Environmental Stories: A roundtable and discussion


By: Jan Oosthoek

Some notes and impressions of the roundtable discussion held at the first workshop of the Histories of Environmental change Research Network, Wicken Fen, Saturday 6 November 2010.

Panel: Erin Gill, Ben Cowell, and Bill Adams

1. We are often told that we are living in a time of unprecedented environmental change. If so, what is the value of historical data and insights to policy makers?

The discussion opened with the question of how historians can make policy makers interested in what they have to offer. For a start, history can contextualize change. Conservation has always, inherently, a historical dimension and conservationists compare the present with ‘how it was in the past”. Historians can provide sound historical narratives and insights in vulnerabilities and resilience of past societies. The higher the quality of historical research the better the information for environmental managers and policy makers will be. Another consideration why input of historians becomes increasingly important is the disappearance of traditional knowledge. Local shepherds, peat cutters, woods men and fishermen are disappearing and for this reason proper histories are needed to inform management decisions. Oral history is therefore becoming increasingly important.

To provide land management organisations with quality historical narrative, historians need to offer themselves increasingly as experts next to scientists, archaeologists and other traditional advisers of these organisations. In addition there are government procedures in place to seek consultation and government funded historians should be at the forefront in these processes.

2. How can histories of other countries and/or global processes of environmental change contribute to debates about environmental policy for particular places in the UK?

Comparative international history is productive but only through specific places and in-depth case studies. These form the basis for proper comparative analysis. Looking at other places also prevents parochialism and provides different solutions to problems thus increasing the options to deal with management issues in different places. This is not new since during the 19th century expertise in the realm of what we now call environmental management came from all parts of the British Empire. Experts in Britain learned from other places and we can do the same in this age.

3. How do the plot lines that people use to tell stories about their past environments affect their ability to respond as societies to environmental change? Has our view of the environment been too coloured by telling its story as a tragedy?

Much environmental history is about tragedy, loss and environmental degradation because the term environment is coded in tragedy. We do need a more positive narrative because negative approaches do not connect people with the environment. To do this we need an inversion of argument for shock effect and also stop excluding people from the narrative of the environment. An example of this is that mining is good for wildlife because it is providing new habitats to many species.

These kind of new perspectives will challenge the view of many statutory bodies and NGOs that are set in their ways they view the environment. They expect certain aspects to be present in a landscape or environment and certain aspects to be absent. Policy can become prescriptive by forgetting the role of people in the past in creating the environments that these policies aim to manage and regulate.

Good environmental history does not fall in the trap of negative stories. History is a mixed bag and not necessary all environmental interaction between humans and the environment has been negative but is instead complex and dynamic.

4. Can perspectives from the humanities help provide a link between environmental scientists and environmental managers, and the public?

Environmental historians are quite good at asking science questions and incorporating them in their work. It also helps to “enlighten” scientists, for example, a change in soil composition is not necessarily driven by climate change or other natural processes but can also be the result of changes in land use.

Two-way communication is key in successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Environmental historians need to be aware of the findings of the scientific community. Not in-depth but they need to have a fair understanding of the science involved and not be afraid to ask questions. Important in this process is to be aware of the following important issues:

  • At what stage do you reveal your questions to scientists?
  • When are humanities questions needed?
  • Who gets the credit? Science, natural science or humanities? (Perhaps 60 years after C.P.Snow’s Two Cultures we should ditch this question. Isn’t it all about collaboration to find common solutions?)

5. Does it make sense to use one word – the ‘environment’ to describe everything (non-human) on the planet? Is it any better than ‘nature’?

“Environment” is an overused word that is in danger of loosing its meaning. But, it is also a useful tool to unlock questions; a way to look at the world and to analyze it. Environment is an inclusive concept that embraces both the non-human and the human world. The term environment historicizes the entire world and opens it up for historical enquiry.

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