III Congreso Internacional Historia a Debate Santiago de Compostela

IV Congreso Internacional Historia a Debate
Santiago de Compostela, 15-19 de diciembre de 2010


Ponencias aceptadas


Mesa G. Historia y cambio climático


Kari Väyrynen (University of Oulu, Finland)


Free Agency, Climate and Environment Theoretical Challenges of Environmental History

Texto breve

The new environmental consciousness is also affecting our historical understanding of ourselves. How deep this impact will be is a difficult question to answer. Is this problem only practical and political, and will it be overcome by solving the environmental problems in the future, or is it fundamentally of a theoretical nature? Will our historical consciousness experience a radical change? 

It is clear that during the last centuries, the human and social sciences have tended to stress humanity’s autonomy and independence of nature. With regard to the environmental sciences, the so-called constructivistic position is continuing this tradition. But environmental history has shown how catastrophic consequences environmental changes can have. Whole civilizations have collapsed because of past climate changes. And due to globalization, we can no longer just escape from the damaged areas ­ the vision of a vulnerable ‘spaceship earth’ from the 1960s (e.g. Barbara Warth, Kenneth E. Boulding) has actually become a reality. We must now ask whether we take this threat seriously enough.

Our thinking more or less reflects our present situation only. So far, we have not experienced massive, catastrophic changes caused by the ongoing climate change. In terms of our everyday time scale, the change is creeping relatively slowly this summer (2010) the weather was warmer than ever in Finland (even up to 37.2 degrees C), but this will not be likely to happen again next summer. Smoke from forest fires killed thousands of people in Russia in 2010, but this may be regarded as a boring statistical fact found afterwards rather than as a sudden and sublime catastrophe like the Indonesian tsunami in 2004 or hurricane Katrina in 2005. This kind of slowly ‘creeping’ change is difficult to experience and take seriously.

We still tend to think in accordance with the optimistic, anthropocentric model we believe in our free agency and the almost unlimited possibilities of our technology to overcome these problems. But this believe is more or less illusory. Do we even have the real cultural capacity to deal with the environmental crisis? Especially with regard to the economy, our patterns of thinking and practice are very stiff. Quite a number of people theoretically recognize that the economy cannot grow forever, but most of them do not make efforts to consume less. Few politicians have the courage to demand zero growth. This could be the cultural blind spot which will actually cause massive catastrophes.

There are also many other cultural patterns and deep rooted mentalities that are environmentally problematic. Our belief in science and technology as a key solution to our problems is one of these. And our short-term thinking is another we do not really care about future generations. These examples show that our culture is not ecologically sustainable. We need more environmental education, but it must also be noted that educational optimism in itself is a part of our problematic cultural traditions. Education tends to lay too much emphasis on the possibilities of individuals. What we also need is institutional and social change.

So, what should historians do in this situation? A theoretical starting point is to take a closer look at the question of free agency and the modalities of historical action. Of course we are able to make free choices, take vegetarian diet for example. We cannot seriously deny the existence of free will. But we should see our freedom as relative, not absolute. Our choices necessarily have various physical, biological and ecological limits, which make our freedom relative. Furthermore, our cultural and economical limits are tighter than we tend to believe ­ the above-mentioned belief in economic growth, to name an example. 

What implications should we draw with a view to the theory of history? The crucial point, I think, is that we should understand the relativity of our freedom. Our choices have both natural and cultural preconditions which limit the scope or our possibilities. On the other hand, we cannot accept historical determinism as such. We need concepts through which we can properly characterize our relative freedom. 

In my opinion, the best way to characterize our relative freedom is modal thinking. Modal concepts relevant for a historian include expressions like "it is necessary/possible that …" (modal logic), "it is obligatory/permitted/forbidden that" (deontic logic) and "it will always be the case that/ it will be the case that/ it has always been the case that/ it was the case that (temporal logic).[1] The concept of reality, which implies that some possibilities have become real, is a modal one as well. 

As historians we are all familiar with the idea of ‘possible history’. For example, if you speculate what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War, you are thinking about possible history. Interesting and entertaining indeed! But not deep enough modal concepts are theoretically much more interesting (see Bulhof, Johannes What if? Modality and History. History and Theory, Vol. 38, Fall 1999, 145-168). Through them we can even come up with new kinds of historical explanations! For example, if we ask

why the Norwegian settlement in Greenland collapsed, we must provide modal explanations. It was for the settlers, as Christians, necessary not to assimilate culturally with the Inuits, not to learn from them how to survive in the Arctic. Or, on the other hand, they did not recognize the cultural possibilities offered by the cultural contact with the Inuits. (see Diamond,

Jared Collapse. 2005). These kinds of ‘explanations’ are not like traditional causal explanations. They are more like explanations offered by the method of hermeneutical understanding, which take into account various cultural meanings. Neither are these explanations empirical, as in the natural sciences, but rational they explain the complex meaning of what happened. Empirical events ("history as it really was") of the past just build the material basis for this essential side of history. 

Environmental history is a branch of history in which such modal explanations play a most important role. In addition to cultural or political modalities, which are discussed in traditional history, various geophysical, biological and ecological modalities must be taken into account as well. In particular, we must ask to what extent the cultural and political self-understanding of the past society was in conflict or in harmony with the biological and ecological necessities of the past. On the other hand, from the past we can learn different cultural possibilities for dealing with the environment in a sustainable way. Therefore, environmental history can teach us to pinpoint the blind spots of our own culture and open

up new possibilities for working for a better future.


[1] Garson, James Modal Logic. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2.10. 2009.

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