By Kevin O’Sullivan
The beauty of history, to add to Juliana’s list, to me lies in its never-ending possibilities. It’s like finding an author you love and discovering they’ve written ten other novels all waiting to be read. Or falling in love with a band on their sixth album and delving through their back catalogue. There’s always something out there that you don’t know, something that you should know, a genre that you hadn’t even known existed.
Early last month, in response to a post that I wrote on the practice of contemporary history in Ireland, Juliana made a simple but telling comment:
If we truly think that history is integral to humanity, then it must be the history of humanity that we aim for. This means being aware of the ways in which being aware of the ways in which different disciplines address the same questions that historians do and acknowledging that the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question.
I am, I admit, a bit of a fool for big ideas. But only good ones. So the idea of writing a history of humanity that goes beyond the boundaries of the political seems at this juncture to be a pretty compelling one. And, over the last two months or so, it’s one I’ve found myself returning to again and again.
When reviewing Neil Hegarty’s Story of Ireland – the accompaniment to Fergal Keane’s RTÉ/BBC television series of the same name – for radio late last month, I was struck by the absence of the everyday. In Hegarty’s telling, the plain people of Ireland get a look-in on our island only when they are suffering: from plague, famine or lock-out.
Yet there were glimpses in Hegarty’s narrative of an alternative story of our country’s past. The arrival of the Vikings in Ireland, he writes, was merely part of a much broader pattern of population change across Europe in the Middle Ages – the result of rising temperatures, ever more favourable conditions for farming, a rapid growth in human population, and increased pressures for land. And those catastrophes for the ‘ordinary’ Irish – the plague, famine, potato blight? All driven in part by circumstances outside human control.
Which brought me back to Juliana’s observation. If, as she suggested, ‘the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question’, then how far do we take our studies?
Another admission: if I’m a fool for big ideas, I’m also a bit of a Guardian environmentalist. (As in: I recycle, get the train to work and switch off the lights, but still own a car and love air travel.) Watching the coverage of Japan’s catastrophe over the past few weeks, humanity’s power in the face of disaster has been remarkable. Yet the way in which it has been narrated also reminded me of how little I know about environmental history. The science – James Lovelock’s Gaia theory or Tim Flannery’s ambitious Here on Earth: A New Beginning – I know in passing. But if Newsnight’s analysts could speak of earthquake clusters, of shifting plates, of measuring seismic activity over long periods of time, I asked myself, how have historians incorporated this kind of research into their narrative of humanity? Where and how do natural disasters and environmental change fit?
Which is where I throw myself on your mercy, Pue’s readers, to help me find my way into the field of environmental history. What are the genre’s classic texts? Who are its leading lights? What is its future? And, most importantly, what should I be reading?
Tags: Environmental History