Humans as Biological Agents

Jointly organized by Raphael Studer of the Doctoral Program in History and Fynn Holm of the URPP Asia and Europe, the doctoral workshop “The Environment and Global History: Humans as Biological and Geological Agents” (October 26, 2016) was held at the University of Zurich. Special guest Ryan Tucker Jones, professor at the University of Auckland, introduced doctoral students to the topic of “environmental history.”

Fynn Holm

When we think of global history, we usually focus on interactions among humans, be it on an empire/nation-state level or in a transnational network. But at least since the works of Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. (i.e., The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism), it has been well known that humans have willingly and, even more often, unwillingly influenced the environment on a global scale.

Twelve doctoral students from the ETH, University of Zurich and University of Basel got the chance to rethink their own dissertation through the framework of environmental history. For this workshop, Ryan Tucker Jones came from New Zealand to Zurich to collaborate with Martin Dusinberre, who holds the professorship of Global History at the University of Zurich. They examined global historical events through the lens of environmental history.

The workshop began with a discussion of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s paper, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” The participants debated the proposal that the old distinction between natural history and human history can no longer be maintained, when we assume that human action influences the natural environment and vice-versa. Jones put these discussions in a broader context with his subsequent presentation “Anthropocene and Climate Change.” The Anthropocene, as Jones explained, is a proposed geological epoch by geological scientists that highlights the significance of human action to the earth’s geology. Humans no longer influence only local ecosystems, but their actions have ecological consequences on a global scale. The most famous of these consequences are climate change or the so-called sixth mass extinction of species caused mainly by humans. These changes are so massive that our epoch can in the future be easily distinguished in the sediments from former geological epochs like the Holocene. The exact beginning of the Anthropocene is contested among scientists. But common proposals for the starting point include the beginning of agriculture 10’000 years ago; the Columbian exchange in 1500; the industrial revolution after 1800; or the test of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. After this thought-proving presentation the participants continued debating the issues during a lunch break at the ETH Dozentenfoyer.

In the two workshop sessions, the participating PhD students gave short presentations of their dissertation projects, putting them in relation to environmental history. Here they discussed possible problems and limitations of the framework, and how a new perspective might challenge previously gathered results.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, p. 28)