With Earth Day as well as the impending vote on aid to Ukraine on my mind, I came across an essay by Donald Worster, the founder or instigator of the field of environmental history. After retirement, Don spent a number of years in Beijing, and he wrote this amusing and relevant piece as a foreword to one of my press’s books, World Environmental Historypublished in Chinese by CITIC Press. [This is today’s letter from Berkshire’s CEO Karen Christensen, published first on Substack: https://karenchristensen.substack.com/.] While the conflicts and wars of the present are not an uplifting passage in the course of human affairs, here’s hoping that the synchronicity of this moment – Earth Day, Passover, and the long-delayed congressional vote – will lead to better times for us and for the planet.

After nearly a half century of struggle to expand the boundaries of history to include the nonhuman world and the entire planet, a struggle that has seen considerable success, I get frustrated with signs of bull-headed resistance.  A cocky junior history professor, for example, dismisses the fire history of Australia as irrelevant:  “Forest fires should be left to fire-fighters,” he pontificates, “not historians.”  Or an old scholar, nearly blinded by years of reading the same antique text over and over, complains, “I suppose that air pollution will now be considered part of history.”  Those are real comments made in public settings.  Some people still don’t get it.  Fire has been as important to the earth and its human inhabitants as taxation or urbanization.  Air pollution is older than empires, and it still kills millions of people every year, probably more than wars.

And then there was that celebrated Oxford historian who wrote as late as the 1980s that  “commonsense” would confine world history to the story of “mankind,” to the task of compiling a progressive record of what humans have achieved, suffered, or enjoyed. “We all know that dogs and cats,” he joked,  “do not have history, while humans do.” But his notion of commonsense is in fact nonsense—and highly arbitrary and exclusive.  Of course, dogs and cats have a history!  As individuals they are born, grow up, and die just like humans, and they have some capacity to learn, adapt, and change.  As a species, they have a collective history, longer than our own and much of it interactive with humans.  They have been evolving on this earth over millions of years, and they have lived under domestication for thousands of years. Cats, for example, have been sharing space with humans in China for more than 5,000 years (according to recent archeological evidence), while horses, pigs, mosquitoes, tigers, and elephants have also played an ancient role in this country’s social life.

Not only dogs and cats but also rocks, oceans, forests and prairies have a history, both independent of and shaped by humans, and all of us together, the organic and the inorganic, are part of a single planetary whole that cannot be easily segregated into human/nonhuman categories or progressive/ non-progressive hierarchies.  This perspective is, despite the lingering presence of troglodytes, bringing a new and richer kind of history, which is wonderfully exemplified in this volume of essays.  That its contents would not have been possible a half-century ago, or a large number of its authors even ranked among historians, is true and profoundly encouraging.

Now we are beginning to understand that “environmental” themes belong at the very foundation of history, forming a base on which politics, cultures, social movements, and economic development rest.  World history is itself a relatively new concept, challenging scholars to move beyond their nation-states, and that concept is increasingly guided by an environmental paradigm, providing a broad material context and theoretical framework on which the rise and fall of “civilizations” depends.

There are, to be sure, competing definitions of world history, but for me the phrase can only be another name for earth history, as it has been defined and mapped by modern scientific knowledge. My perspective is based on common word usage.  The New Oxford American Dictionary explicitly defines “world” as “the earth, with all its countries, peoples, and natural features.”  Similarly, the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “world” as “the earth and all the peoples and things on it.” We may choose for good reasons to write about some very small part of that world, but we should always think of world history ultimately as nothing less than the history of Planet Earth.

Although world environmental history appeared only recently, and may seem to some a passing fashion, in fact it has been emerging philosophically for more than almost two centuries now, going back to the great geologists and evolutionary biologists of the 19th century, including Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.  It grows out of the world view initiated by those revolutionary naturalists in which the past becomes a story of interaction between organism and environment, between humans and the rest of nature. Without the philosophical and scientific revolution wrought by Lyell and Darwin, it is hard to imagine the subsequent writings of such great world historians as H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, William and John McNeill, or David Christian.

William McNeill, for example, in one of his last published writings, The Human Web, explicitly uses Darwinian language to sum up the past as he saw it. “The human record conforms to larger evolutionary patterns,” he writes, making “the human terrestrial career fully natural, however exceptional it may be…. [W]hen carefully observed, we really and truly do belong where we are, alive on planet earth, part and parcel of the biosphere sustaining us.”4

Evolution, selection, and adaptation constitute laws of nature, and those laws rule human society as well.  In fact, we can define world history (or national or local history) as an unwinding chain of intricately connected adaptations to environment, climate, technology, and social organization.  While some adaptations may persist over millions of year, like the antennae of a cockroach, others are far more transient, lasting only a generation or two, becoming obsolete even before their newness is gone, as fleeting as the bell-bottom trousers of the Sixties or the Gucci bags seen in Shanghai cafes.   There is no design in this story, no tale of progress or overall providence, no final end in sight, but only relentless change and adaptation.

At the core of this emerging history is a more cooperative attitude toward the natural sciences, which have for so long been kept distinct and distant from the historian’s universe.  And that is putting it mildly!  Too often the sciences have been regarded with outright hostility, like barbarians at the gate threatening the sacred edifice of “humanity.”  What a loss this attitude has brought to the writing of history.  It has impoverished our imaginations, left us often without even a pretense of explaining change, mired us in political causes, diminished our influence and public support, and made us as backward looking as the philosophers of fifteenth-century Europe who continued to insist on the wisdom of Aristotle and Ptolemy just as a band of lowly, unlettered navigators were going out to discover a New World, a whole round planet with a vast western hemisphere to explore.

The natural sciences too have been damaged by intellectual stonewalling.  They have proceeded without a fuller appreciation of their own roots–the material conditions that made the invention of science possible in the modern age, the moral responsibility they bore for the outcomes of their work, the inescapable limits of human knowledge, the critical importance of non-quantitative data, much of it buried in archives or images, which historians knew well and might have supplied.

I hope this volume of essays will promote a mutually respectful dialogue between historians and scientists, as well as find a wide readership in many countries.  When it comes to improving our understanding of the past, we need each other more than ever.

–Donald Worster, Renmin University of China