The Potential of Hope within Environmental History Scholarship

Don Brubacher, "New Brunswick Autumn Colours," Flickr

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in a mini-series on hope and environmental history. To read the series’s other posts, click here.

As I prepared for this ASEH roundtable on researching hope in environmental history, I decided to think about how one might go about incorporating hope into historical scholarship, and the benefits that might accrue as a result. I considered how one might try to conceptualize past hopes and expectations, with all of the human emotion and complexity that would naturally involve. As part of my opening comments, I presented a list of helpful concepts to keep in mind when thinking historically about hope. I’d like to reoffer these here, in note form:

  • Hope is not static: we need to be careful not to conceptualize hope as a static concept or thing. It’s not something that we can easily quantify, and cannot really be measured statistically;
  • Hope is dynamic: hope and expectations constantly change, and we need to take into account shifts in people’s hopes over time. A person’s hopes and dreams at age 20 are likely going to be quite different than at age 60;
  • Specificity of the moment matters: different peoples at different times in different places had different hopes and expectations. Time and location are important. It could be key to understand the specificity of a series of moments, perhaps consecutive ones;
  • Hope is relational: it doesn’t just involve one person, but involves relationships with other people, objects, or situations, i.e., we hope that something good will happen in relation to someone else, something else, or some particular situation;
  • Hope needs to be reinforced: it can be lost over time, so there is a constant process of reinvigoration that occurs, not necessarily consciously.

This brought me to the important question: why does hope matter to the study of history? My general answer: to help historians gain a complete understanding of the past, and in some cases to help humanize historical subjects, as we sometimes need a reminder that humans were often more complex than we allow them to be in our analyses. I used my own research to further explain my response. Recently, I’ve been examining the influence of the state on scientific development and the reciprocal relationships between ecological science and resource management by focusing on the work of government scientists, mainly forest research scientists in eastern Canada and northeastern North America, from the 1940s to the 1980s. A number of these scientists went from unquestioningly thinking of themselves as resource scientists in the 1940s and 1950s to more often than not simply identifying as ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s. This transition in how they viewed themselves would have likely involved a fairly significant shift in terms of hopes and expectations, with some moving from pragmatic conservation to quasi-deep ecology as their dominant worldview. Thinking about their hopes and expectations, and how they changed over time, serves as a reminder that they were not a monolithic group, simply helping to fuel the exploitation of the land and resources. Resource scientists were individuals with a range of motivations and intentions, hopes and expectations, some operating with economic considerations in mind, others with a real concern for impacts on ecosystems.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on our roundtable, and read through the posts written by my fellow panelists, I’m just as convinced as ever that incorporating hope into historical scholarship is a worthwhile endeavour, albeit if done with prudence. Tina Adcock’s call for “critical hopeful environmental histories” is an opportunity, potentially an essential one, for environmental historians to reflect upon the sorts of histories we are producing. Meanwhile, Dorothee Schreiber cautions settler historians, such as myself, that hope can mean something entirely different to Indigenous peoples, and argues that we need to recognize and move beyond our own settler biases and assumptions. Philip Wight continues the conversation about the need to nuance our understanding of hope, both past and present, and includes a fruitful discussion about intended audiences. Finally, Tina Loo wisely draws our attention to the politics of not only declension but also complexity, noting that one can be just as problematic for the historian as the other.

It is clear, however, that more focus on past hopes and expectations can allow for fuller and more nuanced historical accounts. I’m not sure that environmental historians should go out of their way to produce deliberately happier or more positive narratives, but at the very least a focus on hope can help counterbalance the declensionism and cynicism that seem to permeate much of what we write. Perhaps thinking explicitly about hope in the past can serve, to borrow from Tina A., as a sort of ascensionist Devil’s advocate for environmental historians: as a way to question our work when it appears to be veering towards nothing more than a series of tales of decline, as a reminder that history is more than just doom and gloom. Certainly, it’s not an exercise to be approached lightly or naïvely, as my fellow panelists have so skillfully demonstrated, but it is one that can seemingly offer great rewards. It’s my hope that more environmental historians make use of its potential sooner rather than later.

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I am an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies, a cross-appointment with the Department of History and the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono. I have research interests in the history of forestry, resource management and science, modern environmentalism, and government comics in Canada.

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