An Environmental History Magazine

Is the Research Programme of
Historical Ecology Able to Address
the Challenges of the Climate Crisis?

Jake Seabrook, 2022

Before I begin this discussion, I would like to establish a couple of points of order. To begin with, I think it is helpful to establish the difference between environmental history and historical ecology. A sufficient but brief description of the discipline of environmental history, is the study of the interaction between nature and culture through time.  Historical Ecology however, is “a practical framework of concepts and methods for studying the past and future of the relationship between people and their environments”1 and “an inclusive intellectual hub for exploring a range of fundamental questions in disciplines such as ecology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, history, geography, and ethnobiology.”2


I also think it is necessary to briefly discuss one of the terms I shall use within this essay. Humanity here refers to all humans, but of course not all humans have an equal relationship to the climate crisis, and they should not really be homogenised into a single group. Within humanity, there are a huge array of attitudes, levels of power and responsibility. Which humans are responsible for the crisis? Who should be trying to mitigate its effects? Can we expect or accept solutions from people who have contributed to the problem? These are very nuanced and complicated questions and deserve essays of their own. I am not attempting to address these questions here, even though some of the following topics touch upon them, but in my opinion, the simplification can stand for the purpose of discussing this topic. Deciding which humans are implicated can be left up to the reader.


I shall argue that certain current methodological positions within historical ecology need to be revisited and adapted in response to the urgency of the climate crisis. These include the dissolution of the distinction between humans and nature, a renewed emphasis on materialism, and a turn away from events and towards the longue durée. I argue that while each of these methodological elements have arisen in response to the shortcomings of standard historical methods, the pressing nature of the climate crisis has, in turn, exposed some of the current shortcomings of historical ecology’s current methodological approaches. In order to address the climate crisis, I argue that these premises should be reconsidered so that historical ecology can play an important role in tackling the climate crisis.


The dissolution of the distinction between humans and nature

The relationship between humans and nature is complicated and convoluted, but the essence of a division has been consistent at least throughout modern history.3 The rejection of this divide has become a key aspect of historical ecology.4 As historical ecology has bridged the gap between sciences and humanities, it required a deeper understanding of this relationship to be able to provide better answers to the issues facing both humans and nature. One of the ways historical ecology has approached the subject is through studying landscapes, emphasising the entangled relationships between humans and nature that produces them, both from the perspective of human influence on landscapes, such as in the ‘dwelling perspective’ of Tim Ingold,5 and how materials can be “energetic constituents” in the creation of landscapes.6


Traditionally the divide between humans and nature has been about “positioning the human first and foremost at one remove from the world in prospect—eyeing it up or taking it in from some unearthly vantage point”.7  An incisive insight into the development of this strand of historical ecology by Carolyn Merchant explains that “domination has been one of humanity’s most fruitful concepts for understanding human-human and human-nature relationships”.8 She expands on this with reference to theories of the exploitation of nature within the capitalist system, developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.9 


While the critical theorists’ explanation of domination and exploitation still withstands scrutiny, other research fields moved beyond the model presented by Horkheimer and Adorno and sought to present a new version of this relationship: post-humanism. A good example of this thinking is Donna Haraway, who developed the idea of ‘natureculture’ which is “the idea that nature and culture are so tightly interwoven that they cannot be separated into ‘nature’ and ‘culture’”.10 Carole Crumley is another, who has promoted the idea of ‘heterarchy’ as opposed to hierarchy, which does not favour humans and instead presents the interaction of humans and nature as occurring more equitably.11 Other work attempts to ‘de-centre’ the human12 or provide a theory where neither nature nor culture dominates but there exists a “partnership ethic”.13 Whilst this theoretical path has not become hegemonic within historical ecology, it has certainly become very influential. 


While the move away from a strong distinction between humans and nature has analytical benefits and could indeed be a desirable normative position, the problem is that a synergetic approach obscures the extent to which many humans actually do act as though the divide were real. The dominant social, economic, and political practices do not accept this synergy and to proceed otherwise minimises the ways in which humans do act in a dominating and exploitative manner towards nature. Anthropogenic climate change is a broadly accepted scientific term, and for a good reason: the climate crisis is caused by humans (accepting the caveats discussed previously).14 


By blurring the boundaries of humanity and nature, we do the fight against climate change no favours. Alf Hornborg claims that “the ontological strategy of the posthumanists leads in a direction diametrically opposite to their professed emancipatory concerns”.15 The urgency of the climate crisis requires acknowledgement of the reality of domination and exploitation, not concealing it, if even unintentionally. 


A renewed emphasis on materialism

The dissolution of the divide between humans and nature is closely linked to the next theoretical area, which is the turn towards materialism. This has been heavily influenced by Actor Network Theory, developed by scholars such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law,16 and the assemblage theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, with their notions of ‘rhizomes’ and assemblages in their book A Thousand Plateaus.17 The result is a social theory that emphasises complexity, fluidity, and exchangeability. Within assemblages, the creation of connections is key. These connections, with their feedback and intra-influence on the connected, maintain or dissipate assemblages. 


These ideas then paved the way for new materialism. As Martin Müller writes: “Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory have been at the forefront of this revalorisation of the material, or indeed the socio-material: the co-constitution between humans and non-humans”.18 A move towards more abstract interpretations has meant a move towards the primacy of ‘things’, in short providing all things with ‘agency’ or at least recognising a distributed agency. 


Chris Witmore, a prominent new materialist, has been a proponent of these ideas and has arguably taken this argument furthest, trying to recast archaeology (an important strand within historical ecology) “not as the study of the human past through its material remains, but as the discipline of things”.19His argument is that archaeologists need to stop privileging human involvement in their understanding of things as “things are not symbolic consumables, but the sources of their own signification”.20


New materialism has resulted in a move away from humanistic explanations of cause and effect to an understanding of what Karen Barad calls ‘intra-action’ which understands agency not as an inherent property of an individual or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces.21  Jane Bennett, in her book Vibrant Matter,22 combines the ideas of shared agency with assemblage theory and suggests that distributed agency means distributed responsibility. What follows from these arguments is that we need to appreciate the effects of non-human forces within assemblages on outcomes and behaviour. Bennett claims that “In a world of distributed agency, a hesitant attitude toward assigning singular blame becomes a presumptive virtue”.23 


Whilst new materialism may have led to a better understanding of the role and influence of things and our intra-connectivity, I believe that the problems in relation to the climate crisis are fourfold. Firstly, materialism leads to the removal of power from the equation as the distributed agency of post-humanism removes distinctions that are in fact important for exposing exploitative global power relations.24 Where power lies and how it is wielded is always important. When the key to solving the current crisis will require some in certain positions of power to relinquish this, identifying the locus of that power is crucial. 


Secondly, is materialism a symptom of commodity fetishism? While not ‘commodity fetishism’ in Marx’s formal sense, new materialism is fetishising matter, as Boysen writes: “new materialism proves to be a good ally of capitalism and status quo inasmuch as, for example, when it comes to climate change, it diverts the attention away from the socioeconomical forces hindering and delaying the needed transition”.25 This also leads back to the lack of power dynamics within materialism. It can be another way in which materialism prevents us from tackling the issues. 


Thirdly, the semiotics of materialism are problematic. There is an urgent need to ‘de-materialise’      within consumerist cultures, especially the reliance on fossil fuels. Focusing on the importance of materials can hinder rather than help this process. 


Finally, new materialism and its co-principle of distributed agency also problematise our relationship with certain technologies. From the new materialist perspective, technology could share in the responsibility for creating climate change, while the people who made these advances, who employ them to the detriment of the climate, and allow this to continue, are absolved of some of the responsibility for this. This problem with materialism is distributed responsibility, both within humanity and then beyond. Under normal circumstances we should welcome attempts to be more understanding of the power of things to influence us both positively and negatively. At this moment, we need clarity and not the ambivalence that distributed responsibility implies. 26


Humanity’s responsibility for the climate crisis and our obligation to do everything we can to solve it is moral. The particles of carbon dioxide that continue to fill our atmosphere cannot share the blame, it is human agency that has produced the crisis and so it is human agency that might yet resolve it. This problem with materialism is the same as that of post-humanism’s attitude towards nature and society. We emphasise other actors and thereby remove (and potentially absolve) humanity from its exclusive role in the climate crisis. We cannot accept a conception of humanity as “just another thing”. 


The longue durée and the end of événements

Perceptions of history and time are bound together. How we approach one affects the other, which is of fundamental importance within historical ecology, where the temporality of environments is crucial. While linear timeframes are still maintained as a guiding principle of organisation, new perspectives have been embraced with an understanding of the complexity of processes and time being intertwined. 


Social sciences have been heavily influenced by the ideas of the Annales school of history. Members of the school have been responsible for producing some of the most important examples of historical ecology research.27 Members of the Annales developed an alternative research method where history was analysed through the three prisms of the long, the medium and the short term. In contrast to dominant forms of historical analysis, which privileged individuals and events, the annalistes believed that the short term, événements, were of little significance.28 The importance of the long term for historical ecology presents as almost self-explanatory, as investigation of the environment and the actors within it cannot be achieved without long term perspectives. According to the annalistes it is only in the long term that we see the important aspects and effects of environmental and societal structures. 


This is not in dispute, but the problem at this moment is that the time scales of history are altering and accelerating: événements take on a new significance considering this urgency. Of course, Annales historians understood that short term events had consequences, but the scale of the possible consequences now are unparalleled. There must be a sense of urgency, as time compresses, as the distance between ‘tipping points’ shrinks, and their cumulative effects further speed up the processes of change.29


A further problem with long-term perspectives is that they reinforce the meta-narrative of progress identified by theorists such as Lyotard,30 which has created a sense of the unstoppable march of modern society and a concomitant inability to do anything about it. If the long term is all-important, and the long term has been a continuous march of progress, then the need to change is negated. However, we can of course not afford this type of complacency. 


Anthony Giddens claimed that one of the key features of late modern societies as opposed to ‘traditional societies’,  is that they are more inclined to social transformations31 but he could not have foreseen the current rate of transformation. Immediate and short-term changes need to be made to have any chance of a sustainable long-term future. It is short term time frames within which significant change is going to happen,32 and it is these timeframes we must focus on right now. 



Is the research programme of historical ecology able to address the challenges of the climate crisis? I argue that it can, but we must ensure that the approach is tailored to the scope and character of this current crisis. If “Historical ecologists regard history and politics as inseparable33  then politics, power and the people who wield it must remain in sharp focus. We should not obscure that this is a crisis of human creation, that human agency needs to resolve, and the events that are happening now and in the short-term future are of the upmost significance. If we are to somehow mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis then the “only ones with at least a hypothetical ability to conjure up that miracle are humans”.34


  1. Crumley, C.L. 2019. "New Paths into the Anthropocene: Applying Historical Ecologies to the Human Future" in D. Stump & C. Isendahl (eds) 2019. The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology, Oxford University Press. 1.
  2. Armstrong, C. Shoemaker, A. McKechnie, I, Ekblom, A. Szabo, P. Lane, P. McAlvay, A. Boles, O. Walshaw, S. Petek, N. Gibbons, K. Morales, E. Anderson, E. Ibragimo, A. Podruczny, G. Vamosi, J. Marks-Block, T. LeCompte, J. Awaˆsis, S. Nabess, C. Sinclair, P. Crumley, C. 2017. Anthropological contributions to historical ecology: 50 questions, infinite prospects. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171883. DOI:10.1371/journal. pone.0171883

  3. Williams, R. 1980. ”Ideas of Nature”. Problems in materialism and culture: selected essays, Verso, London. pp. 67–85.
  4. Szabó, P. 2015. Historical ecology: past, present and future. Biological Reviews. 90. 997-1014. DOI: 10.1111/brv.12141
  5. Ingold, T. 1993. The temporality of the landscape. World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2. 152-174.
  6. Hinchliffe, S. & Whatmore, S. 2010. "Ecological landscapes". In: Hicks, D. & Beaudry, M.C. (Eds). 2010. The Oxford handbook of material culture studies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Hinchliffe, S. & Whatmore, S. 2010.
  8. Merchant, C. 2008. Ecology. 2nd edition, Humanity Books, Amherst, NY, p. 15.
  9. Merchant, C. 2008, p. 16.
  10. Malone, N. & Ovenden, K. 2016. Natureculture. In: M. Bezanson, K.C. MacKinnon, E. Riley, C.J. Campbell, K. Nekaris, A. Estrada, A.F. Di Fiore, S. Ross, L.E. Jones-Engel, B. Thierry, R.W. Sussman, C. Sanz, J. Loudon, S. Elton & A. Fuentes (Eds), 2016. The International Encyclopedia of Primatology.
  11. Crumley, C. 2006. Historical Ecology: Integrated thinking at multiple temporal and spatial scales. In: Hornborg, A. & Crumley, C (eds). 2006. The World System and the Earth System: Global Socioenvironmental Change and Sustainability since the Neolithic. Taylor & Francis Group, Walnut Creek.
  12. Hinchliffe, S. 2007. Geographies of nature: societies, environments, ecologies. Sage, Los Angeles.
  13. Merchant, C. 2008. Ecology. 2nd edition, Humanity Books, Amherst, NY, p. 35.
  14. Lynas, M, Houlton, B & Perry, S. 2021. Greater than 99% consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 16, 114005.
  15. Hornborg, A. 2017. Artifacts have consequences, not agency: Toward a critical theory of global environmental history. European journal of social theory, 20(1), pp. 95-110.
  16. Inglis, D. & Thorpe, C. 2019. An invitation to social theory, Second edition, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  17. Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  18. Müller, M. 2015. Assemblages and Actor-networks: Rethinking Socio-material Power, Politics and Space. Geography Compass 9/1: 27–41.
  19. Witmore, C. 2015. Archaeology and the New Materialisms. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1(2), 203–246.
  20. Witmore, C. 2015.
  21. Barad, K.M. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, Durham, p. 141.
  22. Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press, Durham.
  23. Bennett, J. 2010, p. 38.
  24. Hornborg, A. 2017. Artifacts have consequences, not agency: Toward a critical theory of global environmental history. European journal of social theory, 20(1), pp. 95-110.
  25. Boysen, B. 2018. The embarrassment of being human. Orbis litterarum, 73(3), pp. 225-242.
  26. Hodder, I. 2015. The Asymmetries of Symmetrical Archaeology. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1(2), 228–230.
  27. see Le Roy Ladurie, E. 1978. Montaillou: cathars and catholics in a French village 1294-1324, Repr. edn, Scolar, London.
  28. Knapp, A.B. 1992. Archaeology, Annales, and ethnohistory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 1-21.
  29. Sinclair, P., Moen, J. & Crumley, C. 2017. Historical Ecology and the Longue Durée. In: Crumley, C.L., Lennartsson, T. & Westin, A. (eds) 2017. Issues and concepts in historical ecology: the past and future of landscapes and regions. pp.13-40, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY; Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  30. Lyotard, J.M. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.
  31. Inglis, D. & Thorpe, C. 2019. An invitation to social theory, Second edition, Polity Press, Cambridge, p. 213.
  32. IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The physical Science Baseline. Contribution of Working group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  33. Crumley, C. 2006. Historical Ecology: Integrated thinking at multiple temporal and spatial scales. In: Hornborg, A. & Crumley, C (eds). 2006. The World System and the Earth System: Global Socioenvironmental Change and Sustainability since the Neolithic. Taylor & Francis Group, Walnut Creek, p.19.
  34. Malm, A. 2016. Fossil capital: the rise of steam-power and the roots of global warming. Verso, London/New York, p.394.
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