"History does not repeat itself"

A pioneer in the field of environmental history, Donald Worster of the University of Kansas in the US highlights the importance of the subject in understanding present-day ecological crises in a conversation with Max Martin in New Delhi

Published: Tuesday 30 September 1997

On the role of environmental historians:
Our understanding of the past has been radically changed over the last 20 years by environmental historians, who have been part of a more general movement promoting an ecocentric worldview. Most environmental his-torians are products of the '60s generation. I certainly am one among them, which makes me part of the new worldview.

On why conservatives should have anything against him:
Among historians, I have been accused of capitalist-bashing, being an "eco-freak" and having a moral agenda. When you talk of environmental history you necessarily talk about economic institutions. You criticise them.

On whether interest in environmental history is growing:
Apart from the Pulitzer, all other major book prizes in the us have been bagged by monographs written by environmental historians. This is a good sign.

On the global relevance of environmental historians' findings:
Historians have analysed the phenomenon of ecological imperialism; about the manner in which Europeans took along their plants and animals, diseases and microorganisms into the 'new world' - to North and South America, Australia and the islands of the Pacific - something that has brought about devastating effects. They did not plan it this way but they invaded areas where people had no experience in tackling some of these diseases. The Europeans succeeded in establishing economic and political control, on the backs of these biological changes.

On environmental history helping in planning for the future:
What historians should be telling policymakers and planners is a problem with all of history. One of my subjects of interest has been water projects in the arid west of the us. I do not think any planner involved in the making of these big dams had any sense of history whatsoever. What they were doing was simply what other countries had done in the past. All these water projects have had negative ecological consequences.

But those involved with reclamation engineering in the us , during the '20s, believed they were building forever. Dams were considered permanent achievements of civilisation. However, if they were to read about Egypt, India or Mesopotamia or other irrigated societies they would have known that water projects have a lifecycle. You build them; they fall apart.

Would that have changed the way in which they did what they did? They might not have invested all that capital and engineering into these projects. I think they would probably have used more restraint in their planning and assessments had they had a better sense of history.

On what planners should concentrate on:
If I were a planner, looking for new sources of energy today, I would like to consult facts and look at how civilisations have gone through other energy transitions in the past. For instance, one of the greatest energy transitions in the world's history occurred when we moved from burning wood to fossil fuel. It brought with it completely unintended consequences. The most important of these was perhaps the concentration of wealth and power. An economy based on fossil fuels inevitably necessitates an economy of centralised wealth and power.

Nobody understood this when they drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania. Oil is located in very few places and it takes enormous capital investment to drill wells, pump out oil, refine and transport it from Saudi Arabia to Japan, the us or India. Only big corporations or powerful governments can do this sort of thing. We may use nuclear energy for generating power. But have we thought of the political consequences of going nuclear?

But each time we change to something different. We are not modifying the same technology:
But we do know that there could be deep unintended consequences. One could go either solar, biomass or nuclear. They are all going to have different consequences than what fossil fuels had. History does not repeat itself. You do not study history to find out exactly what is going to happen if you undergo the same again.

On environmental movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan and their historic role:
It is very interesting to see that small, marginal people in India have gained great political power over environmental issues. Most environmental movements in recent times in the us have come from people with college education, and sometimes the rich.

However, we have very little experience in my country with movements among poor, marginal, illiterate and rural communities. I think you have a different kind of experience here in India.

In some ways the us - which is also a multi-ethnic and diverse society - is much more unified and homogeneous with a strong and powerful government. The us media reaches into all kinds of homes. So, to mobilise opinion within that kind of context is one experience and to rally people and make changes happen in your kind of country is a very different experience. You cannot follow the model of the us .

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