Highlighted Selections from:

History for the Anthropocene


DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00459.x

Robin, Libby, and Will Steffen. “History for the Anthropocene.” History Compass 5.5 (2007): 1694–1719. Web.

p.1694: Global history has become the business of more than just historians. This paper explores the history of scientific historiography, particularly a recent initiative of the Global Change community to write an Integrated History and future Of People on Earth (IHOPE). A new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, has been declared, reflecting the scientific fact that anthropogenic change is now shaping planetary systems. Describing changes to the Earth system over time demands understanding of the history of the biophysical factors, the human factors and their integration. While global warming has motivated the recent initiative to write global history, the global atomic era also provided an incentive for scientists to write global history, as was revealed in the 1940s UNESCO initiatives for a Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind and an International Union for the History of Science. We review recent developments in world and environmental historiography, and popular ‘millennial’ projects, such as the Clock of the Long Now, to identify potential common interests between historians and non-historians writing world history at very different scales, and for different audiences. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1694: One of the consequences of the knowledge and technology revolutions that characterised the last century was the proliferation of new disciplines and specialities, each with distinctive technical languages and ambitions. The idea that ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘integrated’ studies might provide productive new ways of undertaking work was particularly popular among scientists where the techniques and methods themselves were so rapidly becoming so specialised that there was no longer space or a language for the ‘big ideas’ of science. The sorts of dialogues that had been sponsored for a hundred years or more by Royal Societies, Academies and associations for the ‘Advancement of Science’, were increasingly fragmented as the technical paraphernalia of each specialty expanded rapidly. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1695: ‘Sustainable development’, as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in its 1987 report, became both a key concept for environmental studies and a global ethic for the 1990s. Sustainable development – or ‘sustainability’, as it is now more commonly called – does not aim for a singular ‘steady state’, but rather the best possible dynamic for dwelling in the world taking into account the needs of economy, society and environment. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1695: The influence of people, specifically the anthropogenic change wrought by the ‘blind expansion of globalised business-as-usual economy’ as well as ‘sophisticated supranational institutions’ began to be seen as an important factor in the Big Issues for Earth. In 2005 another Dahlem workshop was held launching an ambitious project: an Integrated History and future Of People on Earth (IHOPE). -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1695: IHOPE has identified some specific objectives:

  • Map the integrated record of biophysical and human system change on the Earth over the last one hundred thousand years, with higher temporal and spatial resolution in the last 1000 and the last 100 years. The long-term timeframe of analysis will depend on the region.
  • Understand the connections and dynamics of human and Earth history by testing humans-in-environment systems models against the integrated history. For example, how well do various models of the relationships between climate, agriculture, technology, disease, language, culture, war and other variables explain the historical patterns of human settlement, population, energy use and earth system cycles such as global biogeochemistry?
  • Project with much more confidence and skill options for the future of humanity and earth system dynamics, based on models and understanding that has been tested against the integrated history and with participation from the full range of stakeholders.

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p.1696: This paper offers a preliminary exploration of the motives for non-historians writing international history over the twentieth century and the audiences that such an interdisciplinary history might reach. It also reflects on some of the historical limits of collective Big History. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1698: The Global Change community implicitly privileges not just ‘science’, but that which intersects with policy and institutions. Yet the human society that both causes and is affected by changes in climatic patterns and in other aspects of the environment has its own values, cultures and institutions and these are somewhat independent of the science/policy community at the heart of the Global Change enterprise. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1699: As the biophysical sciences grapple with uncertainty and the dynamics of the Earth system in the unfolding evolution of the Anthropocene, they are increasingly turning to history for explanations. How does anthropogenic change unfold? What triggers shifts in biophysical systems? Why, for example, did the 1950s mark the beginning of unprecedented economic growth, terrestrial species loss and population expansion? These are all historical questions, with both cultural and biophysical ramifications. Mapping the ways people and environment work together is not going to be picked up by specialists in either, but generalists in both, working on a genuinely global canvas. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1702: Between Huxley’s original articulation of his vision for history as a way to engender peace and a force for reconstruction in 1946, and the appearance of the Lilley collection in 1953, the international political mood shifted from scientific optimism and openness, to mistrust. As UNESCO was increasingly forced by Cold War politics to respect and ensure the national security of its member states, the idea of an international ‘history of peace’ became a more problematic proposition. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1703: Perhaps the audience was not prepared for a collection of essays on the history of science, particularly one where there was no reflection on why the history of science had been chosen to represent the international common ground. There was no critique of the idea of ‘progress’, just a certainty that science progressed. And there was some irony that UNESCO’s carefully articulated ‘periphery principle’ from the 1940s, led to a book in the 1950s that dealt largely with Western concerns. The truly ‘global’ vision that Huxley and others had hoped would make peace remained frozen in Cold War nationalist politics. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1705: Writing for the Australian Journal of Botany, Tom Griffiths wrote explicitly about environmental history’s roots in ‘a contemporary sense of crisis about the human ecological predicament’ and its role as a meeting place of sciences and the humanities. He also contrasted the subject and scale of its endeavour with more traditional history, but nonetheless located it in the humanities:

[Environmental history] often moves audaciously across time and space and species and thereby challenges some of the conventions of history, by questioning the anthropocentric, nationalistic and documentary biases of the craft . . . It is a place where social history and deep time have to find their correspondences. Yet environmental history remains, at heart, one of the humanities, concerned with cultural, moral, economic and political questions, and founded in narrative.

-- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1707: As Caroline F. Ware, another American (who was invited to write the fifth volume of the UNESCO’s History of Mankind after the death of the original appointee) remarked: ‘Truth and accuracy are not enough, because truth does not always improve relations among peoples’. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1707: History by committee was deeply compromised history, and if everyone had to receive an equal share of the past, the history lacked an overall interpretation, something implicitly acknowledged by UNESCO itself when it abandoned its plans for a common textbook for world schools. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1707: The idea of history for human interdependence and international understanding was irreconcilable with Marxist historians’ notion of struggle and class war. As Allardyce summed it up:

As a story of cultural contacts and shared experiences, world history may indeed inspire a larger sense of human community; as a story of conflicts and exploitation, however, it may also perpetuate old quarrels and provide substance for new ones. No particular form of history is on the side of the angels; none more than another holds greater promise of peace.

-- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1707: A recent workshop on World History at the University of Cambridge, England, gathered together (in its own words): ‘a variety of theoretical approaches, united only in their rejection of “the nation” as a basic unit of historical analysis’. The scale of this workshop was ‘transnational’ rather than ‘global’, as it focused on such issues as European expansion and imperialism, and the comparative approach to migration and trade networks or colonial and post-colonial law. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1707: Historian of Africa, Tilman Dedering commented on this in a thoughtful review paper:

Many academic historians regarded world historians as incompetent intruders on unfamiliar fields of expertise, rushing into widely disparate areas of research, insensitive to the hazards of oversimplifying, exaggerating or even completely overlooking important trends in the detailed work produced by empirical historians, especially if world history is explained in terms of unquestioned assumptions of a Eurocentric ‘rise of the West’.

-- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1708: ‘Gender and environmental history’ were identified as ‘silences’ in world history. Marnie Hughes-Warrington suggested that world history had been a ‘masculinist as well as a Western project’, and that more inclusive agendas were needed. No women were directly involved with UNESCO’s Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind as originally conceived, although this changed later. The heritage of the ‘men of science’, as Huxley and his colleagues always called the global scientific leaders of their era is still heavy. New networks can be more inclusive, but there are still few high-level women Directors of the networks co-ordinated through the International Council of Scientific Unions and learned academies. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1709: In the latest proposals of the World History Network, the ‘cliometric’ (quantitative) urge is strong. Manning is working to unite the internal and external world histories he identified in 2003: to connect the new (internal) knowledge emerging from social, geographic and economic history with the (external) knowledge gained from geology, zoology, plant physiology and linguistics, and many other disciplines that have taken a historical turn in recent years. The information technology revolution has shaped not just science but also history and other humanities. The ‘knowledge gaps’ identified are strikingly similar. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1709: In a recent initiative to establish a ‘World Historical Database Design Group’, Manning urged a systematic review of the needs and potential of global and historical databases on social science and health variables:

The current wave of globalization has researchers working up data and theories on global change in every field, trying to project future change. Of course the actual data behind these projections, to the extent that they exist, are about the past. In earth sciences and environmental studies, serious investment in research has brought dramatic advances in knowledge about local and global changes in recent centuries and over much longer times. In the social sciences, by contrast, we are very short on comparable data on global patterns over any length of time. Our historical data are contained within national and local boxes that are distributed very unevenly across the globe, and social-science theory tends to assume each localized society has distinctive rather than shared global characteristics. As a result, we have only the most minimal observations on global patterns in economic activity, social structure, gender relations, demographic patterns, and health conditions before the mid-twentieth century.

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p.1709: Colonisation is not always something that comes from outside: studies of the way science works in the remote north of places like Canada, Sweden and Australia have demonstrated that ‘internal colonisation’ is also often mediated by scientific agendas. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1712: The UNESCO world history, motivated by an abstract ideal of world peace and a sense of ‘social responsibility for science’, was constantly undermined by the ongoing anxiety about who had (or did not have) the atomic bomb that could blow up the world. This anxiety drove global historical questions back to a national scale. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014

p.1712: Global change demands a new idea of ‘patriotism’, a loyalty not to country but to Earth. Broad and nuanced narratives as well as big data sets are needed to draw genuinely diverse audiences to read histories on such a scale. The global community now has a common cause, and it needs scholars who can think across time using the widest range of disciplines at many scales to participate in this dialogue. -- Highlighted apr 7, 2014