'History needs a rocket up its backside' to help save the Earth

January 20, 2006

Mandy Garner meets a maverick historian who wants colleagues to stop shying away from urgent global issues such as climate change and genocide

Mark Levene is a man with an acute awareness of time. Not only because he is an historian, but as an environmental activist he is keenly attuned to climate change and its potential to - literally - end history.

For this reason, he is seeking to set up a network of academics to trace the history of our environmental demise, to find the reasons behind it and to do something to address it.

In November, he wrote an article on an independent Southampton University web forum presenting a manifesto for a network called Rescue!History. The network is a project of the Crisis Forum set up by Levene and David Cromwell, an oceanographer at Southampton, to deal with the impact of climate change. The manifesto has also been circulated around other UK universities.

The response has been patchy. Academics in English have been receptive, but historians have been reluctant to commit themselves. Levene believes this may be in part because "literature is closer to prophecy". Emma Clery, professor of English at Southampton and a supporter of the Rescue!History project, says: "There should be a response to climate change from the humanities. It is important for the humanities to justify our existence by responding to this."

She points to writers' interest in the environment over history. "People in English are maybe able to deal more imaginatively with the unimaginable,"

Levene says. "This is something historians tend to shy away from. The classic response from historians is that they deal with the past not the future, but history's starting point has always been the present. History needs a rocket up its backside."

Clery says academics need to be made aware that the debate about climate change is something they can contribute to, for example, by looking at their own research through the lens of climate change.

Levene thinks part of the lack of response is to do with the state of history in universities. His colleague Brian Golding agrees. "History has been depoliticised," Golding says. Both agree that one reason for this is the research assessment exercise, which Levene calls "futile". "I want to do something that is valuable and useful, and I do not think the RAE is sufficient for that purpose," he says, adding that it encourages historians to stick to their subject specialisms and not make wider connections or stray into political activism.

Levene came to academia late via the peace movement. He says that this has allowed him to view universities from an outsider's perspective. "I could not believe that historians were prepared to play the RAE game and that they fell for it like everyone else," he says. "Historians should be able to see this better than anyone else given their knowledge of attempts to control academics in the past. In 50 years' time, historians will hate us for being so craven."

Another reason that history has become depoliticised, he says, is that students are no longer interested in politics. "It's as if they've been drugged into somnolence. In a way, I'm grateful for the born-again Christians because at least they have a point of view. Most students don't want to be challenged in any way."

Golding agrees, saying students tend to be deeply conservative. "It's a bit like them going to the supermarket and buying ready meals. They don't want to cook. We should be providing the raw materials and getting them to cook and experiment with them." Levene believes academics can circumvent this by getting students to look at wider issues that are relevant to them.

Another reason for historians' reluctance to engage with climate change, he believes, is that they tend to think that the environment is a scientific issue. "It's not, it's a human issue about how we arrived at this point in time and what we can learn from other societies to deal with it." He would like to see a centre set up, along the lines of the Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno et al , to analyse within an interdisciplinary framework the "dysfunctional nature of modern society and political discourse" that has led us to the point where we think everything is all right when report after report suggests that this is simply not the case.

Levene would also like to organise a Rescue!History conference, open to academics and non-academics, historians and non-historians, but he would first like to form a network of collaborators to share the workload with him. True to his green credentials, it would use video-conferencing to avoid unnecessary travel that adds to environmental pollution. Levene himself no longer goes to conferences by plane; he took a boat to a recent conference in Copenhagen.

His interest in tackling urgent, complex global problems through history is also reflected in his research. He has just published the first two books in a planned four-volume series on genocide. The books argue that modern acts of genocide have their roots in the history of the development of modern society and the modern nation-state.

Despite his passion for the subject, Levene came to it by accident. The historian Ronnie Landau was compiling a textbook on the Holocaust 15 years ago and he asked Levene to research material on other acts of genocide. The material was never used, and Levene said "very flippantly" that he would use it for a book. "When I got stuck into it, I realised that it was a much more complex subject than I had thought, he says.

"I didn't come to it with an agenda, but through the process of research I came to the conclusion that genocide could not be looked at in a box on its own. It was a by-product of something bigger, it was part of the bigger process of historical development, although people are much happier looking at genocides as a series of aberrations."

He says that there is greater consensus among historians nowadays that the Holocaust was not a unique event, but he admits it is still controversial territory and that the "ebb" of that way of thinking has led to "a valorisation of victim status". "Very often, the people who are studying genocide do so to prove that they have suffered a more seriously genocidal genocide than anyone else."

Working on genocide for so many years has had an impact on Levene's health. While writing, he became seriously ill, which he attributes to the unending nature of the research. Friends, however, have pointed out that the subject matter may also have played a part.

What has not diminished is his passion for asking the big questions. He thinks academics are afraid of taking a broad-brush approach and says that he might not have done so himself if he had come to academia earlier - he gained his first full-time post 12 years ago when he was 40.

"I have always felt slightly at a distance from the academic profession," he says. "Maybe if I had come to academia through the traditional route, I would not have dared to risk taking a broader approach to history."

To contact Mark Levene, email m.levene@soton.ac.uk

The Rescue!History manifesto is available at www.crisis-forum.org.uk   
The Meaning of Genocide and The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide are published by I. B. Tauris.

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