Friday, 29 July 2011

the emergence of pandisciplinarity


Having been founded three years after Columbus ‘discovered’ America, the University of Aberdeen celebrated its quincentenary in 1995. This encouraged associates of the Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies to look at the area of its prime interest in a long chronological perspective as well as a wider context. For this purpose, we adopted a conceptual framework first devised in ancient Greece and then revived in the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – the three unities of time, place and action. Action was used in the sense that Aristotle had applied to drama: ‘It is necessary, then, just as in other imitative arts there is one imitation of one thing, that the plot, being an imitation of the action, should be concerned with one thing and that a whole, and that the parts of the action should be put together that if one part is shifted or taken away the whole is deranged and disjoined, for what makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no part of the whole.’ The other two unities were noted in the eighteenth century by, among others, the Aberdonian philosopher Thomas Reid: ‘Created things have their particular place in space, and their particular place in time.’ However, he continued: ‘time is everywhere, and space at all times’, thus emphasising the need for a guiding principle. In the late twentieth century, for this purpose, we expressed the hope ‘to move beyond interdisciplinarity towards pandisciplinarity, to attempt to recapture some of the comprehensive nature of enquiry associated with the Renaissance at the time of the university’s foundation in 1495, or with the Enlightenment during its development in the eighteenth century.’ We attempted under this broad heading to include such ideas as Chaos, Complexity, Gaia and Post-Modernism. (Paul Dukes, Cathryn Brennan, Xenofont Sanukov, Jean Houbert, Time, Place and Action: Quinquennial Perspectives on Russia, East and Central Europe, Aberdeen: Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies, 1996).

In succeeding years, we used the concept in a number of ways, for example in an article of 2002 examining intellectual development in the Soviet 1920s: ‘October in the Mind: The Russian Revolution, Freidizm and Pandisciplinarity.’ (Revolutionary Russia, vol. 18, no. 1, 2002, 1-23). But it was not before reading the seminal article by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’ (IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) Newsletter 41), that we developed a new focus, set out in Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763, Anthem, London, 2011. The book asserts that the study of history should be scientific – that is rational, global and evolutionary, taking its place among other sciences –humane, social and natural – in a pandisciplinary approach to humanity’s present predicament. It differs from most other approaches to the subject in its emphasis on application rather than explanation. In other words, rather than asking: what is history?, it attempts to answer the question: how can history be of use in today’s crisis?

The concept of pandisciplinarity was far from emerging in Aberdeen alone. For example, John R. Hall, Professor of Sociology at Davis, California brought it into his book Cultures of Inquiry: From Epistomology to Discourse in Sociohistorical Research, Cambridge: CUP, 1999, in particular pp. 173, 179, 259-61. In a chapter entitled ‘Discursive hybrids of practice: an introductory schema’, Hall has a section devoted to ‘The pandisciplinarity of inquiry.’ He notes that in the three decades concluding the twentieth century, historians and sociologists have sought ‘to define an enterprise shared by the two disciplines.’ He argues that ‘the pandisciplinarity of inquiry identifies commonalties in an enormous array of scholarship, ranging across literary and cultural studies in the conventional humanities, divergent approaches to the study of history (“social history,” “cultural history,” “oral history,” etc.) and the conventional social sciences – divided by disciplines (economics, geography, etc.) but united both by shared substantive interests (markets, colonization, culture, etc.) and by shared practices across disciplines, from ethnography to statistical analysis.’ Hall criticizes the concept of the two cultures advanced by C.P. Snow as ‘culturally arbitrary’ and advances that of the Third Path taking us ‘beyond merely parochial assertions about the supposed superiority of any particular local method.’ His approach ‘identifies limits to any quest for a single, objective social science, much less a “science of history” via social theory.’ Hall concludes:

The route of the Third Path opens out into an emergent network of communication, unevenly tied together by nodal connections among discourses, practices, and procedures of translation that push back the frontier of any absolute differend. Knowledge produced by way of culturally coherent practices of inquiry and their contestation can result in more than storytelling, even in the absence of an encompassing pure Reason.

Paul Boytchev takes an ‘Equilibristic pandisciplinary approach to technology enhanced learning’ (Proceedings of the Fortieth Jubilee Spring Conference of the Union of Bulgarian Mathematicians, Borovetz, April 5-9 2011.) He concentrates on ‘the core ideas of the equilibristic and pandisciplinary approaches in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) and the way they could be combined into  a single approach’ with special reference to the relationship between the Humanities and Arts on the one hand and Science, Mathematics and Computing on the other. No doubt, the computer has a key role to play not only in TEL but more widely. (See, for example, ‘Computing for the future of the planet’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, October 2008 [available online] ).  

As already intimated, our approach to pandisciplinarity differs from others in its emphasis on the central problems of our age symbolised by the Doomsday Clock, set by atomic scientists from 1947 but including new developments in the life sciences and technology as well as climate change from 2007 onwards. However, we would be foolish to ignore less instrumental discussions of this concept as illustrated above or considerations of other allied concepts such as consilience. This was first advanced in 1840 by the Cambridge scholar William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Literally meaning ‘jumping together’, for Whewell ‘The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.’ Whewell is quoted by the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson in the update and development entitled Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, London: Little, Brown and Co, 1998, 6-7. Most of his book is devoted to a consideration of the nature of a full range of academic disciplines. In the twenty-first century, Wilson believes, ‘the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts... will be the two great branches of learning’, with the social sciences occupying a bridge position between them. (10) Although ‘the humanities... will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them’, there will remain a distinction between ‘the future excursions of science and the imaginative flights of the arts.’ (333) However, Wilson gives the study of history, on which we place emphasis, sparse attention: even though he believes that the ‘imminent environmental bottleneck’ will cause ‘a new kind of history driven by environmental change’, he neglects old kinds of history. (320)  Moreover, while he makes the Enlightenment the fundamental point of departure for his argument, he says very little about history as process. Hardly surprising, perhaps, in view of his speciality.

And Wilson’s conclusion runs true to type, too: ‘We are, it seems, Old World, catarrhine primates, brilliant emergent animals, defined genetically by our unique origins, blessed by our newfound biological genius, and secure in our homeland if we wish to make it so.’ (333).
Amen to that.

the anthropocene conceptual

The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives
By Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, March 2011, 842-867
[available on line]
There is much to learn from this paper, on, for example, the concept of the Anthropocene and its emergence, the Great Acceleration, peak oil and phosphorus, geo-engineering and planetary boundaries, among other perspectives.

 As the introduction asserts: ‘Climate change has brought into sharp focus the capability of contemporary human civilization to influence the environment at the scale of the Earth as a single, evolving planetary system.’ ‘But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg’, the authors go on to say, adding that humans are significantly altering other biogeochemical cycles such as nitrogen and sulphur as well as phosphorus, strongly modifying Earth’s water cycle and probably driving its sixth major extinction process. Thus, ‘humankind has become a global geological force in its own right’ and a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – is evolving. (842-3)

Among other antecedents of the concept of the Anthropocene enunciated by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the eminent French philosopher Henri Bergson’s assertion of 1907 is quoted: ‘A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.... In thousands of years, when, seen from the distance, only the broad lines of the present age will still be visible, our wars and our revolutions will count for little, even supposing they are remembered at all; but the steam engine, and the procession of engines of every kind that accompanied it, will perhaps be spoken of as we speak of the bronze or of the chipped stone of pre-historic times: it will serve to define an age.’ (844-5) Nit-picking no doubt to point out that when Bergson wrote it was two centuries since Newcomen patented an early version of the steam engine in 1705. More substantially however, given the significance of James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine in the early Industrial Revolution from 1763 to 1784 as noted by Crutzen and Stoermer in their paper, it might be appropriate to mention the context of James Watt’s contribution. This context includes the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and other works from the Scottish Enlightenment. Moreover, in retrospect, do the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century appear to count for little?

The third section of the paper (845-7), devoted to the history of the human-environment relationship, includes a consideration of ‘the early Anthropocene hypothesis’ concerning the impact of the agrarian revolution, which appears implausible to the authors. There is an interesting discussion of the early use of coal from the Song dynasy (960-1279) in China, but the authors do not believe that the human use of coal and other fossil fuels made much impact before the beginning of the Anthropocene, the subject of the paper’s fourth section (847-9). Among the perceived important developments are the intensive use of fossil fuels leading to wide application of fertilisers, in turn promoting the extension of agriculture and increase in population. Noting that by 1750 the Industrial Revolution had barely begun but had spread thoughout Europe and North America, the authors suggest that ‘the year AD 1800 could reasonably be chosen as the beginning of the Anthropocene.’ This is a few years later than the 1784 chosen by Crutzen and Stoermer, but much earlier than that favoured by other analysts.

Some of these have opted for the years of the paper’s sixth section (849-53), ‘The Great Acceleration’ from 1945 to 2000, when ‘the growth imperative rapidly became a core society value that drove both the socio-economic and the political spheres.’ Impressive tables, which cannot be summarily described and merit close attention, amply illustrate the widespread increase in the pace of the advanced Industrial Revolution. Just one comment here. Noting that the embryo of The Great Acceleration was clearly evident in the years 1870-1914, the authors claim that ‘the acceleration of these trends was shattered by World War I’ and its sequel. There is at least a case for maintaining that, in some aspects such as the improvement of transport by land and movement by air, the war acted as an accelerator, while the accompanying Russian Revolution and post-war settlement helped to set the scene for both World War II and the Cold War, which also promoted technological innovation as well as steeply increasing exploitation of the world’s resources. Environmental problems were also intensified by warfare, and neglected partly because to draw attention to them could incur charges of disloyalty to a cause. Certainly, the making and use of materiel should be added to the indicators of the Great Acceleration.

Section 6 (853-60)  shows how the Great Acceleration not only continues but also spreads to the previously so-called Third World, particularly India and China (both of which, it should be added in paratheses, not only achieved rapid economic growth but also acquired nuclear weapons). The concepts of ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak phosphorus’ both emerged. At the same time, possibly, the drive to understand the genetic basis of life, even to subject it to synthesis, and the beginnings of geo-engineering, could lead towards some alleviation of the intensifying predicament, the authors suggest, but they also warn that ‘the near inevitability of unforeseen consequences should give humanity pause for serious reflection before embarking on any geo-engineering approaches.’ The mere thought of the synthesis of life has aroused widespread alarm. The authors also stress that ‘legal, ethical and societal issues, not to mention the challenges of global governance..., will need to be thoroughly explored and solved before deliberate human modification of the climate system can be undertaken.’

They go on in the seventh and final section (860-2), ‘Societal implications of the Anthropocene concept’, to remark that ‘the belief systems and assumptions that underpin neo-classical economic thinking, which in turn has been a major driver of the Great Acceleration, are directly challenged by the concept of the Anthropocene.’ This reinforces the case for a serious consideration of The Wealth of Nations, still a ‘classic’ source for ‘neo-classical thinking’. It cannot be emphasised enough that Smith wrote when the commercial-manufacturing stage of economic development was under way (as in his famous example of pin-making) and he could not comment therefore on the industrial stage or have any idea of the Great Acceleration.

Of course, a paper such as this cannot hope to be all-inclusive. Other works by its authors need to be taken into consideration: to give just two examples bearing on historical perspectives, Jacques Grinevald, La biosphere de l’Anthropocène: climat et pétrole, la double menace: Repères transdisciplinaires (1824-2007), Genève: Georg Editeur, 2007 and John McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000.

More generally, to understand the Anthropocene more fully, some attention might be given to academic disciplines not mentioned in the paper, including the history and analysis of literature. See, for example, Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986,  24-5, 58-60, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, where some of the sources of inspiration are given for Leo Szilard, Nils Bohr, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. It would be pertinent to discover which literary works have influenced researchers on the Anthropocene.This consideration reinforces the case for pandisciplinarity, the use of every discipline in aid of understanding.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Climate of History

The Climate of History: Four Theses
By Dipesh Chakrabarty         
In his introductory remarks, Chakrabarty observes ‘what scientists have said about climate change challenges not only the ideas about the human that usually sustain the discipline of history but also the analytic strategies that postcolonial and postimperial historians have deployed in the last two decades in response to the postwar scenario of decolonization and globalization.’ (1)
He himself puts forward four challenging theses, making use of a wide range of authorities, most of whom are omitted here for the sake of conciseness.
Thesis I: Anthropogenic Explanations of Climate Change Spell the Collapse of the Age-old Humanist Distinction between Natural History and Human History (3-5)
Chakrabarty traces this age-old distinction along a line leading from Vico via Croce to Collingwood before quoting Stalin on unchanging geographical environment in distinction to significant developments in human society. He then notes that ‘If Braudel, to some degree, made a breach in the binary of natural/human history, one could say that the rise of environmental history in the late twentieth century made the breach wider.’ He cites the preface of Alfred Crosby Jr.’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, first published in 1972: ‘Man is a biological entity before he is a Roman Catholic or a capitalist or anything else.’ Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the second half of the twentieth century, Chakrabarty points outs, the distinction between human and natural histories has begun to collapse.
There is nothing much to argue with here, although an alternative line of historiographical development to Chakrobarty’s Vico-Croce-Collingwood could be drawn. Although Vico’s pioneering efforts have sometimes been unjustly neglected, the stages of progress in his ‘New Science’ – represented in turn by gods, heroes and men – were surpassed in the later Enlightenment by the hunting, pasturage, farming and commerce stages of Adam Smith and others. Croce and Collingwood are from easy to understand and add little to our understanding of the centrally important Industrial Revolution. Karl Marx, on the other hand, makes a probing analysis of the growth of capitalism, although his forecast of a proletarian revolution has turned out to be less than completely accurate. Stalin, quoted by Chakrabarty, is not the best representative of Marxist thought.
Thesis 2: The Idea of the Anthropocene, the New Geological Epoch When Humans Exist as a Geological Force, Severely Qualifies Humanist Histories of Modernity/Globalization (5-7)
Chakrabarty maintains that ‘freedom has been the most important motif of written accounts of human history of these two hundred and fifty years.’ His line of historiographical development is through what Marxists would call the ideological superstructure. However, as he concedes: ‘The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use’. He therefore recognises the force of the argument in favour of accepting the arrival of a new geological age during the same period of two hundred and fifty years – the Anthropocene, as argued by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000. Questions arise: ‘So, has the period from 1750 to now been one of freedom or that of the Anthropocene? Is the Anthropocene a critique of the narratives of freedom? Is the geological agency of humans the price we pay for the pursuit of freedom?’ In response to his questions, Chakrabarty quotes Edward O. Wilson – ‘We know more about the problem now....We know what to do’ as well as Stoermer and Crutzen – ‘An exciting, but also difficult and daunting task lies ahead of the global research and engineering community to guide mankind towards global, sustainable, environmental management.’ His own reply is ‘Logically, then, in the era of the Anthropocene, we need the Enlightenment (that is, reason) even more than in the past.’ However, he goes on to say that, in the face of sharp inequalities between and inside nations and steep population increase, freedom in human societies will be under threat since politics is never based on reason alone. Necessary long-term planning will be up against short-term politics.
Thesis 3: The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans (7-10)
While ‘The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of human history’, in Chakrabarty’s view, he goes on to remind us that ‘Scholars who study human beings in relation  to the crisis of climate change and other ecological problems emerging on a world scale make a distinction between the recorded history of human beings [of thousands of years] and their deep recorded history [of hundreds of thousands of years].’ Deep history necessitates consideration of human and other life forms – of species. However difficult, this task must be taken up by historians in ‘a conversation between disciplines and between recorded and deep histories of human beings in the same way that the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago could not be explained except through a convergence of three disciplines: geology, archaeology, and history.’ The combination of recorded and deep histories fundamentally stretches the very idea of historical understanding.
Two points arise here. First, Chakrabarty does not specify which disciplines should enter the conversation on the present crisis. We need to think about appropriate selection, Second, as Darwin’s major biographers indicate, ‘his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start – Darwinism was always intended to explain human society.’ (A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin, London, 1992, xix.) We would do well to bear this in mind as we consider the history-species problem today.
Thesis 4: The Cross-Hatching of Species History and the History of Capital Is a Process of Probing the Limits of Historical Understanding (10-11)
‘We never experience ourselves as a species’, Chakrabarty asserts, adding ‘without that knowledge that defies historical understanding there is no making sense of the current crisis that affects us all.’ Drought in Australia and fire in California affect rich and poor alike, and the anxiety provoked by global warming is ‘reminiscent of the days when many feared a global nuclear war’, the difference being that nuclear war ‘would have been a conscious decision on the part of the powers that be’ while climate change ‘is an unintended consequence of human actions’. Again, a couple of comments. First, the use of the past tesne concerning global nuclear war is somewhat surprising, given the current setting of the Doomsday Clock by Atomic Scientists at six minutes to the fatal hour and the warning letters sent to The Wall Street Journal on 4 January 2007 and 15 January 2008 by Henry Kissinger and others. Second, the balance of the evidence is now surely such that it is no longer appropriate to talk of climate change as unintended: denials are now as irresponsible as former dismissals of the carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco. (Stéphane Foucart, ‘Manufacturing doubt for profit’, Guardian Weekly, 1 July 2011, 32-3.) One is reminded of the Scottish story concerning the poor souls sent to Hell. ‘We didna ken [We did not know]’, they protest. And the Devil responds: ‘Ye ken noo [You know now]’.
Dipesh Chakrabarty concludes his perspicacious and stimulating essay with the observation: ‘climate change poses for us a question of human collectivity, an us, pointing to a figure of the universal that escapes our capacity to experience of the world. It is more like a universal that arises from a shared sense of catastrophe.’ Indeed, if the ship is sinking, all hands must be applied to the pumps.   


Monday, 11 July 2011

pandisciplinarity today

'And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledges be accepted rather for lines and veins, than for sections and separations; and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved. For the contrary hereof hath made particular sciences to become barren, shallow, and erroneous; while they have not been nourished and maintained from the common fountain.'
Francis Bacon

The purpose of this blog is to promote 'the common fountain' via the agency of pandisciplinarity, a concept discussed in a pamphlet issued in 1995 and a book published by Anthem Press in 2011, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763. 

As this title suggests, the emphasis is on a period of approximately two and a half centuries following the year in which James Watt 'tried some experiments on the force of steam', to use his own words in 1763. To use the words of Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000: 'To assign a more specific date to the onset of the 'anthropocene' seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the eighteenth century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable.' (Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, 'The Anthropocene' in the IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) Newsletter 41, 2000, 17.) More recently, the subject has been discussed in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, March 2011 and at a Conference held by The Geological Society in London on 11 May 2011, both posing the question:: 'The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?' The urgency of the situation was succinctly conveyed by an observation made at the Conference by the Society's President to the effect that if we carry on as we are, we shall all disappear in carbon-rich slime, irrespective of the term used to describe the process.

The blog agrees with the assertion of Roger Smith: 'it is possible to envisage history as a form of knowledge bridging the institutional divisions between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. We need history in order to understand, in the fullest sense of "to understand", any of the forms that knowledge takes.' (Roger Smith, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature, Manchester UP, 2007, 258, with his italics.) 

The aim of the book Minutes to Midnight is threefold: 1) to note major advances in the natural sciences and their application from James Watt's onwards; 2) to set out an analytical narrative of the Anthropocene Era; 3) to pay particular attention to the development of history as an academic discipline in association with other humanities, the social and natural sciences, and to illustrate its response to the changing circumstances of successive periods. The blog will supplement and amplify this threefold aim, and thus promote 'the common fountain' of the twenty-first century.