The Climate of History: Four Theses
By Dipesh Chakrabarty http://www.sciy.org/2009/12/23
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.