This is the sixth in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.
“Of Water, Narratives, and the Uses of Environmental History”
By Lise Sedrez (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), 2015
São Paulo, the largest city in South America, is going through a historical drought. So is California, in the USA. That is how newspapers refer to these droughts: “historical,” a “once in a lifetime” drought or, even more dramatically, “an unheard of” drought. By describing droughts in these ways, journalists aim to stress the terrifying and absolute power of nature. But is this really the case? Droughts may simply be part of the dynamics of a dry and fragile ecosystem (like California’s), or extremely rare— but not unprecedented—events in a wet region (like São Paulo). These descriptors, however— historical, once in a lifetime, unheard of—don’t refer merely to levels of rain and pluviometric records. Were these the only indicators, climate scientists could do a much better job than historians of drafting a history of droughts. But “history,” “lifetime,” and “hearing” are directly connected to social relations, to narratives and memory—and this is where we, environmental historians, have much to offer.Continue reading