An Environmental History Magazine
Environmental history is a promise. It promises to include and connect divergent discourses that would otherwise float disciplinarily; its scope is multi- and trans-disciplinary, seen as academic disciplines that intersect and merge their discourses and methods to generate new interpretations. In a sense, I argue that environmental history functions as a bridge on which it is possible to reconceptualise our ways of approaching relationships, networks and apprehensions that have formed from our presence on the planet. One of the central approaches used in environmental history is known as Historical Ecology. The framework of historical ecology emphasises the critical aspects of being as a living being.1 However, as a discipline of knowledge it moves quickly among philosophy, history, and biology, traversing that complex whole we call society and nature; connecting every area of knowledge that focuses in one way or another on our forms of inhabiting, perceiving, understanding, using, and relating as humans – and participants – to a living, active, voracious, and transformative environment, an environment with collective agencies.2
At the same time, the cognitive ambition of historical ecology enables it to recognise the active, political, and interested role of history. This cognitive ambition gives rise to reconstitute frameworks of understanding of historical processes that impact our present and are projected into our future, dynamising histories and discourses that were pretended to be static.3 A key example is Crumley’s (2000)4 reconceptualization of the term heterarchy which breaks linear and hierarchical forms of relationship between human and non-human agents proposing a constant interconnectedness that create and recreate both human and non-human in egalitarian relations. Another key example is Hastrup’s topophilia 5 (following the reconceptualization of Tuan 1990),6 which embodies an ethical approach, where humans no longer are the centre but a node among nodes in a multidimensional network of relationality. Another important input to historical ecology and studies of socio-ecological interaction is provided by Lindholm and Ekblom (2019)7 and their concept of biocultural heritage. As a concept, biocultural heritage implies multidisciplinary views of socio-ecological interactions and put emphasis on applying this knowledge to policy-making – which affects both human and non-human in the process of living in- and through the environment, among others.
My effort here – which aims to contribute to the disciplinary debate on historical ecology – would be to emphasise the importance of historical ecology. To this end, I have posed this macro-question – which also serves as a title: why historical ecology? I have outlined part of my answer in the lines above. Nevertheless, that part functions both as a prelude and as the intention to hybridise diverse disciplinary perspectives in an ethical-moral action – seen as my stance of self-critical commitment with the historical interpretation – that may allow us to create frameworks of dialogical rather than dialectical understandings.8
Simply speaking, we – turning now my voice into a manifesto of the multiplicity of voices that might share my stance; not as an attempt to speak for the entire universe of historical ecology practitioners, but as an attempt to unite voices into an inclusive voice of those who feel morally represented by my proposal – are no longer interested in the old debate between the opposition of nature/culture or nature/human; without negating the importance in the how historical ecology has become self-critical through this contradiction,9 our movement and reflection, our why is understood here as a breakpoint.10
We argue that environmental history is the narrative of new academic consciousness integrated with meta-narratives – or human and more-than-human narratives – that allow us to understand and criticise ourselves as participating, creating, dependent, involved, embedded, and interested beings in the world we live in. Therefore, our why implies expansion of discourses that are no longer linearly associated in a ‘box of thought’, not as ‘thinking outside the box’ but recognising that the ‘box’ was never a total validator of truth and seeing its boundaries erased as new voices emerge in, through, and out of that ‘box’. Let us take two quick examples illustrating our position through a couple of these voices.
When Wirtz (2016) proposed a new active interpretation from Bakthin’s (1981)11 concept of chronotope, she aimed to understand a phenomenon from a dialogical point of view, including a myriad of voices interconnected across space and time and were evoked through action. A chronotope is understood as an ontological unit that works as a framework of historical reference and is invoked and evoked at the moment of social relations without dependence on social consciousness. This enabled Wirtz (2016) to approach interconnectedness in historical multiplicities, including scholarly history, like a flux of time that is symbolised yet felt, to create multiple temporalities that are pervasive with each other through the language. Undoubtedly, this was a breaking point to understand particular and recursive links through different narratives, especially when considering that voices related to spirits and the dead were included through her research, without reducing their meaning to a possible efficacy within society.
In a reflection on a different scale, Haraway (2015) offers a fascinating proposal. The author reflected on the core conceptualisation of the political establishment of social eras. Starting with the Anthropocene, she found notions still embedded in the aforementioned polar distinction and moves from the how to the why, why for, and from where is constructed and enunciated this era of human activity. She evaluated different proposals inside this construct – Capitalocene, Plantationcene, Necrocene, among others – and she emerges with a dialogical possibility, in which it is possible to include human, non-human, more-than-human, in an inter- and trans-connected relationship through kinship thinking. In her tentacular thinking it is possible to surpass the rigours of filiation as an academic construct and link narratives of different indoles, overflowing imaginaries that are active, conscious, and unconscious participants in our multi-connectedness with a pervasive and constitutive whole. She names this era the Chthulucene. For us, this effort represents a vision, a possibility, where historical ecology manifests one myriad of possibilities through the inclusion and the change of narratives in different scales.
So far, I have proposed three of our whys, seen as three parallel possibilities in historical ecology: multi- and transdisciplinary hybridisation, reconstitution of frameworks of historical understandings, and the expansion and inclusion of meta-narratives involving new discourses. One last why emerges as the consolidation of our endeavour as academic and human beings, as a way of blending our values, interests and intentions through historical ecology; I refer to the possibility of providing new social sensitisation – actively including us as researchers – promoting new social consciences and implementing inclusive historical awareness.
In this becoming, historical ecology is both a discourse and an action. The self-critical reflection that allows us to see how to, for example, all the entanglements a la Hodder (2012)12 or affectedness a la Whitmore and Hichliffe (2013)13 not only implies our subjects and themes of interests but involve us – as ecological historians – dynamically.14
Making us part of narratives, stories and hybridising our individual and collective boundaries towards creating a new system of relations that we could pose as knowledge-conscience.15
The promise of historical ecology is an ethical-moral promise of acknowledging the otherness as a constitutive and intra-dependent part of ourselves. This otherness is revealing an integrative us with possibilities to permeate both academic texts and us as researchers as well as the social implementations of historical practices in our present. It is the post-modern possibility of ascribing to other ways of making ‘truths’, where our position as researchers is no longer shackled to a structured box of knowledge and domination of reality. Moreover, it expands our notions as we expand ourselves by hybridising with the other, be it another individual, another natural, another thought, or another look at our being here.
This short essay was peer reviewed by Petter Larsson and Leni Charbonneau, whose comments and constant revisions not only clarified the text but also my ideas around my reflection. To them and to all the editorial team of the journal my sincere thanks.
Crumley, C. 2007. Historical Ecology: Integrated Thinking at Multiple Temporal and Spatial Scales. In: Hornborg, A. and C. Crumley, (eds.). 2007. The World System and The Earth System: Global Socio-Environmental Change and Sustainability Since the Neolithic. Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press. pp. 15-28. Crumley, C. L., Lennartson, T., and A. Westin (eds.). 2018. Issues and Concepts in Historical Ecology: the past and future of landscape and region. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Delhi, Singapore: Cambridge University Press. Witmore, C. 2014. Archaeology and the New Materialism. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1.2, 203-46.