Friday, 19 April 2013

London Debate: Corfield Climate Reds; Levene Climate Blues On 1 April 2011, at the instigation of Rescue!History, a public debate was held at London University’s Institute of Historical Research on the question ‘Does Climate Change put a Spanner in the Works of History?’ In the online versions of their contributions the two main speakers agree that anthropogenic climate change constitutes a problem, but respond in different ways: Penelope J. Corfield takes ‘a relatively optimistic long-term view’ (1) while Mark Levene asserts that ‘we are truly living in an anthropocenic epoch which heralds the human end.’ (18) Corfield declares: ‘Rather than discarding historical studies, or rerouting them into another round of theoretical arguments, it is imperative to continue to do what historians already do well. That is, to amass and scrutinise evidence; to formulate and test interpretations in the light of evidence; and to debate with current and earlier generations of those who have studied the past systematically.’ (9) On the other hand, Levene concludes: ‘historians might have a critical role as pathfinders and beacon carriers... by bravely demonstrating that in the context of where we find ourselves this is neither misplaced nor lunatic but rather a project whose legitimacy and worth is imbedded in human consciousness and historical practice.’ He calls for what the kabbalists deem ‘some healing of our condition on this earth and thereby with it, some measure of cosmic repair’ or, as Christians put it, ‘some degree of grace.’ (17-8) In spite of their widely differing conclusions, both speakers argue for the acceptance of ‘Big History’, described by Corfield as embracing ‘the entire lifespan of the planet’, linking ‘physical, geological, climatological, biological, and zoological evolution directly into human anthropology and archaeology.’ (10) She accepts that ‘runaway global warming is a possibility’ and that ‘Earth might become a lifeless furnace, like the planet Venus’ but also believes that ‘humans are known as a problem-solving as well as a problem-creating species.’ (12) For Levene, Big History means first and foremost taking on board pre-history in recognition of David Christian’s insistence that ‘history is not an attribute of human history alone, but that the earth itself, life on earth and even the universe have histories’. (6) While agreeing on the necessity for Big History as advocated by Christian and others, overall this blog is more with Levene in spirit, more with Corfield in the letter. It accepts that the human predicament is more serious than Corfield for the most part implies, but still wants to argue for a continued attempt at rational denouement. It suggests that one focus of the attention of historians could be the concept of the ‘Great Acceleration’ since the Second World War as described by Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and JohnMcNeill, ‘The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives’ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 369, no. 1938, March 2011 (available online). Twenty-four indices of change in human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (taken to be in 1750) are set out in diagrammatic form Figure 1, 851-2. In most of them, a steep rise is indicated from about the year 1950. The two centuries of prelude to the Great Acceleration, aspects of which are the concern of a large number of historians, could be scrutinised with the climax in sight. To be sure, this suggestion will invite charges of teleological distortion, and thus encourage further debate. In this regard, it is indeed worth emphasising that 1750 was a different year in most respects from 1950, a circumstance ignored by some colleagues in other disciplines. For example, the arguments put forward by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations are treated as timeless axioms by some economists, ignoring the basic circumstance that the book is firmly rooted in pre-industrial society. Corfield rightly suggests that ‘as studies of Big History tend to offer a somewhat schematic vision of recent centuries post industrialisation, they could do with further input from historians.’ (10) A long perspective on industrial society could stretch backwards as well as forwards, indeed as far as pre-historic times, as already tackled by David Christian and others and given emphasis by Corfield and Levene. Levene says that ‘we almost certainly will wish to reconsider the very basic map of history’ and that the impact of ‘a monumental societal crisis of hope’ may well lead ‘in directions many historians have been at pains to distance themselves from in recent decades: structure, metanarrative, even teleology.’ (4-5) For Corfield , historians have for the most part rejected postmodern fragmentation and ‘retain a belief in a coherent Time – within which choppy and discontinuous things can occur, as much as can continuous and regular developments.’ Of course, short papers prepared for a debate cannot spell out the points they make, so deserve to be set in the context of other publications. In Time and the Shape of History, Yale UP, 2007, Corfield examines ‘three central and interlocking dimensions of history’: ‘continuity (persistence; tradition), gradual change (evolution) and all forms of rapid, frictional and discontinuous change (turbulence; upheaval; revolution). (xx) She discusses differing view of time in an engaging and subtle manner. She provides a nuanced analysis of premodernity, modernity and postmodernity. (122-49, for example). All of us, no doubt, could add from our reading to the manner in which chronological progression has appeared to imaginative minds. ‘What a mysterious substance time was’, the heroine nun muses after emerging from an underground incarceration in Boris Akunin’s Pelagia and the Red Rooster, Phoenix, 2009, 101. ‘Sometimes it stood still and sometimes it hurtled along at breakneck speed, and no minute, or hour, or day, or year was ever equal to another.’ Vasily Grossman adds the ‘twilight monotony’ of prison and then observes: ‘The distortion of the sense of time during combat is something still more complex.... One second can stretch out for eternity, and long hours can crumple together.’ Life and Fate, Fontana, 1986, 48-9. Now, above all, we need to recognise the confluence of historical and geological time and the necessity of the replacement of anthropocentric history by anthropocenic. This shift will necessarily involve ‘another round of theoretical arguments’ that Corfield asks us to eschew. Moreover, in the two years since the London Debate, humans have shown much more evidence of problem-creating than problem-solving. Her confidence may be misplaced. Mark Levene ‘s more negative outlook might well be reinforced by his major specialisation, in genocide history, which we will not investigate here. Instead, let us consider how he has asked questions about the era of the anthropocene and suggested some answers in his ‘Introduction: A Chronicle of a Death Foretold?’ to Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 20: Is it a function of the advent of the industrial revolution, and hence of an emergent capitalism whose origins also lie in the peculiar rise of the West? In which case is the ‘damage’ done by the last two hundred years of historical trajectory, in any sense, containable or reversible? Or is the assumption itself flawed, the advent of coal-fuelled steam engines far from being an unfortunate wrong turn rather the logical consequence of pre-existing factors, most obviously a scarcity of wood or peat for the energy needs of an inexorably rising European population? In which case, the issue at stake might be less one of a longue durĂ©e of renewable energy versus the short-term rupture of the carbon economy, but rather of a relentless human trajectory towards a seeming mastery of the planet set in motion by the ending of the last great Ice Age. Such a thesis would certainly seem to knock the idea of human agency on its head, the leap of human endeavour towards ‘civilisation’ being no more than a function of ephemeral climatic conditions which were bound to end sooner or later with, for instance, the advent of a new glacial epoch. Let us not forget that the London debate took place at a time when many other publications had already considered key aspects of its subject. Apart from works cited by Corfield and Levene, special mention might be made, for example, of Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, Penguin, 1991 and John McNeill, Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century, Penguin, 2000. My own Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763, Anthem, 2011, which also addresses some of the points raised in the London debate, was published just after it. While believing strongly in the importance of that debate, I also consider that we need to join in a discussion with our colleagues not only in the other humanities but also in the social and natural sciences. This is not an original suggestion. Back in 1955, in Man on his Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship, CUP, 1955, Herbert Butterfield asserted: ‘If to all the other perceptions of the scientist were added an internal knowledge of the history of his own subject, that combination would be capable of producing a higher state of awareness and a greater elasticity of mind.’ Butterfield added a quotation from Lord Acton in support: ‘History is not only a particular branch of knowledge, but a particular mode and method of knowledge in other branches.’ However, the situation is more urgent than it was in 1955, even 2011, as indicated by the movement forward from six to five minutes to midnight of the Doomsday Clock by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2012.

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