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Can environmental history bring hope?

I first posted this in November 2015. It is so relevant to the book I have been writing about rivers, so am reposting.

I was fortunate to be invited to be a keynote speaker at the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand conference last week in Perth. I spoke about how environmental history can – and should – inform our decision-making about the environment. I spoke of the numerous benefits of environmental history; how it allows us to:

  • Put environmental change and degradation in the context of change over a longer timescale

  • Identify patterns and cycles in environmental history – and very often we discover the issues we face today are not as novel as we thought

  • Reflect all human-environment interactions and relationships – not just Eurocentric ones

  • It helps make the discussion less polarised because we have a common point of reference

  • On a personal and professional level, it brings depth and interest to our engagement with our environment

Australian ecologist Dr Steve Morton – emphasised the importance of the discourse of hope (as

well as looking both ways before crossing the road). But I missed one benefit, which came clear to me after I heard the inspiring and entertaining talk by Dr Steve Morton, a veteran ecologist. He talked about the importance of hope when we discuss the ecological and environmental challenges we face – particularly when we are engaging with our next generation of environmental practitioners, scientists and citizens – children and students.

Reflecting on this, I realised that environmental history also brings hope, because we can see, over even a short time-span, how much attitudes and values have changed. Many behaviours that were unquestioned half a century or even a decade ago are now simply unacceptable. That is not to say that there is not plenty more we need to do to change the way we perceive and interact with our environment, but it does demonstrate our remarkable capacity for change. So I will be adding hope to my list of benefits the next time I do this talk.

Image above: One of the historical images I used in my talk. The remarkable thing about this photograph – of the coalmining town of Brunner on the West Coast (date unknown) – was that it was taken by the New Zealand Tourist and Publicity Department to promote our country to overseas investors and visitors. Ref: PA1-o-498-36. Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand.

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