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Environmental history

“We must respect nature’s power”

Munich, 08/19/2013

Researchers at LMU’s Rachel Carson Center turn to the past in search of solutions for problems that threaten our future. In an interview, Professor Christof Mauch explains how hindsight can help.

Photo: PhotographyByMK / Fotolia
Photo: PhotographyByMK / Fotolia

You and your colleagues at the Rachel Carson Center study environmental issues from the perspective of the humanities and social sciences. Why is it important to view the subject from this angle?
Nature has always confronted humanity with challenges. Humans have the capacity to adapt to the limitations imposed by the forces of nature, but they can also manipulate nature. On the one hand, history can teach us the value of equanimity by showing us that environmental change as such is not something that is unprecedented. On the other, it reveals the dangers of indifference by illustrating how our attitudes to nature have often promoted environmental change and aggravated its effects, to the detriment of our own long-term welfare.

Can you give an example of the latter?
The recent floods in Germany are a good example. We continue to believe that we can reduce the impact of flooding by strengthening existing barriers and building new ones, but the opposite is the case. When water levels rise, higher levees add to the impact of the flood waters, and the result is an even bigger catastrophe. The basic error is a failure to spread the risks. We tend to rely solely on engineering instead of taking a more effective combination of precautionary measures.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is another instance of the same error. In New Orleans, it was assumed that the Superdome could accommodate all those who would be forced to leave their homes. This meant that previously designated shelters – which were located a mile apart from one another – and houses built on piles were regarded as dispensable and had thus been neglected. The transformation of urban architecture, the neglect of the concept and culture of shelters and the collapse of public transport networks played a far greater role in determining the scale of the catastrophe than anyone realized at the time. Katrina killed far more people than Hurricane Betsy had a few decades before, although technology had advanced in the meantime. This underlines the fact that technological progress does not automatically translate into greater security. We cannot assume that we can protect more people from disasters simply by applying the latest technological fixes. Catastrophes are often unintended consequences of earlier decisions.

What can one learn from this?
We have to learn to slow down. It is important to avoid making radical changes, because their effects are often counterproductive. Slowing down means taking the time to assess fully the negative impacts that any given measure may have.

Is it really possible to make such long-term forecasts?
One of the most interesting instances of foresight is the Hohokam culture in Arizona, perhaps the only example of a culture based on sustainable agriculture that survived for 1000 years. The Hohokam Indians built a very prosperous society by a process of slow but progressive development. Their culture integrated the worlds of work and leisure into a harmonious relationship with nature, although they lived in a demanding environment marked by aridity and periodic flooding. Only when their society had developed to the point where a rapid population expansion ensued did they exceed the carrying capacity of their environment, and their culture collapsed. Of course, other factors, such as climate, also played a role, for these developments are never attributable to a single cause. System collapse may be relatively swift, but such crises always have deep and complex roots.

So we are trapped in short-termism?
Humans tend to be focused on yesterday, today and tomorrow. But the historical perspective shows us that every sort of change has longer-term effects. Let’s take nuclear power. Our use of nuclear power forces us to consider whether our symbol for radioactive waste will be comprehensible to people in 10,000 years. Thinking in such timescales is very difficult for us.
But nature dances to a different tune and many natural processes play out over whole epochs. We must respect nature’s power. It has often determined the path of human history.

What sorts of processes are you thinking of here?
Great events in history cannot be properly understood if one fails to take account of natural processes. For instance, hurricanes and wind patterns played a much more important role in the great geographical discoveries than royal desires for conquests and colonies. Columbus did not land where he had intended to land.
The success of the American Revolution owes more to mosquitos than it does to George Washington’s generalship. The British forces had no acquired immunity to the diseases that the insects transmitted, and the battles the British lost were all fought in regions where malaria was endemic and at times of the year when there were lots of mosquitos. This shows what an impact a single insect species can have.

An international conference on “Circulating Natures” begins at the Rachel Carson Center on 20 August. What does this title mean to you?
The upcoming meeting will be the largest conference on environmental history ever held outside of the United States. Its major themes are water, food and energy. The phrase “Circulating Natures” alludes to the fact that no environmental phenomenon can be considered in isolation. Everything is connected. The wide-ranging repercussions of the mercury used by gold-diggers in the Rockies 150 years ago are a case in point. The mercury was washed via river systems into the ocean, was consumed by fish and ended up in us. We still carry it around with us. Environments don’t stop at political borders. This is why it makes no sense to think of them in terms of the nation states familiar from political history. A transnational perspective is enormously important if one wishes to compare environmental phenomena and ways of coping with them.

As an environmental historian, how do you view our future in the long term?
Humanity has more in its power than we think. We have now entered a period that has been called the Anthropocene Era, in which we as a species determine the shape of the Earth. If we are indeed the determining factor, then obviously we can cause an enormous amount of damage. But by the same token, we have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the habitability of the planet. Environmental historians can indicate the direction we should be taking to ensure that we develop a positive relationship with our natural surroundings.

And what makes you so optimistic?
The problem is that humanity has taken so long to become aware of what it is collectively doing to the environment. The whole history of Man’s interaction with his environment is a succession of unforeseen consequences. That too should warn us to slow down. We strive for the best, but we are slow to take note of the problems triggered by our actions. Looking to history, one can learn that new perceptions, new visions can make huge differences. Our relationship to nature has progressed, even if it is often a matter of two steps forward, one step back. But those who argue that progress follows a continuous, linear path fail to see that we sometimes need to step back in order to get a better look.

Interview: nh


Professor Christof Mauch

Professor Christof Mauch is the Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC). The RCC is one of the largest environmental research centers in the world, and one of the few where environmental issues are studied from the perspective of the humanities and social sciences. The Center is a joint initiative of LMU and Munich’s Deutsches Museum.



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