What Global Warming Means for the Discipline of History

Dipesh Chakrabarty in Eurozine:

The current planetary crisis of climate change or global warming elicits a variety of responses in individuals, groups, and governments, ranging from denial, disconnect, and indifference to a spirit of engagement and activism of varying kinds and degrees. These responses saturate our sense of the now. Alan Weisman’s best-selling book The World without Us suggests a thought experiment as a way of experiencing our present: “Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait accompli. […] Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. […] Might we have left some faint, enduring mark on the universe? […] Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?”[1] I am drawn to Weisman’s experiment as it tellingly demonstrates how the current crisis can precipitate a sense of the present that disconnects the future from the past by putting such a future beyond the grasp of historical sensibility. The discipline of history exists on the assumption that our past, present, and future are connected by a certain continuity of human experience. We normally envisage the future with the help of the same faculty that allows us to picture the past. Weisman’s thought experiment illustrates the historicist paradox that inhabits contemporary moods of anxiety and concern about the finitude of humanity. To go along with Weisman’s experiment, we have to insert ourselves into a future “without us” in order to be able to visualize it. Thus, our usual historical practices for visualizing times, past and future, times inaccessible to us personally – the exercise of historical understanding – are thrown into a deep contradiction and confusion. Weisman’s experiment indicates how such confusion follows from our contemporary sense of the present insofar as that present gives rise to concerns about our future. Our historical sense of the present, in Weisman’s version, has thus become deeply destructive of our general sense of history.

I will return to Weisman’s experiment in the last part of this essay. There is much in the debate on climate change that should be of interest to those involved in contemporary discussions about history. For as the idea gains ground that the grave environmental risks of global warming have to do with excessive accumulation in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases produced mainly through the burning of fossil fuel and the industrialized use of animal stock by human beings, certain scientific propositions have come into circulation in the public domain that have profound, even transformative, implications for how we think about human history or about what the historian C. A. Bayly recently called “the birth of the modern world”.