We Can Still Learn from History – A Tale of Bioeconomy and Trail-Blazers

In this blog, Jan Kunnas shows how seeking the lessons of history informs his two new articles, in Environment and History and Global Environment.

A decade ago, while still working on my doctoral thesis, I received a professor in my university commented  on its early version that ‘few people today believe in history as the vita magistra’. Regardless of this, I clung to the belief that we can learn from history, although it took more nuanced forms, as my research continued on two parallel paths, one that dealt with air and water pollution and another that dealt with forest utilisation. These two paths met by pure chance as two independently written articles were published more or less at the same time in parallel journals of  The White Horse Press: the flagship of European environmental history, Environment and History, and Global Environment, which aims to gather and stimulate scholarship that shares an environmental perspective on world history. Both articles shared a common trait, as they both dealt with our possibilities to anticipate the future based upon history.

The aim of the first article, ‘Lessons from the Past? A Survey of Finnish Forest Utilisation from the Mid-18th Century to the Present’ co-written with Timo Myllyntaus, was to find guidelines on how regions depending on natural resources could meet future challenges. We did this by seeking past regularities through a survey of the long-run development in the use and discussion of timber and other forest-related natural resources in Finland, from slash-and-burn cultivation in the eighteenth century to present day bioeconomy. At first, we thought that we had failed miserably to find any past regularities. A closer inspection revealed, however, that the very pattern was a constantly, and often abruptly, changing consideration of the best uses of the forests. When deciding on the methods and species used for the regeneration of forests, we should be able to anticipate future needs in time-periods up to and over a hundred years. It is, however, difficult to anticipate future needs, even with a much shorter time span. Still, in the mid-nineteenth century, only two decades before the unprecedented growth years of the sawmill industry, the future of the forests was considered to be as a raw material for the mining industry. Closer to our time, we can observe sharp U-turns in Finland’s firewood policy and the attitude toward birch.

Old growth forest growing in an old slash-and-burn cultivation field

Do we have any reason to believe that we will be any better to predict the future as close as the next two decades, not to mention over a time-period compatible with the rotation period of the forests? Ongoing climate change adds further uncertainties regarding the future. Thus, our survey gave a rather pessimistic vision about our abilities to anticipate the future. Our only solution as to how to anticipate this uncertainty was that we need to keep as many eggs and baskets as possible. This is relevant to all sectors, but especially those dealing with natural resources. Regarding forests, that could mean using many tree species and protecting biodiversity in general.


Protecting biodiversity is the best insurance policy available against our ignorance

The second article, ‘Trail-Blazer Dependency – A Roadmap for the Sustainability Revolution’, provided a completely different solution to the near impossibility of predicting our future, and stated that ‘No prediction of future is needed as the future is made’. I came to this conclusion through two case studies: the Tesla Model S electric car and the Swedish pulp and paper industry´s transition to chlorine-free bleaching. Despite the great differences between the two products examined, a luxury product and a bulk product, we can find many similarities in the cases. Both Tesla and the Swedish paper industry went ahead of the curve, without waiting for  competitors to follow. On the other hand, we can also see significant differences: while the changes within the paper industry can best be described as incremental, the change of motive power from gasoline to electric power can best be described as disruptive. Furthermore, the Swedish paper industry was essentially responding to consumer demand, albeit prompted by Greenpeace; Tesla more or less created demand itself by making an electric car beyond the prevailing expectations, according to which electric cars were deemed sluggish, as having a short range and, perhaps worst of all, dull.

I argued that the ongoing sustainability revolution not only shares similarities with the quality movement of the 1970s and 1980s but is essentially a continuation of it. Similarities can be found in particular with Japanese quality guru Genichi Taguchi’s idea of a moral dimension of quality. In concordance with previous megatrends, the major benefit of the sustainability revolution will be reaped by countries and companies running ahead of the curve. To stay ahead of the curve, companies need to move from reacting to upcoming environmental challenges and demands, to anticipating them. They should start their search for solutions before political and consumer response, and at best at some point between discovery and demands for response. In the worst case, companies risk their products becoming outdated prematurely due to changing consumer preferences or environmental requirements. On the other hand, forerunners can use their first-mover advantage and actually shape the future, instead of just anticipating it. I call this trailblazer dependency. By showing example, the first-movers are opening a trail for late-comers follow. No prediction of future is needed as the future is made.


Tesla showroom, Gothenburg

I argue that both the pessimistic thought of our inability to predict the future and our ability to shape the future are true. We need to act precariously when dealing with intricate natural processes that we do not still completely understand, but we should either not rule out the power of example.


Out now:

Jan Kunnas and Timo Myllyntaus, ‘Lessons from the Past? Finnish Forest Utilisation from the mid-18th Century to the Present‘, Environment and History, Fast Track 2020, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3197/096734020X15900760737121

Jan Kunnas, ‘Trail-Blazer Dependency – A Roadmap for the Sustainability Revolution‘, Global Environment 13 (2) 2020.

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