Building Just Climate Futures From Our Environmental Past

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The Covid-19 pandemic was perhaps the most acute, but certainly not the only, global crisis of 2020. Several crises – some new, some long-standing, and some resurfacing after years – converged: for example, the Black Lives Matter protests alerted us to the persistence of systemic racism and its deadly consequences; countries such as Australia saw the most devastating wildfires in a generation; India and Bangladesh were struck by Amphan, the most powerful cyclone in 20 years; desert locusts swarmed in large numbers across dozens of countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Pakistan; and the number of people living in internal displacement throughout the world reached a record high. 

The Fridays for Future movement promoted #FightEveryCrisis to recognize the severity of each of these crises and act accordingly to prevent them in the future. This hashtag also served as a small reminder to properly acknowledge the inherently interconnected, intersectional, and international dimensions of the cascading and converging crises over the past year.

Drawing inspiration from Fridays for Future, a number of historians, including one of the authors of this blog post, began to use the #HistoriansForFuture hashtag to connect during the global climate protests of 2019. In February 2020, when Wuhan and other cities in Hubei had already gone into lockdown, these historians founded a dedicated Historians for Future (H4F) group, initially consisting of just three scholars, a makeshift website, and a Twitter account. As the first wave of national lockdowns hit, our fledgling group faced the challenge of wanting to develop activist strategies whilst not being able to meet in person or protest in the streets. Moreover, the pandemic put some members in precarious positions, such as having to take over childcare responsibilities while being on temporary contracts, as well as not being able to visit archives and finish dissertations. Yet, motivated to help identify, develop, and offer meaningful, actionable content to encourage climate action through historical context, all of this also pushed us to find supporters and collaborate in new ways. As a result, H4F gradually grew as we adjusted and became used to working together on digital platforms. 

Together, we wrote a statement that outlines our call to action: as writers, speakers, and teachers, we affirm that historians are well positioned to contextualize and historicize the wider climate crisis, and to support communities most affected in their fight for climate justice. In our work, we study the histories of scientific expertise, authority, and (the lack of) trust in science, histories of human-nonhuman relations, environmental policy, diplomacy, and other ways of knowing climate, as well as histories that lay bare the colonial legacy and continuing global injustice of the Anthropocene. 

Anti-DAPL protest in Minneapolis on October 25, 2016. CC BY Fibonacci Blue.

Although the disembodied digital collaboration of H4F remains a challenge, working together in virtual spaces has, at the same time, opened up new opportunities for building an activist community. Through our online meetings, we have developed a series of public projects, including a rotating list of educational resources for people interested in finding out more about the climate and biodiversity crisis; a blog about climate histories and activism; and an upcoming podcast series that we are really excited to launch. Last April, H4F held its first online event as part of the Environmental History Week of the American Society for Environmental History, and we look forward to organizing more outreach activities in the near future.

Through this work, we show that the climate crisis was not inevitable but, to a large extent, the result of past decisions. History shows us that there are alternatives to today’s production of goods, transportation, or our economic system, and today’s patterns of inequality, marginalization, political violence, colonization, or exclusion. More than anything, we are convinced that learning about our environmental past can help us to imagine more sustainable and just climate futures. 

If you want to find out more about H4F or get involved, you can visit our website, or email us at contact@historiansforfuture.org.

The authors would like to thank Hillary Briffa for her feedback on an earlier version of this blog post.

Feature Image: Visualization of mean global temperature and CO2 anomalies, from 1850 to 2019. CC BY Emanuele Bevacqua.
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Lea Beiermann & Elizabeth Hameeteman

Lea Beiermann (Maastricht University) and Elizabeth Hameeteman (Boston University) are PhD candidates in History and members of Historians for Future.

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