This is the fifth 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.
Photos courtesy of author
A few years ago, when I was writing a history of Antarctica (Slicing the Silence) and researching human experience in polar stations during the long, dark winter, I turned to the medical and psychological studies of life in isolated communities and kept coming up against the limits of faceless, nameless, clinical accounts of deeply personal and cultural matters. In the name of objectivity, rationality, and generalization, scientists and social scientists gutted the real people, and the meaning ebbed away. History, by contrast, spills over with illuminating, specific, named, known, verifiable examples that you can argue with. This person did that here, then, because. History’s commitment to contingency and particularity has often been seen to weaken its usefulness. But to understand the rigors of the long polar night—and to survive it—people need vivid tales of winters past.
Historians are often challenged about the usefulness of their discipline—and they frequently challenge themselves. The Australian historian and political scientist, Hugh Stretton, besieged by rising economic rationalism in the 1980s, treasured history as a discipline because it has “three qualities which have been scarce in modern social science”: it is “holist, uncertain and eclectic.” Continue reading