Berlin-Brandenburger Colloquium für Umweltgeschichte: Usable Pasts. Part I

Why Historians of Technology and Environment Can and Must Engage in the Public Debate

16:00 - 18:00
Jan-Henrik Meyer (ZZF Potsdam) and Astrid M. Kirchhof (HU Berlin). The mini-series "Usable Pasts - Insights from Environmental History and the History of Technology for Today's Challenges" is organized in cooperation with Christoph Bernhardt (IRS Erkner), Julia Obertreis (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg), Heike Weber (TU Berlin) and Timothy Moss (HU Berlin).
Lecturing Person
Per Högselius (KTH Stockholm, Sweden)

In this talk I will argue that historians are not well equipped to come up with concrete policy advice or propose solutions to various present-day problems. However, historians are well equipped to engage and participate in the public debate in more indirect ways. I will argue 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 argue 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 their 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 argue that at the theoretical level, historians actually need to simplify in order to make sense of their contributions to the debate.


About the Series

This mini-series of online events, entitled "Usable Pasts - Insights from Environmental History and the History of Technology for Today's Challenges," explores the potential—and pitfalls—of enrolling these fields of scholarship to inform, challenge and inspire responses to the climate and environmental crises of our day. It is motivated by the conviction that historians have an important contribution to make to this societal challenge and that their voices need to be better articulated for them to be heard and considered. The organizers invite historians, non-historians and practitioners to exchange ideas and experiences around the practice of using historical knowledge to address modern-day issues. The overarching purpose of the mini-series is to specify what and how historians of technology and the environment can contribute to current debates on the environmental and climate crises and their resolution. The following questions are designed to guide the presentations and inspire the discussions:

  • What selective or simplistic histories of the environment permeate the thinking of policy-makers, business leaders and opinion-setters and how can they be challenged by historians? 
  • What helpful analogies to past crises exist and what false analogies should be subjected to criticism?
  • In what ways do ‘presentist’ framings of the climate/environment crisis limit our ability to understand its characteristics and potential responses?
  • What legacies from the past – institutional, cultural, political, socio-economic, material—constrain action or restrict options for addressing the climate/environment crises?
  • What lost or discarded alternatives from the past could enrich our response to climate and environmental change?
  • What risks do historians need to be aware of when engaging with contemporary debates on environmental or climate policy and practice?

Historical scholarship cannot be expected to provide ready-made solutions to the climate crisis and, indeed, is not equipped to do so. However, it can help practitioners rethink the present, encouraging them to appreciate the temporal context of their aspirations, reflect upon the implications of their actions and reframe their discourses. Taking first steps along this path is the ambition of this mini-series.

If you would like to register, please send an email to Jan-Henrik Meyer. For further information, please visit this website.