What is the Use of History in the Sustainability Debate?
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the release of previously classified environmental data, Western scholars were astonished at how terrible environmental pollution had been in the communist regime. Horror stories of heavy metal deposits, extreme high cancer rates, and the Chernobyl disaster fed the negative stereotypes of environmental destruction and neglect under communism. Structural change and the slowly mending environmental conditions in the USA, Germany and the UK contributed to the image of repair in the West and sustained the dirty East stigma.
This black and white interpretation of the human-nature relationship is holding strong and it is astonishing given the disastrous track record of environmental protection of the global capitalist world economy.
Many argue that our globalized economy has taken a disastrous path, manifested in the forms of climate change, mass extinction of species, exhaustion of raw materials and accumulation of waste in land, sea and space. This path will inescapably lead to the extinction of humans in the long run – warn environmentalists.
Sustainability has been a buzzword for decades now and still means two desperately isolated interpretations of reality. For environmentalists, sustainability is the “least” humanity should aim for. Large groups now advocate a more radical turn to a de-growth economy. That is, a new form of economic organization, not dependent on economic growth, unlike capitalism and communism, which our current economy does depend on. For engineers and planners, the key to reaching sustainability is science and technology. The success stories of renewables, ICT and new forms of transportation suggest to the engineering community and world leaders that technology would solve environmental problems. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
The technocratic world view is dominating in our civilization. Even though it has been contested, especially during the ecological revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, it’s changing painfully slowly. When I lived in the USA, it felt silly to be stigmatized for being environmentally conscious and not owning a private vehicle. This is because the car is the symbol of manhood and adulthood in several societies globally. This stigma is persistent because of the very slow changing environmental attitudes globally.
This leads us to the very important question of social and cultural values about human-nature relationships. They are difficult to change, they are persistent and overlap many generations and time periods. The de-growth and the technocratic predictions about the future of our globe often overlook social and cultural values.
In most of human history our ancestors struggled with famine, poverty, lack of raw materials and energy. The abundance of economic and environmental sources we enjoyed in the global North for decades after WWII was an “unnatural” state of human history. This illusion of abundance and stability was a bad advisor, and contributed to the social and environmental crises we live in today.
The era of abundance is over and dramatic environmental events remind us on a daily basis that the world is not controllable and predictable in a way once naïve planners of capitalism and communism believed. When I am writing these sentences, millions battle with extreme precipitation and flood in the city of Houston. This Texan metropolis was built on the promise of abundance and human dominance over nature. It is a monstrous sprawl with little chance to move around without a private car.
The images of news channels about Houston’s struggle with the flood reminds us of one of the problems with the human impact in the era of global capitalism on the environment: the lack of visibility. When a customer purchases a fast fashion item in Central London the environmental impact related to that item is spread all around the globe and not visible to the customer. Dramatic events linked to climate change such as storms, forest fires and floods remind us that all of our decisions and actions have environmental impacts. In the Anthropocene it is critical how we interact with our global environment. It’s the key to our fate.
Historical sciences are able to serve us with lessons we so often do not learn from. The famous proverb says that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – in other words, we must ensure the environmental education of coming generations. In the education process on sustainability, de-growth or whatever our environmental aims will be labelled in decades, history should have a pivotal role, to remind us where human-nature relationships come from, and to know what future relationship we want to form with our natural environment.
Viktor Pál is Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He is the author of the upcoming book Technology and the Environment in State-Socialist Hungary that traces the development of environmental consciousness in twentieth-century Hungary.