Past masters, help save future

Environmental crisis so grave that historians must become 'partisans'. Matthew Reisz reports

July 8, 2010

In the face of global environmental emergency, it is time for historians to act as "engaged partisans", a conference heard last week.

The 79th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, on the topic of "environments", was organised by the University of London's Institute of Historical Research and held in the capital.

In the opening plenary lecture, Donald Worster, Joyce and Elizabeth Hall distinguished professor of US history at the University of Kansas, noted that earlier historians had been slow to start thinking about "man's long-term relation with nature".

"Like many in the social sciences, they tended to take nature for granted and ignored its significance in shaping society," he said. Yet as the old ideals of limitless growth are called into question, it is up to a new generation of historians to play a role in an emerging "revolution in consciousness", he added.

Papers presented at the conference examined topics ranging from electrifying Africa to the making of "Chiantishire" and from Cistercian abbeys to conserving the Chilterns.

Urgent practical issues were also addressed by a panel of experts in a policy forum.

Mark Levene, reader in history at the University of Southampton, argued that historians needed to put aside clinical dispassion and become "engaged partisans, particularly given the current state of biospheric emergency. We all need to start engaging. We have no choice but to be partisans."

He also suggested that history could help society move away from "the idea of continual progress" and learn lessons from "earlier low-carbon economies".

Alastair Fitter, professor of biology at the University of York, agreed that there was "now acceptance among the research community that you need to get out there. You do what your discipline tells you."

Where evidence suggested that there were major problems ahead, researchers had to start proselytising about them, he added.

Ian Christie, visiting professor at the University of Surrey's Centre for Environmental Strategy, noted that the action the environmental crisis now required was so costly and wide-ranging that anyone calling for such transformations had to be ultra-careful to get their facts right. Rigour was in no sense at odds with engagement, he said.

While there were many examples of successful campaigns against particular polluters, Professor Christie suggested that quite different tactics were needed to combat the "diffuse degradation" caused by the seemingly trivial actions of countless individuals. Even government departments were asking big questions about "how societies can change their attitudes and values".

Historians, he said, had many insights to offer into what had worked - or failed - in the past.

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