking about consciousness and self-reflecting agents with changing power (something I hope we have right now as we speak at the UN high quarters in New York, where the world leaders are having a climate meeting). Anna you wrote “… all self-conscious reflections on the so-called environment that have taken place in the past can be studied as environmental history”. The discipline (if we can call it a discipline as interdisciplinary it is) environmental history seems too inherent allot of meta-perspectives and self-reflection, a really healthy sign but also difficult and terrifying at the same time as a scholar. This also connects to Libby Robins ideas of knowing the history of the knowledge. I was quite daunted by Sörlins lecture. How can I ever write a good “environmental history” with all its scales, layers, spatial considerations, methods and theories? At the same time almost everything is permitted as you Morag is touching up on in your reflection. You have a positive way of approaching it and find helpful guiding in some definitions. Me as a sociologist is familiar with all this self-reflection and philosophy, and that everything in a sense is shaped as you view it and sometimes I just feel for action and direct answers because there is a risk you get stuck in navel-gazing and non-fruitful meta-perspectives. I guess a healthy discipline does a little bit of everything, like Sörlin himself said; both are expertise in communicating and in contributional knowledge. Michael you are clearly the interactional type, drawing on others with your pedagogical edelweiss example and Sörlins theories to explain for the greater population. Precisely as Sörlin said that you have to do to say anything at all.

Sörlins thoughts about nature vs. environment I regard as a metaphorical guide to think around and quite a helpful one. Kristina I enjoyed reading your trace of thoughts; if we ever can talk about nature as something existing in reality- isn´t it all environment touched by humans? What would happen if we could decide that nature does not exist anymore, which real practical consequences would it have on how we act and interact? It would be interesting to know!

Nisa I actually thought Sörlins differentiation between the global and the planetary are useful if you instead of talking about economy think of social relations such as trade or cultures interacting over the globe in an intensified way. The planetary is the connected ecosystems on earth as I understand it.

I guess we all agree on that environmental history as a concept is not a concept for narrowing down in one sentence. It is only meaningful to some extent to do that to guide ourselves in the task or explain to others. After that we can leave it, lift the eye and pursue with practical implementations of this scattered discipline as scattered as world history it selves, with no straight line of progress, just everything in different phases back and forth, in constant transition.

Sorry for the climate politics in the middle of it all. Hope I didn´t forget anyone. All the best, Ellen

September 24, 2014 at 17:59 #14577

I am sorry Sabbath. Your reflection got lost in the replys.

All the best,

September 28, 2014 at 12:47 #14646

Reply to Sabbath’s reflection on the lecture and Nature’s End by Sörlin and Warde by Maria

I think Sabbath has made a well formulated summary of the book and the lecture. It is easy to follow his thoughts, what he agrees and disagrees with. Sabbaths’ notion that written history today, according to Sörlin, is much better regarding environmental history, is interesting. By writing about war, migration, colonialism etc., I believe that many of the early historians unconsciously reported on courses of events that today could be interpreted as describing changes or impact in nature by human activity. But I find it difficult to follow Sabbath’s comment that “Both recorded and unrecorded evidence…”. To me “unrecorded past” means that you cannot find it in a library. Oral traditions etc are important historical documents that I think is difficult, or even impossible, to file, and as that more exposed to be altered as time pass. I fully agree with Sabbath that environmental history is not ONE discipline today, but needs to include experts from both humanities, economics, science and maybe even business.

January 10, 2015 at 16:46 #15945

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.

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