History’s Anthropocene Questions, by Samuel White

The creation of a new geological era, the Anthropocene, the « age of human impact on earth », offers historians a new prism from which to study history. Questions about « why » – why an event occurred, for example – require new answers in the light of man’s influence on planet earth or vice versa, and new methods. A unique challenge for historians, on which the IRD/IMéRA fellow Samuel White is working, with the Past Global Changes (PAGES) Climate Reconstruction and Impacts from the Archives of Societies (CRIAS) working group.

Samuel White is associate Professor in the Ohio State University, Department of History. He is in residence at IMéRA from the February 17 to the July 10, 2020, co-holder of IMéRA/IRD chair on Sustainable Developpement, onto the research project : Climate Reconstruction and Impacts from the Archives of Societies.

History’s Anthropocene Questions

Our enquiries into the past change with the present.  New knowledge, new problems, and new politics raise different questions about the events of history and suggest different answers.  A satisfying explanation of the First World War, for instance, must be very different today than in 1920 or 1950. 

Now we are entering a new age not only in human history but also earth history.  An Anthropocene Working Group composed of experts from more than a dozen specialties has proposed that the mid-20th century marks the start of a new geological epoch defined by human influence on the earth system from climate change to mass extinction.  An official decision on the Anthropocene is still awaited from the International Commission on Stratigraphy, but scholars from the humanities and sciences have already begun to rethink their disciplines in light of the proposed new epoch.

The Anthropocene raises at least three kinds of questions for history.  First, there are questions about the Anthropocene epoch itself, when it began, and what defines it.  Second, there are questions, especially in environmental history, that have become more urgent or interesting in light of Anthropocene challenges and the growing science of environmental change.  Finally, there are questions—especially ‘why’ questions—that historians have already discussed but whose meaning, or meanings, change as we enter the new epoch.  Most attention has focused on the first two types, where historians and other humanists have found promising opportunities for new projects.  Here, I want to focus on the third type: existing questions that don’t mean what they used to.  This is where history has run into troubling issues.

Image by Stux on Pixabay

In what ways do the meaning of historical questions change? 

In what ways do the meaning of historical questions change?  In fact, these changes are not very different from the ways that everyday questions demand different kinds of answers in different conversations, depending on context.  Questions—especially ‘why’ questions—request information to provide understanding, whether that information comes in the form of a conversational answer or the more sophisticated formal explanations of history or another discipline.  Nevertheless, the ways that historical questions are changing in the Anthropocene, and therefore the kind of explanations that history needs to provide, are more complicated and less intuitive than what we usually experience.  The pace and variety of changes generate misunderstandings even among scholars.

Analyzing the problem more closely, we can see that there are at least five ways that ‘why’ questions alter their meanings: the ‘fragility’ of the outcome in question, the type of causation sought, structure and contingency in the cause, the contrast set, and the criteria of causal selection.  Complicated or abstract as these may sound, we deal often with each of these concepts, often without realizing:

  • The ‘fragility’ of an outcome (a philosophical term of art) means what would still count as a particular outcome if things had been different.  To take a historical example, would the First World War still count as ‘the First World War’ if it had started over a different issue or in a different year or if Britain or the US hadn’t participated?  Does a historical explanation of it need to account for exactly the events that happened, or only for the fact that the Great Powers went back to war in the early 20th century?  The answer depends on what we find important about the outcome and its consequences.
  • The type of causation refers to the search for ‘effects of causes’ or ‘causes of effects’.  Are we asking does aspirin cure headaches, or did aspirin cure my headache yesterday?  Are we asking does capitalism cause inequality throughout history or did neoliberal policies cause the rising inequality of the late 20th century?  In other words, are we looking for an analysis of how one variable tends to control another, or are we looking for whether a particular outcome depended on certain conditions?  The answer will depend on the issue, our control over it, and the information we have about it.
  • Structure and contingency refer to whether we see an outcome as the foreseeable product of a system itself or some unpredictable accident or interference in the system.  For instance, was the 2008 financial panic an unpredictable shock to the global economy or an inherent failing in the economy?  The answer depends on how we define the systems and how we understand predictability.
  • The contrast set refers to the alternatives that our questions imply.  Contrasts are typically between units, conditions, or times. For example, an explanation for the French Revolution of 1789 may take the form of causes for a French (not German) Revolution in 1789, a French Revolution (not peaceful transition) in 1789, or a French Revolution in 1789 (not sooner or later).  The right explanation depends on which distinctions matter to us now and what alternative outcomes make sense.
  • Finally, most historical outcomes required several necessary elements all coming together at the same time.  Thus, the criteria of causal selection asks which of these equally necessary elements we talk about as ‘the cause’ or ‘the important cause’ of the outcome.  Returning to the First World War, perhaps the outcome depended on militarism, nationalism, imperialism, and diplomatic missteps all at the same time: so where to start when discussing causation?  The answer might depend on many criteria, including the closest fit between the condition and outcome or its current ethical or policy relevance.

As these examples make clear, historians have always had to adjust explanations for past events in complicated ways as these five elements of historical questions changed.  Why, then, does the Anthropocene present such a unique challenge for historians?

Why does the Anthropocene present such a unique challenge for historians?

Both the Anthropocene itself and the growing science of Anthropocene problems scramble our conventional assumptions about concepts, actors, and evidence in history.  Certainties and stabilities often taken for granted in history are no longer certain or stable, formerly historical problems become interdisciplinary, and those other disciplines offer new information and ways of analyzing the past.  Some key problems include:

  • Variability: Features of nature assumed to be fixed now change, inviting a reconsideration on the fragility and contingency of historical outcomes as described above.
  • Manipulability: Historians’ causal selection has focused on individual decisions or social and political factors thought to be under our control rather than elements (such as natural disasters) assumed to be uncontrollable.  How do we adjust our analysis of causation for an epoch when humans influence the whole earth system? 
  • New political challenges: Just as historians used to assume that only human factors were under our control, we also assumed that only analysis of human factors had real relevance for politics and ethics today.  Urgent Anthropocene problems—and possible solutions—may foreground the analysis of environmental factors and their analysis as equally or more relevant than the social and cultural factors in conventional histories.  They also tend to emphasize global challenges and responses, such as greenhouse gas emissions, more than those at a local level.
  • Plausibility of other outcomes: Political and diplomatic failures on major environmental issues and now the COVID response, combined with technological breakthroughs in fields such as renewable energy, may make it easier to imagine avoidance of certain environmental problems than positive steps toward adaptation and resilience in the face of change.  This present perspective could reshape our views about what was possible for societies facing environmental challenges in the past.
  • Quantification: Facts about the environment and environmental change now come at us in the form of numbers, trends, and visualizations.  The nature of the data itself invites discussion of patterns and correlations associated with effect-of-cause analysis rather than the cause-of-effect analysis typical of (qualitative) historical research.  It focuses our attention on changing frequencies and magnitudes over time, rather than individual historical outcomes.
  • Integration of human and natural systems: Anthropocene research increasingly deals with issues that couple natural and human systems into a single whole.  This perspective fundamentally challenges historical approaches that have analyzed social, political, or cultural processes apart from nature, with environmental factors entering the picture only as contingencies. 
  • Models and projections: Anthropocene challenges have also advanced the use of vast models of these human and natural systems, such as the climate system, to explain past change and generate future projections and scenarios.  This perspective also changes our notions of what is—and was—foreseeable and therefore what was structural or contingent.

We can see the challenging nature of these changes, for example, in scholarship over the societal impacts of past climate change.  Did phases of cooling such as the early modern ‘Little Ice Age’ change history, or did societies adapt and make their own histories?  Did extreme events such as the Tambora eruption and 1816 ‘year without a summer’ generate catastrophes and crises, or were these minor accidents of history?  Did climatic trends drive conflicts, migrations, and other major impacts throughout the past?

Image from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library on Pixabay

The complementarity of quantitative and qualitative approach

These questions have attracted a growing body of research, originally from historians but now from geographers and other social and natural scientists.  The research has been divided between distinct qualitative and quantitative approaches.  The former, mostly from historians, has produced detailed stories about how particular societies have handled climate changes or extremes; the latter, mostly from social and natural scientists, examines statistical associations between climate data and measurable impacts, usually at a large scale.  These two different approaches have generated much mutual criticism of methods and conclusions, usually on the assumption that the two kinds of scholarship are giving competing answers to the same questions.  In fact, using our analysis here, we can understand how they’re really answering different questions—or rather different meanings of the same questions—and how it is Anthropocene perspectives have created this divide:

  • ‘Fragility’ of the outcome:  Historians’ qualitative research takes each society’s eventual path to climate crisis or resilience as a different outcome, but in quantitative research it is the timing and frequency of climate impacts across many societies that really counts.
  • Type of causation: Historical research uses cause-of-effect analysis: i.e., but for the climate change or extreme event, would the outcome have been the same?  Yet quantitative approaches use effect-of-cause analysis, using models and correlations to indicate whether a climate variable tended to control an impact variable.
  • Structure and contingency: Historical research has usually started from the analysis of social systems and studied natural events as a contingent impact, whereas work from the sciences might start from a combined socio-natural system and treat factors such as different political systems as just incidental variables, likely to average out over a large number of cases.
  • Contrast set: Here we probably see the most critical distinctions.  For historians the key question has usually been why one society rather than another faced crisis in the face of climate change or extremes.  The concern has been about the politics, culture, or economics of vulnerability and adaptation.  For quantitative studies, the question has usually been about variations in the frequency or magnitude of impacts and how those might correlate with climate variables: that is, a contrast over time rather than between societies.  The central concern is the long-term global impact of change in the climate. 
  • Causal selection:  Finally, historians’ causal analysis—even when it comes to events that combined social and climate factors—has usually started with human decisions and institutions.  Not only are these the conventional subjects of history, but they are also assumed to have more immediate political and ethical relevance than environmental factors such as climate.  However, quantitative approaches start with climate as the independent variable, not only for methodological reasons but also because the research wants to be relevant to contemporary climate change.  The projected impacts of global warming form the subtext of these projects.

Each approach has its limits.  However, with this analysis, we can see how the two are mostly complementary rather than competing.  To find common ground, scholars should recognize the questions of historical climate impacts as ‘Anthropocene questions’ in the sense explained above.  Historians need to appreciate the ways that Anthropocene perspectives change the nature of their questions, inviting new kinds of answers as well as the contributions of other disciplines.  Social and natural scientists need to recognize the (pre-Anthropocene) perspectives and questions already addressed by historians, to build on and complement their work rather than assuming that new data means addressing a problem from scratch.

Another key takeaway here is that in the Anthropocene, the division of labor between academic disciplines may be less between topics than within topics, and less between questions than within questions.  As ‘society’ and ‘nature’ become less distinct, so will the concerns of ‘humanist’ and ‘scientific’ approaches.  Yet this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration will often take more than goodwill, patience, or even theoretical and methodological sophistication.   It will take some careful reflection on the meaning and changes in the very questions we are trying to answer.


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