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Why historians of technology and environment can and must engage in the public debate

April 30, 2021

On 19 April I was invited to give a talk on “usable pasts” as the first in a series of events on this theme in the Berlin-Brandenburg colloquium for environmental history. It stimulated me to think through, based on my personal experience, some intriguing issues concerning the relationship between historical research, present-day societal challenges, and interaction with other, non-historical scholarly fields.

The talk is available online here.

I argued that historians are not well equipped to come up with concrete policy advice or propose solutions to various present-day problems. This means that I am not very enthusiastic about taking an “activist” stance. Of course, I do respect my colleagues who do that, but in most cases such activism is not really based on the historical expertise of the historians-activists, but more on the opinions and ideas of historians in their capacity as highly educated and concerned citizens. More importantly, it seems to me that historians are well equipped to engage and participate in the public debate in more indirect ways. I argued that they can do so in two main ways, which are important to separate from each other: empirically and theoretically:

Empirically, historians can enrich the debate by “zooming out”, temporally and spatially. Actors and analysts of current affairs are often surprisingly unaware of the wider historical context in which many burning issues of the present are part. Worse, they often mobilize distorted and “fake” histories to advance their arguments. Clearly, historians have a moral duty to oppose this by unpacking the historical complexity of the present. Based on examples from the fields of energy and water history, I argued that it can be extremely fruitful to do so not merely by writing opinion pieces or giving radio and TV interviews, but rather by making the link between past and present explicit in academic books and articles.

Theoretically, historians can mobilize concepts and theoretical ideas generated in the context of historical research, and apply them to present-day burning issues. This creates a basis for systematically engaging in debates about analogies between current issues and historical events. In this case there is no need for an empirical overlap, in the sense that conceptualizations of, say, medieval forestry can be of relevance for engaging in twenty-first century debates about electrical vehicles. Theory-based analogies can and should be mobilized not only for developing new “perspectives” on current affairs, but also for warning present-day actors about what can go wrong. Unfortunately, many false and “fake” analogies are always circulating, and over-simplifications are common. Paradoxically, however, I argued that at the theoretical level, historians actually need to simplify in order to make sense of their contributions to the debate. 

The event was also part of the Environmental History Week organized by the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).

From → Energy

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