This week’s readings were extremely interesting and surprising to me in a few ways. In terms of the draft article, I was surprised that I had never heard of Laki considering last year, while on a study abroad placement in Oslo, Norway, I took an environmental history class (with Prof Dominik Collet, who’s actually cited in the article) but I do not recall it ever being mentioned. Even being in a region Laki is supposedly more known in, it was never a name I heard mentioned… However, the way in which this chapter dealt with the interdisciplinary aspects of climate and culture was extremely interesting as reminded me of Prof Collet’s work on famine and the Little Ice Age and understanding human-environment interactions particularly be blending so called ‘archives of nature’ and ‘archives of man.’ 

The transnational lens in which the article took was also extremely interesting to me, particularly because it got me thinking a lot about borders and boundaries, and how easy it is sometimes to forget about the fact that nations and the way we visualise the world is completely man made. The idea that nature, and in this case sulfuric ash, is completely unaware and undeterred by these boundaries was an interesting thought, particularly when at times it can feel like it truly is the age of the Anthropocene. Laki and its wide encompassing impacts forced scientists and geologists and astrologists to become aware of what was happening in other parts of the world. It’s funny how inward facing we can be as societies until something seemingly inexplicable happens.  

To be honest, this article, particularly its final sentiments on the reporting of climatic events happening in other parts of the world, reminded me a lot of the early days of the pandemic when news was subsumed in trying to understand the new virus, how it had begun to impact people in more and more places and how we endeavoured to jointly connect the dots to what was happening and what potential solutions or mitigating procedures could look like.  

The Maim article on the other hand gave a very different perspective on environment and history. To me, it focused a lot on how we play the historical ’blame game’ when weighing responsibility in terms of the current climate crisis. In particular, he made an interesting argument regarding how colonialism ties into climate and environment and how this entanglement has caused conflict when considering which countries should bear more of the burden in solving the perils of climate change. In a way, it reminded me a lot of readings I had done on famines in India and to what extent the British empire can be blamed for their disastrous effects (Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts is a great book to check out for this). Is it fair to expect countries like India, who were only dragged into becoming coal dependent societies by British imperialism, to listen to the very same people who now tell them to turn to renewable resources? Is it fair for Western countries to ask developing countries to stop using fossil fuels to industrialise, when they have had years more to exploit these sources for their benefit, even if we now know better? It’s certainly a challenging conundrum – indeed though climate seems to be a transnational connector, it is also capable of dividing us, particularly when development and modernity are at stake.  

Thoughts on the non-human and the human aspects of Environmental History

One thought on “Thoughts on the non-human and the human aspects of Environmental History

  • March 22, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    Hi, Sophie! I also found the integrative nature of climate, culture, and social history very interesting. I really enjoyed how Malm mentioned that climate science research should be ‘inflected by historical consciousness’. This semester I am taking Literature and Ecology with Dr. John Burnside. Although it is an English course, I love how interdisciplinary the content is, which brings together poetry and investigative journalism. It truly feels like a mix of history, English, and science – which is super engaging and provides much more insight into the natural world. Our understanding of history, particularly that of climate change, is enhanced by personal reflections of those who had intimate relationships with their environments. Knowing an animal, region, or scientific phenomenon is not just knowing its name, but understanding its character and history. I think this concept is conveyed well in the following poem:

    How to Know Birds
    by Gary Snyder

    The place you’re in
    The time of year

    How they move and where in the meadows, brush, forest,
                rocks, reeds, are they hanging out
                alone or in a group or little groups?

    Size, speed, sorts of flight

    Quirks. Tail flicks, wing-shakes, bobbing –
    Can you make out what they’re eating?

    Calls and songs?

    Finally, if you get a chance, can you see their colors,
    details of plumage – lines, dots, bars

    That will tell you the details you need to come up with a name

    You already know this bird.

    We must not only look to scientific archives of data, but primary historical sources, such as personal reflections, newspaper articles, art, etc to better inform our understandings of how previous communities experienced climate change. For example, in ‘The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire’, understanding the Little Ice Age had to combine climate history and social history.

    I thought your comments on historical responsibility were very engaging. The following statistic in the Malm article made me reflect on how we must not only look to governments as historical actors but corporations, too. ‘Sixty-three percent of the cumulative emissions between 1751 and 2010 can be traced to 90 corporations in the business of extracting fossil fuels.’ Historical narratives of these instances allow greater understanding of statistics and hard data, which is why the climate crisis must be an interdisciplinary subject.

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