Historians for Future support the global climate movement by bringing a historical perspective to bear on the climate crisis and the broad ecological destruction of our planet.
While our climate has changed in the past, there is wide scientific consensus that the current, rapid change is anthropogenic and that our biodiversity loss, too, is caused by human factors. Moreover, the Anthropocene poses epistemological challenges to us, since it undermines the boundary between nature and culture. It asks us to reconsider what it means to be human, at a time when we are also a force of nature. The ecological crisis we are facing is therefore not only a scientific issue but a complex social problem. It is deeply entangled with questions of social justice and human values. We believe that the humanities, and history in particular, can help us cope with this crisis. As historians, we study the causes and long-term effects of changing cultural and natural environments. We are therefore particularly well equipped to interrogate the current crisis and to help find sustainable ways of living that pay heed to scientific findings.
Historians study the long history of climate change, and how societies have adapted to changing environments in the past. We study the histories of scientific expertise, authority, and (the lack of) trust in science, histories of human-animal relations, environmental policy, diplomacy, and other ways of knowing climate, as well as histories that lay bare the colonial legacy and continuing global injustice of the Anthropocene. Importantly, the histories we write show that our current situation was not inevitable but, to a large extent, the result of our past decisions. The world could be otherwise. History shows us that there are alternatives to today’s production of goods, transportation, or our economic system.
In addition to providing historical insight, historians have analytical, narrative, and often didactic skills, which can help broaden public understanding of the crisis we are facing. We are able writers, speakers, and teachers, and we know that the language we use to communicate the climate crisis matters. We are professional critics of the historical narratives that shape our view of the world: from theological narratives of redemption or a liberal belief in progress and increased democratization, to apocalyptic prophecies of doom. We aim to create a deeper awareness of how such narratives guide our imagination – even scientific imaginations – of what possible climate futures might look like. And we seek to offer alternative stories to imagine that future.
We are aware of past and present discourses around climate change and how they have been used to pass the blame, as well as the responsibility to act. We are also sensitive to the injustices of colonial histories that haunt the discourse of climate change, and we are committed to promoting empathy and solidarity with those worst affected by climate chaos: Indigenous communities, migrants, and the people of the Global South.
Moreover, historians take a critical approach to historical sources, asking when, why, and by whom they were made, and we teach our students to do the same. Source criticism is invaluable for assessing information about the climate crisis, especially when the origin of information is obscured, such as on social media. Our efforts can restore credibility, and combat the growing threat of misinformation.
At the same time, we have come a long way from using sources only to establish historical facts. While we remain convinced that some evidence is more trustworthy, and some observers are more reliable than others, we are interested in how and why people perceived historical events differently – and how and why some imagined climate futures were realised, while others remained distant. Historians are therefore well trained to help reconcile different perspectives, including views on how to address the climate emergency. We are also well placed to provide vignettes or ‘historical moments’ that illuminate socio-political events in climate change history that have contributed to the current crisis.
This statement is not only meant to show the importance of the role of history in addressing the climate crisis. With this statement, we also acknowledge the social responsibility we have as historians and commit ourselves to fulfilling it to the best of our ability. Our activism can serve to generate research interests and bring to the fore issues that would otherwise go unheard. We are aware of the apparent tension between our academic historical work, which many continue to hold against a standard of objectivity and disinterestedness, and our activism. However, as histories of science have shown time and time again, it is impossible to disentangle research from personal interests and politics, even if the ideal of objectivity is worth holding in high regard. Every historian chooses to turn their attention to one topic and not another, or chooses some sources over others, while only some research projects receive funding in the first place. And in cases where only a few historical sources remain, these are often the result of politically informed decisions about which sources are worth preserving.
We do not think that wanting to keep our planet habitable, and having compassion with the people who are worst affected by the climate crisis, is an ideologically fraught issue, or that it threatens our integrity as researchers. On the contrary, we owe it to our historical profession, our colleagues, students, and the rest of the world, to make sure we can continue to study history in a world that is habitable and sustainable. It is impossible to separate knowledge from politics. All action has normative and intellectual aims, it is our duty to bring these to the fore and recognise how they influence our own work and action. With the multifaceted, all encompassing nature of climate change – we cannot remain on the fence in climate and environmental activism.