History for a Sustainable Future

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Riksdagshuset. Wikipedia Commons.

Swedish Riksdagshuset. Wikipedia Commons.

By Dolly Jørgensen, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

(based on an address given on October 14, 2015, and originally posted here)

Today I had the opportunity to speak before a group of parliamentary representatives and researchers on the topic of the environmental humanities at Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament. The event, put on by the Sällskapet Riksdagsledamöter och Forskare (RIFO), featured presentations by four Swedish researchers: an environmental scientist, an environmental philosopher, a professor of gender studies, and me as the environmental historian. The description of the event stressed the Anthropocene as a new era and asked us to consider what humanities research could contribute to new modes of thinking. My talk was titled “History for a Sustainable Future” — a title I unabashedly borrowed from fellow environmental historian Michael Egan who has a book series at MIT Press with that name. I wanted to stress the role that history needs to play in environmental policymaking and the real ways that knowledge of the past helps us understand our present, which is how we can get to a better future.

Here is the text I shared with the audience:

The discussions of the Anthropocene as a new era do not centre on the presence of humans on Earth but rather on the actions of humans on the planet. The concern with the Anthropocene is a concern about change—more specifically, change brought about by humans to our planetary systems, whether the change affects the ground, the air, or the water. To make the claim that humans are now living in the Anthropocene is to make a claim that things have changed from one thing to something else. To talk about the Anthropocene means that we need to know what change is.

This concern with change is necessarily bound up with time, comparing things past and present. This is where the environmental historian must come into discussions of our sustainable future in the Anthropocene. If we are truly going to work toward a sustainable future for humanity, then we have to know where we are in the present – where we are working from. To really know where we are, we must know where we’ve been and how we got to this place. I study history not to understand how people were in the past, but rather why we are the way we are now. History is the road from the past to the present and the future.

Trained historians are the people best equipped to explore change over time. I acknowledge that other disciplines contribute to these historical inquiries—archeology, paleoecology, literary studies, and more—but environmental historians put the pieces together in ways that look beyond what happened to why something happened. Environmental historians are keen to expose the complex cultural, technological, and economic factors that contribute to the nature-human relationship. We want to reveal the desires and decisions that led to particular patterns and practices. We provide accounts of how environmental problems arise, how problems are defined, and the solutions that have been tried in the past (whether they worked or not). Environmental historians are interested in the symbiotic relationship between the human and non-human, seeing humans as not just a destructive force acting on nature, but also a creative force that is part of nature. Humans are agents of change in the world, but they also change in response to it.

Historical change in the human-nature relationship can develop very slowly over time, a change that would be nearly imperceptible to people living at the time, or it can happen very quickly within a matter of years, as the policy cycle from the late 20th century has operated. The historian looking back from a present perspective can analyse both types of change and how they affect the present. I want to give you three short examples of this from my own research.

I’ll start with the long-term change. I have spent many years researching the waste handling and cleaning practices in late medieval towns. Contrary to popular belief and portrayals of the Middle Ages like Monty Python’s jest that only a king “hasn’t got shit all over him”, keeping a town free from waste and dirt was a big concern in European cities from at least the fourteenth century. Administrative records show that people were not permitted to throw their waste haphazardly in the town. Lists were made of the acceptable waste disposal pits, typically located on the borders of the town. In an age before modern wastewater treatment plants and engineered waste disposal facilities, residents of towns had to do their part to make sure that the city was clean. Here in Stockholm, for example, the city government implemented a complex biweekly neighbourhood street cleaning program in 1557. First, the householder living furthest up the hill from the sea began by sweeping the street and rinsing it with one barrel of water when the town clock struck. Then, as the runoff reached the next neighbour down the street, the neighbour rinsed the street in front of his house with another barrel of water. This proceeded down toward the harbour so that by the end, all of the accumulated dirt and filth was washed into the harbour. Anyone failing to comply with the bi-weekly cleaning was fined. Such a specific plan of action reveals both that the council was keenly interested in city cleanliness and that the responsibility had to be divided among residents in order to achieve that goal.

We handle waste very differently 500 years later in the twenty-first century. Today the average European city dweller is distanced from waste, which is handled by specialists and technological systems. We only see our waste as far as the toilet or the trash can—from there, it disappears and becomes someone else’s problem. Individuals, particularly urbanites, assume that the waste that disappears from their doorstep has vanished as a concern. Yet it hasn’t. Instead, that waste has to be managed by someone else—which might mean incineration in the local plant or recovery of metals from e-waste in Africa. From a historical point of view, we have reallocated who is responsible for dealing with waste disposal from ourselves to others.

The long history of waste management can give us valuable insights for environmental policymaking for a sustainable future. For one, it would be easy to look at the physical technological artifacts of a street with a gutter, an open waste pit or a basic latrine and assume that street maintenance and waste handling in the medieval city was simple and ineffective. But this approach overlooks the complex social relationships that made them work. Social responsibility was key to maintaining a cleaner environment. Secondly, giving personal responsibility came along with having an intimate knowledge about what happened to waste you made. You cannot really be responsible to something you don’t understand. Personal knowledge and responsibility for waste reached their limitation in the modern period. As wastes became more and more toxic, especially as industrial byproducts, specialist knowledge was needed to handle them properly. Likewise the growing numbers and concentration of people in cities demanded efficient infrastructures to manage waste in a centralised fashion. The trend from the mid-1980s onward has been to promote personal responsibility and knowledge again through sorting and recycling programs. A historical view shows that these approaches are not new, both rather the re-envisioned old, so we could learn something by looking at the successes and failures of past efforts to involve people in their own waste management.

For my second example I turn to a more short-term study of the modern offshore oil industry and its environmental effects. I have worked on the policies about rigs-to-reefs – the idea of converting a disused offshore oil platform into an artificial reef – which have developed differently across the globe since the 1970s. In the Gulf of Mexico, making artificial reef habitat from old oil industry structures has been a standard allowable practice since the mid-1980s. In the state of California, it only became permissible in the last 5 years. In the North Sea, rigs-to-reefs is not technically banned, but has never been practiced. So my question as a historian was: Why did the policies about the same thing develop differently in the three places? What I found was that science had little to do with it. Instead, particular events and people led to particular policy outcomes.

Here in the North Sea area, the policy decisions were heavily influenced by specific historical events. In the North Sea, scholarly consensus as of the mid-1990s was that a North Sea rigs-to-reefs program was a viable alternative, yet the debate over the environmental impact (or benefit) of offshore disposal of the rigs heated up in 1995. That year, after Shell had received permission from the UK government to dispose of the offshore installation Brent Spar in deep water, Greenpeace launched a massive protest campaign. Shell eventually changed their decision and moved the Brent Spar to land for scrapping. In many ways, this dashed most hopes for a North Sea rigs-to-reefs program. During the media discussion, Greenpeace used “dumping” of the installation as a verbal framework for Shell’s proposed disposal. “Dumping” with all of its negative associations became the key word around which the opposition rallied. European legislators picked up this discourse and it still dominates the thinking about what a rig conversion really is. In the aftermath of the Brent Spar incident, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) who governs the disposal of decommissioned oil rigs, issued a total prohibition against toppling structures in place, as well as taking an unprecedented step of banning the use of offshore oil structure material in the construction of artificial reefs in June 1999. The consequences have been far-reaching: no oil structure has ever been made into an artificial reef in the North Sea.

Today there are groups interested in exploring the possibility of making artificial reefs from oil industry structures in the North Sea. As more of these structures become available as their production life ends, it is a reasonable thing to think about since scientific work has stressed the habitat value of such structures. But the proponents of rigs-to-reefs cannot forget history. They need to understand why the policies in Europe have been formulated as they have if they have any hope of changing them.

Comparing the historical development of the same environmental policy enacted in different places and why it has taken a specific shape in each exposes the competing values and goals of the actors involved and the role of specific historical events. Environmental policy is interwoven with social concerns, so if we want to untangle the policy we have to look at its historical development. Policy outcomes are never a given. Policies may not exist for the reasons that we would think of at first glance. They are the results of specific and unique historical circumstances.

My final example involves a rare animal in Scandinavia—the muskox. There is a small herd of wild muskoxen living in the mountains of Härjedalen, currently nine animals. These come from a group of five Norwegian muskoxen who crossed over the border into Sweden in September 1971. They were descendants of muskoxen reintroduced into the Norwegian Dovre mountains from Greenland in the 1940s and 50s. A decision was made in the 1970s to allow the muskoxen to stay in Sweden as “migratory” Scandinavian animals. They ended up staying permanently. In the early 1980s, the herd size was over 30, but it crashed in the late 1980s and has remained low. In response to the crash, a movement started to get environmental protection for the herd, but since the muskox is listed in Sweden as an “invasive species”, it is not possible to have a species protection plan for it. In spite of the lack of official environmental status, there is a muskox breeding centre and an individual female was released into the wild herd in 2013.

The history of the Swedish muskox is a study in contradictions. The muskox doesn’t belong according to the scientists who wrote the Swedish Red List, but it does belong according to passionate local supporters and environmentalists. The history of the animal—that the muskox was last in Sweden three or four thousand years ago—is used by both groups to support their positions. One argues that it has been gone so long that it is no longer native; the other argues that it was once in Sweden so belongs here now. As an environmental historian, I want to expose the ways that history is being mobilised in this debate. Decisions about whether or not the muskox should be protected have everything to do with the way the species’ history is interpreted. Contemporary Swedish policies are being directly affected by even really old history.

In these three examples I hope I’ve showed you that to understand what humans are doing to the planet and why, Anthropocene must be a situated in time and space. Even with the Anthropocene as planetary phenomenon, change happens at local levels. We need deep empirical historical studies to make sense of that change. The way history plays out in particular places and times is unique. This makes it difficult to generalise to all situations, yet there are certainly lessons to be learned for the future from the past.

The political drive to promote environmental sustainability – defined as a long-term, looking forward to the implications of production, consumption, and social structures – has got to take into account human history. We need more integration of history within environmental policymaking to fight against “policy amnesia” and “shifting baseline syndrome”, but also to reveal the positive lessons of history. Humans as a species have proved remarkably resilient, thus learning from how people have faced environmental issues in the past is key to making our sustainable future. In both long term and short term studies of the past we discover why we are the way we are now, a precursor to deciding what we want to be the future.


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