Environmental History, Global Environment and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Today’s blog reproduces Gabriella Corona’s Editorial ‘call to arms’ for the discipline of environmental history, in the current issue of Global Environment (June 2020). 

Global Cover 13.2 copyWe are experiencing a global crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly spreading in all countries, with an unimaginable scale and power. Italy in particular is paying a very high cost for being the first European country to be seriously affected. Its northern regions are mourning thousands of victims and a collapsing health system.

Environmental historians – to give only three examples, Alfred Crosby, William H. McNeill and John R. MacNeill – have told and retold the long history of the war between man and microbes, a story lasting for millennia, and from which the human species emerged victorious only from the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the discoveries of bacteriology, vaccines and antibiotics. The typical diseases of traditional societies such as plague, cholera, yellow fever, malaria have been brought under control. The battle continued throughout the twentieth century and the action of microbes was reduced, with the elimination of the smallpox virus and the control of diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever and other endemic diseases. All this has contributed significantly to extending people’s lives, improving their quality.

But the war has not been definitively won and the relationship between men and microbes continues to be unstable. Viruses have mutated and are escaping the control of vaccines. They are now more and more the result of ecosystem upheavals, aggressive human interventions in natural systems. They are one more result of the ‘Great Acceleration’, that change of pace initiated by humanity during the second half of the twentieth century to which the virus has today imposed a brake, a sudden slowdown. Today the link between environmental issues and pandemics is very close.

Climate change, the cutting of forests, the creation of giant megalopolises, the industrialisation of agriculture and farming, reducing biodiversity – all these have profoundly altered the relationships between humans and those animals whose pathogens favour jumping species, as in the cases of HIV, ebola, avian and swine influenzas, SARS, Mers, COVID-19. The epidemiological transition that gave us the illusion of an ability to govern microbes is severely questioned.

But COVID-19 is not a pandemic like all the others, since it is the bearer not only of health risks, but also of social and economic upheavals. It really seems to undermine the whole structure built over the past two centuries. COVID-19 is causing a global pandemic that is spreading everywhere and finding a world unprepared in its health and economic organisation to face this huge tragedy .

It is a pandemic that has not affected everyone in the same measure but that is ‘revealing’ in all their destructive scope the profound geographical and social inequalities, the vulnerabilities and the fragilities of the planet: from those who lose their jobs to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the suburbs of megacities without essential services; from health personnel forced to continue working in situations of grave danger to those called to ensure essential services and production chains in conditions of serious risk. The virus is acting as a detonator of ancient problems deeply rooted in our society, as a multiplier of forms of marginalisation and exclusion.

The virus is making visible the dramatic consequences linked to the triumph of the paradigm that has dominated much of the world for four decades, based on neoliberalism and unwavering trust in the ability of the markets left free to produce wealth and income. And in the name of this vision public policies and social structures were dismantled, inequality and poverty increased, work was made more and more precarious and unstable, natural resources were consumed without reserve and entire social organisations were devastated.

Environmental history has already made great contributions to the study of epidemics, showing how the relationship between men and microbes became more conflicted with the acceleration of movement of people and goods, with a snowballing of exchanges and connections between different parts of the world. The recent events imposed by COVID-19 open up large spaces for reflection in historical research, which may concern the study of the delicate balance between human and animal species, between economic responses to public health problems and the organisation of sanitary systems, between the spread of viruses and the problems of pollution, between the impact of the pandemic and the way in which a social structure has been conceived and built, between the interruption of production activities and climate change. This leads to a completely new historical phase, which requires new interpretive categories and a radical rethinking of the relationships between nature, society and the economy. History is always contemporary and our questions to the past are changing now.

Our answer can only be ‘cultural’ and help to develop a new conception of the relationship between human species and natural resources that knows how to take into account a system of values such as public interest, cooperation, equity. And environmental historians are among the best equipped scholars to contribute to the elaboration of this new vision.

This year Global Environmentmoves from two to three issues per annum, publishing, alongside the two issues containing special collections of papers, a third issue dedicated solely to the publication of free articles, reviews, interventions, interviews, historiographic reviews. We will continue on the path taken thirteen years ago, striving to provide a medium for communication and discussion between scholars from very distant – culturally and spatially – parts of the world. We need global cooperation and global communication. We think that this is the only possible response now. We need to transpose to the scientific plane the great merging of knowledges that has been going on for a long time now as the result of globalisation in its various forms. We must work to construct a stronger scholarly community and replace the notion of ‘hierarchy’ with that of ‘relation’ and ‘exchange’.

We believe also that it is now time to expand the role of environmental history, which must break free of the narrow confines of a purely scientific ambit. This means expanding its presence in public debate in all its articulations and in the formation of younger generations. This means strengthening the role of environmental history in school curricula and university courses where this line of historical studies is currently in a minority. This means going beyond national egoisms to develop a way of teaching history that can embrace the whole planet. We have thus inaugurated a section entitled Teaching Environmental History with the hope of receiving the thoughts of scholars from different countries and gathering the reflections of those interested in a worldwide coordination for the teaching of environmental history, its contents, its values, its methodology. Environmental history cannot be limited to transmitting simple ‘content’ to young people, but must convey the profound meaning of their being in the world, of their human condition.

Our response, however small, can only be to strengthen communication between authors and teachers from different countries, not least because the message coming from what has been happening in recent months is that only a coordinated and comprehensive effort can save us from succumbing definitively to the risk imposed by the pandemic which is not just in public health but above all social.


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