“The great climate silence” and Historians

By Jim Clifford

Are historians contributing to downplaying the dangers of climate change by our silence? Clive Hamilton published a provocative extract from his new book in the Guardian titled “The great climate silence: we are on the edge of the abyss but we ignore it“. He starts by introducing the concept of the Anthropocene, outlining danger we face, and lamenting that humanity’s power to influence planet systems has grown so fast that we’ve not had enough time to adapt our thinking. Hamilton then goes on to argue the humanities and social science are a part of the problem:

Many intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities do not concede that Earth scientists have anything to say that could impinge on their understanding of the world, because the “world” consists only of humans engaging with humans, with nature no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please.

The “humans-only” orientation of the social sciences and humanities is reinforced by our total absorption in representations of reality derived from media, encouraging us to view the ecological crisis as a spectacle that takes place outside the bubble of our existence.

Arguing the humanities and social sciences maintain a humans-only orientation is absurd and suggests Hamilton is not particularly well read in science studies, environmental humanities or environmental history, where a generation of scholars have been reorienting our disciplines. From William Cronon and Richard White to Dona Haraway and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, hundreds of scholars have followed numerous different approaches to expand the focus of the humanities and social sciences. A friend and fellow environmental historian, Andrea Gaynor, called Hamilton out for ignoring environmental history on Twitter and he replied “Yes, environmental history too”. The Twitter discussion continues with other historians listing examples of historians researching the Anthropocene and Hamilton insisting they need to read his book to critique the excerpt.

I agree with Gaynor and think the excerpt creates too many straw men. However, I have been asking a similar, but hopefully more nuanced, question in the lead up to the Canadian Historical Association conference in Toronto at the end of the month. I am chairing a round table on past and future of Canadian environmental history and I ask the participants to consider the following: There is a growing consensus that we entered the Anthropocene, a new epoch, in the mid-20th century, which is also the starting point for the Great Acceleration, where the global population, economy and resource consumption increased dramatically [1]. Given this context, you might expect environmental history to reshape our broader understanding of Canadian history in a similar way to gender and social history. Has this happened or do we remain a niche subfield?

I took a quick look at the program for the CHA and I think an outsider might argue Hamilton has a point. There is a panel on energy history, one paper with Anthropocene in the title and one poster with climate. There are a few more panels and presentations that fit within this framework as well as the round table I am chairing. This, of course, is not a good method for judging the significance of a field, as environmental historians present a lot of their research at the environmental history conferences and there is a good chance that the majority of them simply did not apply to present at this year’s CHA. Looking at the healthy number of recently hired assistant professors and young associate professors in Canada who focus on environmental history might be a better gauge.

Moreover, if we compare environmental history to many other topics, it is well represented at the conference. There are, for example, a similar number of presenters working on military history as environmental history. This is in no way a criticism of the program committee. Nonetheless, if we accept Hamilton’s assertion “that the life-support systems of the Earth are being damaged in ways that threaten our survival” it is a bit startling to see the environment is not one of the dominant focuses at the major Canadian history conference.

Jim Clifford is a member of the ActiveHistory.ca editorial collective and a historian at the University of Saskatchewan. His book West Ham and the River Lea: A Social and Environmental History of London’s Industrialized Marshland, 1839–1914 will be published by UBC Press this summer.

[1] Listen to this podcast conversation between Dagomar Degroot and J.R. McNeill for more on the history of the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration or pick up a copy of McNeill and Peter Engelke’s recent book: The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945.

5 thoughts on ““The great climate silence” and Historians

  1. Gregory Kennedy

    Interesting discussion. I was part of an environmental history panel at CHA in 2015. To my recollection, it was the only such panel. In addition to the three presenters and the chair, there were three people in the audience. This was an early afternoon on one of the middle days of the conference so we can’t blame the time slot. I found this quite discouraging. I do not believe that most historians are much interested in the environment beyond things like natural resource exploitation, staples thesis, etc. There are always exceptions, and there are certainly some great environmental historians out there, but we have a long way to go to make this a priority in the discipline in my view.

  2. Andrea Gaynor

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Jim. In Australia environmental history is a well-established and flourishing sub-field with a healthy stream at the annual AHA conference (parallel envhist sessions last year), healthy undergraduate enrolments and lively postgraduate scene. That said, I wouldn’t say that it’s transformed the discourse of history to an extent proportional to the environmental challenges we face. I’ll be interested to hear what your Roundtable panellists think!

  3. Jim

    Thanks Gregory and Andrea. I think environmental history in Canada is more or less the same as in Australia. It is doing great for a relatively new field. But as Gregory says, we still have a long way to go before it is proportional to the crisis. David Webster asked on Twitter how non-environmental historians should respond? Should they cede space to environmental history at the CHA? Change their research? I don’t want to suggest historians should stop working on the history of far-right politics and fascism or settler colonialism. There are many other crucial topics that need historical research. I would encourage historians to start thinking about how their research connects with the Anthropocene or the Great Acceleration. There are a lot of historical work to be done on societies/cultures that have become accustom to exponential economic growth that might not focus on the environment per se and it is always great to get new perspectives from historians with difference sources, methods and theories. Geoffrey Parker and Joy Parr, among others, have also shown the value of leading historians shifting their attention to environmental and/or climate history.

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