Big Qs in History: Too little wind, too much hot air

September 19, 2003

How does geography affect events? Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues that we can't make sense of human history without considering its contexts, such as climates and our animal nature

By the standards of astrophysicists, say, or science-fiction writers, historians seem unadventurous - interested only in one puny species on one tiny planet. But Earth is special, with a crammed, teeming biosphere. So far, we know of nowhere else in the cosmos where so much happens.

The human part of the story is of consuming interest to ourselves. We usually call it history, but we might as well call it human geography or a branch of environmental studies, for, in isolation, humankind makes imperfect sense. To comprehend our history, we need to study it in the contexts from which it is truly inseparable: the climates that surround it, the soils and seas on which it happens, and the other life forms on which we depend or with which we compete.

This means restoring history and geography to each other. All disciplinary boundaries should be uncongenial to historians, who want to embrace the whole of the past, including the past of every art and science, but the "Anglo-Saxon attitude" that confines geographers and historians to mutually uncommunicating departments is particularly uncongenial, if we like peopled landscapes and contextualised lives.

Homo sapiens is an exceptionally successful species, able to survive in a wide range of climates and landscapes - more so than just about any other creature, except for the microbes we carry around with us. But even we are still explorers of our planet, engaged in an unfinished effort to change it. Indeed, that effort has barely begun, though some human societies have devoted the past 10,000 years or so to it. We call ourselves "lords of creation" or, more modestly, its "stewards", but about 90 per cent of the biosphere is too far underwater or too profoundly subterranean for us to inhabit with our current technology: these are environments that humans have only recently begun to invade and that we still do not dominate.

We are ambitious, by comparison with other animals, in remodelling the earth to suit our own purposes: we carve up fields, turn prairies into wheatlands, deserts into gardens, and paradise into desert; we fell forests where we find them, and plant them where none exists; we dam rivers, wall seas, extinguish some species and call others into being by selection and hybridisation. Sometimes we smother terrains with new environments that we build for ourselves. Yet none of these practices liberates us from nature.

One of the paradoxes of the human story is that the more we intervene to change the environment, the more vulnerable we become to ecological lurches and disasters and unpredictable effects. We lord it over other species, but we remain linked to them by the food chain. We transform our environment, but we can never escape from it.

So if we neglect geography, in the broadest sense of the word, we neglect the framework of everything else that happens to us. The notion that chaps and maps could be studied in separate departments now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. Geography has been transformed in my lifetime by the influence of environmental science. History is now catching up. Insights from ecology are revolutionising the way we look at our past, making historians aware, for instance, of how the cycles of global warming and cooling, the fluctuations of regional weather systems and the "oscillation" of currents have influenced migrations, wars, famines, gluts and the fates of states and civilisations.

History has to be about climate because, although climate determines nothing, it conditions everything. It has to be about winds and currents because, throughout the age of sail - that is, for almost the whole of recorded history - they channelled and funnelled long-range communications.

In most history books, there is too much hot air and far too little wind.

Environmental science should inform economic history because all the resources we exploit, exchange or exhaust are wrested from the Earth and the atmosphere. History has to be about landscape because the re-crafting of landscape has been the great common project of humankind since the domestication of fire.

Every history student should now appreciate that alongside the great political, social, economic and intellectual revolutions that we have traditionally used to characterise modernity, we have to place the ecological revolution that we commonly call "the Columbian exchange". For, over the past 500 years, the swapping of biota across oceans and between continents has reversed a pattern of evolution prevalent since the sundering of the original supercontinent, Pangaea. A divergent pattern, which made the life forms of the continents ever more different from one another, has been replaced by a convergence of species all over the world.

There is growing recognition of the importance of food for the understanding of everything else in history - and rightly so, because nothing matters more than food to most people in most cultures for most of the time. And the history of food is, above all, a subject of historical ecology. At their most dependent and their most destructive, people are most intimately involved with the rest of nature when they eat it. The stories of herding and farming - the dominant stories in the histories of peoples since the Ice Age - are of human interventions in the processes of evolution and of growing interdependence between humans and other species.

Agricultural revolutions underpinned the rise of the "great civilisations" of antiquity, the prosperity of high-medieval Eurasia, the world hegemony of the modern west.

One of the consequences of our developing food technologies has been the history of new eco-niches in which diseases breed, with powerful consequences for human societies. Micro-organisms that bear disease constantly limit and liberate human potential. Increasingly, we are coming to realise that our medical history is not a one-sided story of the failures and triumphs of human agency: the mutations of microbial evolution play an ineluctable part in it, unleashing and ending "ages of plague".

History has to be about microbes as well as men, because the former infest the latter, shaping our lives, determining our deaths.

Finally, modern trends in science and philosophy have combined to remind us that humans are animals - part of the great animal continuum; like other animals, we are best studied in our habitats. This suggests to me that we should prepare for another revolution in historiography - one that will, I suspect, be informed by insights from the study of non-human societies, and especially from primatology. To understand ourselves thoroughly, and to know what, if anything, makes us unique, we have to compare ourselves with other animals.

If humans are peculiarly ambitious creatures, who are always intervening in the life of the planet, we are also odd compared with other animals in the way we generate change among ourselves. We are a volatile, unstable species. Other animals live social lives and construct societies. But those societies are remarkably stable compared with ours. As far as we know, ants and elephants have the same lifeways and the same kinds of relationships as they have had since their species first emerged.

Some other creatures have cultures that change. One of the fascinating discoveries of late 20th-century primatology is that apes and monkeys develop cultural differences from one another, even between groups living in similar and sometimes adjacent environments. In one forest region of Gabon, chimpanzees have developed termite-catching technology - they "fish" with stripped branches that they plunge into termite nests - but do not use tools to break open nuts; in a neighbouring region, they ignore the termites, but have developed expertise in nut-cracking with rocks that they use as hammers and anvils. In Sumatra, orang-utans play a game - jumping from falling trees - that is unknown to their cousins in Borneo. In some baboon groups in Ethiopia's highlands, males control harems; in others in nearby savannah, they practise "serial monogamy". Primatology allows us to see what makes human history distinctive and, therefore, objectively interesting.

In a sense, all history is historical ecology. This does not mean it has to be materialist, because many of our interventions in the environment start in our minds, in our habit of self-distancing from the rest of nature. Like the geometry of civilisations, they are imagined or devised before they happen outwardly. Cities are underlain by ideals of order, agriculture by visions of abundance, laws by hopes of utopia, writing by a symbolic imagination, technology by an urge to improve on nature, science by Faustian temptations to control it. Mind and body are symbiotic. We can understand the scope of spirit and intellect best when we locate them in the grid and grit of the material world, where they belong but where they are not confined.

Of course, we have still too few posts designated for environmental history, and too few courses on it for undergraduates in history departments. Opportunities are much better in geography departments. But, over-arched by environmental studies, the reconvergence of history and geography has already begun. It should be encouraged.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London.

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