Where Academics and Activism Meet

I am currently taking a seminar called “What is Environmental History?” Of course, this is an appropriate topic given my interests. This week, we  read an article by Dipesh Chakrabarty titled “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” I resonated with many of the ideas presented in the article, and some of Chakrabarty’s arguments tie into the divestment movement. I can’t attend my history class this week, so my Professor said that I could write a blog post instead with my thoughts on Chakrabarty’s work. So here we go…

My generation is the first to face the possibility that the planet of our old age will not resemble the planet of our youth. Worse, there may not be a planet at all on which humans can survive when I am 100 years old. This is a very scary prospect, especially for young people today. Chakrabarty echoes this idea. He says that history as a field assumes that humans have always and will always exist on planet earth. The challenge of climate change calls this assumption into question. Can historians adapt strategies and practices to imagine an era without humans? 

Chakrabarty also makes a unique and clear case for fossil fuel divestment (without even knowing it!). He begins by explaining how climate scientists have been testifying in front of Congress and pushing for climate action since the 1980’s. Then he writes: “But governments, beholden to special interests and wary of political costs, would not listen.” Precisely! This is why we’re divesting: to weaken the political influence of the fossil fuel industry so that there is hope for climate legislation.

He then elaborates on the state of the modern American political system. He writes that humans are dependent upon reason to get ourselves out of this mess. We are using our brainpower to develop solutions and envision a different energy economy. But, as Chakrabarty points out, “politics has never been based on reason.” This present an obvious problem. We are dependent upon the political process to get out of this mess, but can we trust that it will get us where we need to go? The question of our times.

Chakrabarty makes another interesting point that is relevant to this discussion. Historians have conventionally separated human and natural histories. They are two distinct disciplines. But now humans have become much more than mere animals on this planet. We are a “geological force,”  altering the physics of an entire planet. This means that the separation between human and natural history “has begun to collapse.” What an incredibly ironic situation! According to Chakrabarty, the history of humans and nature have only intersected when humans have threatened the very existence of both entities.

I will end with the theme of freedom. Chakrabarty says that humanity’s endless pursuit for freedom has led us the emergence of humans as a geological agent. So the price of freedom is almost-irreperable damage to the planet. The thing is, as he says, that we made conscious decisions that landed us in this position. The ramifications of our actions have been a series of unintended consequences, but we are responsible for this situation. There wasn’t an evil plot orchestrated by Exxon and Irving. Chakrabarty then says that “nobody is in a position to claim that there is something inherent to the human species that has pushed us finally into the Anthropocene.” While I agree with this statement, I also think that you can say that humans’  decisions  throughout history reveal themes and patterns about human nature. Understanding these lessons can inform how we make decisions in the future.


One Comment

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  1. Chloe,

    The points on convergence of human and geological history and about independence are very interesting.
    In thinking of the historical deployment of renewables, solar in particular has always had this “go it alone” sort of feel. It was the only way to go off the grid. And it’s a repeated refrain when you talk to people about renewables. But the grid isn’t the real problem, it’s the fossil fuels that power it. Instead, we need to recraft the one as a story of resiliency, and one where our individual impact is admittedly small, but where if we work together, we can have a huge impact. So we must find ways where instead of opting out, those who go renewable actually opt-in. If we can perform jui-jitsu on that human drive for independence, and demonstrate that we can be more powerful through interdependence and cooperation, we can start to move the needle together.

    Thanks for the work that you do.

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