This piece is part of the Urgent Histories forum which has been organised by the Australian Historical Association. Klaus Neumann has written an engaging response to the articles in this forum, which can be found in History Australia.

Humankind needs to tackle climate change. Urgently. Historians may want to reconsider their professional practices in light of this challenge. The editors of History Australia should therefore be applauded for making room for a forum that addresses this issue in thoughtful and engaging ways.

The crisis posed by global warming is unique, not least on account of its ‘planetary conjuncture’, as Dipesh Chakrabarty once put it. But it is not the first time in history when those living through a crisis have experienced it as existential, or when the survival of humankind was at stake. Think of the threat of nuclear armageddon, for example. (Admittedly, Australians may have experienced that less acutely, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner’s exploits on Melbourne’s beaches notwithstanding.)

Besides, to those who could sense that not only their collective way of life but also their very lives would soon be obliterated – be they Jews in German-occupied Poland or Indigenous people on the island called Hispaniola by its Spanish colonisers – it probably mattered little whether the rest of humankind too experienced a threat to its survival.

The forum editors’ sense of urgency seems largely informed by their very own ‘concrete situatedness’: as residents of Australia after the recent catastrophic bushfires (when they ‘hunkered indoors for weeks, sheltering from air among the most hazardous in the world’) and during a ‘pandemic and associated economic meltdown of once-unimaginable proportions’.

Of course there is nothing wrong with using our own experiences as a point of departure. But the state of emergency we currently experience when quarantined in our comfortable homes has long been for others ‘not the exception but the rule’, to use Walter Benjamin’s words. Let’s therefore spare a thought for people living in countries that are regularly ravaged by diseases – including infections that have long been preventable in the global north. Here’s an example chosen at random: one in a thousand residents of South Africa dies every year of tuberculosis (compared to four in one million Australians who have fallen victim to COVID-19 thus far).

When talking about the impact of the current pandemic, let’s not dwell too long on the cancellation of the Australian Historical Association’s 2020 conference, but remember the dead of Guayaquil who were cast out in the streets because their family and friends did not know where and how to bury them.

And let’s not forget that when it comes to global warming, Australia’s case is exceptional because the country is one of the biggest emitters of CO2 on a per capita basis, its electronic and print media regularly invite climate change deniers to peddle their untruths, and its democratically-elected government continues to subsidise the coal industry and care little about radically reducing the country’s carbon footprint – rather than because of the natural disasters Australians have experienced in recent years. Just ask those living South Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Pacific Islands …

I am also troubled by references to historians as ‘world-makers’ and to claims that they have a significant role to play in convincing governments to act promptly and decisively on climate change. Are such claims perhaps informed by the expectation – raised in Australia for many years in guidelines for national competitive grant schemes, for example – that knowledge produced by the humanities and social sciences must be in the national interest and that it ought to be ‘relevant’ (which often meant: to have some practical application for government or business)?

Believe me, I would be the first to admire the historian able to use their disciplinary skills to convince the Australian government that it must abandon its punitive asylum seeker policies or, for that matter, put measures in place to steer Australia towards carbon neutrality. But there are numerous creative and effective ways for all of us to become involved as members of our respective communities, without defining our activism by our professional expertise.

Having said all that, I happily respond to Paul Kramer’s question, ‘What use is history at a time like this?’. I agree that there are several reasons why history could be ‘useful’, for want of a better term, at this particular juncture. Some of the points I make in the following tally with ideas put forward by contributors to the forum, others try to take them further.

Returning to my observations about the privileging of one’s ‘concrete situatedness’, I suggest that history allows us to put our very own present into perspective by contrasting it with that of others in other places and/or at other times. History engenders humility. And it could be an antidote to parochialism.

Putting our present into perspective could also mean to recognise present-day phenomena as manifestations of something that’s been around for a while. Thus we ought to discuss the making and unmaking of climate change with reference to capitalism and its ability to mutate and reinvent itself, rather than only in the context of neoliberalism, which Yves Rees and Ben Huf identify as the ‘culprit’ of many of the problems of the twenty-first century’s problems.

Not only does history allow us to be less enthralled by our present. It could help us defamiliarise that present, making seemingly self-evident phenomena appear to be decidedly odd. Or it could draw our attention to the recentness and temporariness of the present. History could remind us, for example, that a global order based on sovereign nation-states is a comparatively new development, identify the harm attributable to such an order historically, and, contra Pietsch and Flanagan, develop strategies that do not take its continued existence for granted.

Andrea Gaynor observes that ‘There is no justice without history’. She argues that history is needed to bring those responsible for or complicit in climate change to account. I agree that historians could play an important role as witnesses for the prosecution. But the striving for a just world does not need to be future-oriented. Historians might also be attentive towards those ‘on whom the forces of the world press most hardly’, as Greg Dening said he would be – and indeed was – in Beach Crossings, or care for the ‘too-forgotten dead’ and ‘exhume them for a second life’, as Jules Michelet put it some one-and-a-half centuries ago.

Speaking up for the dead, including the victims of anthropogenic environmental disasters, is not useful. As least not in the sense in which it is useful to gather the evidence required to charge perpetrators, expose and critique misleading historical analogies, caution against the proliferation of the language of crises, or counter presentist assumptions. But history is often at its best when it appears to be at its most useless.

Humankind’s ambitions in its recent past are arguably responsible for the prospect that its future may be very limited: ‘The mansion of modern freedoms’, Dipesh Chakrabarty observed eleven years ago, ‘stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use’. But at fault are not only our past actions; how we have rendered the past as history is also to blame.

‘History has been deeply complicit in bringing about the world we now inhabit’, Tamson Pietsch and Frances Flanagan note, quoting Eric Hobsbawm’s memorable line that ‘Historians are to nationalism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts’. I would like to suggest that history’s complicity extends well beyond its role in fostering nationalism.

Our historical practice has favoured a temporality and fostered a historical consciousness that make it difficult even to conceive of radical change, and leave us ill-equipped to respond adequately to the challenges posed by climate change.

For too long, we have conceived of histories as narratives of progress – even at a time when we purportedly no longer believe in progress. Our inclination to conflate progression and progress extends also to instances in which we tell the history of our craft, highlighting the discipline’s assumed ever-increasing methodological advances and proliferation of subjects.

More generally, modern historiography has privileged processes over ‘single entities or individual occurrences and their special separate causes’, in doing so ‘bestowing upon mere time-sequence an importance and dignity it never had before’, wrote Hannah Arendt. History has encouraged us to think of the present as the logical outcome of the past, and of the future as an extension of a present that is seen as little more than a fleeting transitory instant in the progression from past to future.

To make matters worse, history has interested itself foremost in pasts that could be held liable for the present, and neglected historical cul-de-sacs and occurrences whose representation would disrupt the onward flow from past to present to future. Yet it’s this trash of history that could help us imagine alternative futures.

As humankind has reached a stage where a future that does not follow on from the present has become a distinct possibility – where the world may continue to exist without us – it’s perhaps time to try out a historical practice that allows for and indeed seeks out ruptures and discontinuities, is not beholden to a chronological progression, and helps imagine futures that don’t follow on from the present.

For ‘That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe’, Benjamin observed – in urgent times and at a moment of crisis – in his Arcades Project. ‘It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.’ (‘Daß es “so weiter” geht, ist die Katastrophe. Sie ist nicht das jeweils Bevorstehende, sondern das jeweils Gegebene.’)


Klaus Neumann
Klaus Neumann

Klaus Neumann works for the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture and is an honorary professor at Deakin University. He has written extensively about cultures and pasts in the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. His books include, among others, Refuge Australia, winner of the 2004 Human Rights Award for non-fiction, and Across the Seas, winner of the 2016 CHASS Australia Prize. Neumann has been particularly interested in historical justice, responses to refugees and asylum seekers, and issues of social and public memory.