The Anthropocene is changing the way history is being written. It’s changing not only the subjects historians choose to write about, but also the very evidence on which history is based. This new epoch – one in which humans are a major force changing earth systems – is creating new archives for historians.
Traditionally, historians’ archives have been located in state and private institutions. The most common evidence utilized by historians is still documentary such as journals, correspondence and newspaper sources. The late twentieth century rise of subfields like urban and oral history took historians out of the institutional archive and expanded their evidence base to include the built environment and living memory. In the Anthropocene, that evidence base is expanding further to include the very atmosphere around us.
As climate scientists have sought to track the extent of the impact humans are having on the earth system, they have had to look back as well as forwards in time. Palaeoclimatologists have reconstructed past climates and used these reconstructions to gain a yardstick for our present and potential future deviation from planetary norms. In doing so, palaeoclimatologists have used biological proxies to create new evidence of times past. The evidence includes temperature and rainfall reconstructions, details of climatic extremes as well as the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
Historians have been hesitant to embrace these new archives composed of such sources as ice cores, tree rings and fossil pollen. Utilising these sources is not without its challenges. Literacy in the human as well as naturalistic sciences is necessary and charges of climatic determinism are a risk. But literacy is not proficiency and any historian who reduces episodes to mono-causal explanations, whether that cause is climate or otherwise, can be accused of determinism. It must also be kept in mind that uncertainty is a shared concern for human and natural scientists alike, especially when evidence is thin or contradictory.
Embraced thoughtfully, the new archives of the Anthropocene offer a complementary set of sources for historians. For example, historians of ancient Rome now have a fuller picture of the extent of Roman industry because pollution produced by Roman agriculture and mining can be read in the chemical composition of the air bubbles preserved in ice cores taken from Greenland. Historian Tom Griffiths has called such ice cores ‘the holy scripts, the sacred scrolls of our age’. Of our age because these ice core scripts will be amongst the key sources utilised by future historians writing about the twenty-first century.
Other historians are using these new archives to explore themes of resilience and adaptation by investigating the responses of past societies to short-term climatic variations. Dagomar Degroot’s The Frigid Golden Age, for example, analyses how the Dutch Republic thrived in the Little Ice Age period of climatic cooling. Degroot shows how extremes of temperature and precipitation produced both challenges and opportunities: ‘The precocious economy, unusual environment, and dynamic intellectual culture of the Dutch Republic in its seventeenth-century Golden Age allowed it to thrive as neighboring societies unraveled in the face of extremes in temperature and precipitation’.
My own research utilises the archives of the Anthropocene to investigate the making of climatic boundaries in colonial contexts. My focus on Australia and the South Pacific has made climatologists’ reconstructions of past El Niño Southern Oscillation cycles valuable to my analysis. In tapping into these archives, I have come to appreciate that while climate scientists can tell us what past climates were like, they can’t tell us how contemporaries interpreted and responded to those climates. That’s the role of the historian. Historians show how structures like colonialism, gender and ethnicity shaped responses to climate. Often the result is a denaturalising of the supposedly natural – like climatic boundaries.
Beyond the addition of atmospheric data, the Anthropocene is expanding the archive in other ways too. Artifacts recording the impact of and responses to the Anthropocene itself will also enter the historian’s archive. An online exhibition on Australia during the Anthropocene, ‘Everyday Futures’, provides examples of such artefacts and a preview of future archives.
Some are artifacts of hope such as Ray Thompson’s notebook. Over the past 32 years, Thompson has used a waterponding rehabilitation technique to reclaim 37,000 hectares of once degraded land in the Marra Creek district in southeast Australia. He has recorded all this work in the field including property names and number of hectares surveyed in a detailed logbook – an important artifact of the Anthropocene and an example of the overlap between the humanist and naturalist’s archives.
As the Anthropocene has prompted historians to venture beyond their discipline into the natural sciences, it has likewise prompted natural scientists to venture into history. This mutual venturing is a product of our predicament: in the Anthropocene, humans are an earth-system shaping force. By embracing the archives of the Anthropocene alongside their more traditional sets of sources, historians can help ensure that that atmospheric data does not get reified into decontextualised truths about past societies. Historians can add the context and contingency that are at the core of our craft.
Mutual venturing at disciplinary borders can, after all, also mean mutual benefit.
Harriet Mercer is a doctorate student at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Global History. She is co-convener of the Transnational and Global History Seminar and Co-Founder of the Oxford Environmental History Network. In her doctorate, Harriet is investigating past understandings of climate by using a combination of traditional historical documentary sources as well as new sources produced by palaeoclimatologists and archaeologists. You can reach Harriet on Twitter @HarrietJMercer.