Skip to main content
FreeReflections Collection

Wanted: A Planetary History for an Age of Crisis

We have entered an age of crisis, and our only way out is to think more deeply about the global connections between politics and ecology. Beyond dealing with larger and more numerous natural disasters, there is the challenge of a growing scarcity of natural resources facing both developed and developing countries alike, scarcity caused by overconsumption and overpopulation. Some parts of the world, like China, are not so far away from bitter memories of scarcity, and they may be better prepared to contend with privation than North America or Europe, where natural abundance has been the assumption for several centuries and also the reality for a significant proportion of people. Trump’s election does not seem like a step toward better self-coping, with his fiery platform of America First, white nationalism, and immigration restriction, all of which come from anxiety that the American dream may be running out of resources unless regulations are removed and resources are secured against foreign competitors. But China too has begun to dream of economic opportunity for all of its 1.4 billion people, although trying to reach that condition may lead to more authoritarian and nationalistic solutions. Here again, we need to know our histories better and to see them in a broader Earth perspective.

As environmental historians, we advocate for understanding the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. But how well have other historians been listening? How well have we practiced what we preach? Do all environmental historians think in big enough terms for the age of crisis we are facing? Do we still try to reduce the big issues of today’s world to social conflicts over immigration, race, class, terrorism, or inequality without recognizing there may be more fundamental causes behind those social conflicts: namely, that the world is becoming more vulnerable ecologically and more pressed for natural resources?

Some readers may suggest that I am preaching to the choir. Well, every choir needs some preaching to now and then, including environmental historians, who seem to have forgotten the core message of ecology: everything is connected. Our social life is influenced by natural events and environmental change, locally and globally. Thus thinking beyond national politics may be necessary to address the social fractures we are seeing on every continent.

This is the central message Donald Worster offers in his 2016 book Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance.1 Underlying the social and political tensions of the world, he argues, is concern that the future may not promise the growth opportunities it once did. Basically, people everywhere are afraid that others, whether refugees, immigrants, or states, may invade and grab resources and leave the rest of us poor and backward. Hence we see rising nationalism all around us, a global race to buy up Africa, a fear of one’s own nation falling behind, and an increasing violence in rhetoric and behavior. Worster explains this dangerous time by stepping backward to look at the past five hundred years of rising expectations, economic expansion, and a return to scarcity.

Of course scarcity long has been the experience of our species and remains the experience of many peoples right down to this day. In ancient times it was the challenge of overcoming scarcity that drove people again and again to innovate. That challenge brought new technology, including agriculture. It gave rise to centralized states and dictatorships and helped to establish their legitimacy. Rulers used scarcity of natural resources, such as water and land, as punishment and as warnings from gods to create fear and awe among their people. Through providing order in the process of the distribution and exploitation of limited resources, they built up their own authority. After 1492 ce, with the European “discovery” (or, more accurately, appropriation) of a second earth—the Americas—scarcity promised to be a thing of the past. For the first time, it seemed, humanity might enjoy an endless plenty. That bounty was not evenly distributed, of course, and Westerners were the chief beneficiaries, but people all over the world eventually felt its impact.

Worster suggests that the integration of the Western Hemisphere into the global system created a privileged West, for which an age of abundance began and endured for five hundred years. In that time economic growth became the most sacred maxim of the world, at odds with the rediscovery in the late twentieth century, first by the scientific community and then by policymakers, of the limits of nature. This is the central irony in Worster’s analysis: an economy based on New World bounty has been expanding while the bounty itself has been shrinking. This contradiction between expectation and experience has contributed to strange politics all over the planet, ideologies that reflect a fear that the dream of endless progress cannot be realized.

Worster’s study is a model of what Jo Guldi and David Armitage call for in their 2014 book The History Manifesto. There, Guldi and Armitage urge us to adopt a longer time frame and a broader geography than most historians may feel comfortable with. They warn against “short termism,” which they argue is all too common. Especially in the last few decades, most historians in English-speaking countries have studied topics of shorter and shorter time spans, choosing topics that span no more than a single human lifetime. Guldi and Armitage worry that by overspecializing on such narrow segments, historians are failing to see broader cycles of change and have become unable to offer the public a convincing basis for hope.2 To remedy this failing, they call for a return to the longuedurée and to grand narrative, as pioneered decades ago by Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. They want to add to that Annales thinking a search for big data and an appreciation for scientific evidence. Their “big picture” history can offer meaning and direction to a people filled with fear of a world spinning out of comprehension.

Environmental historians have an important role to play during this time of social unrest and uncertainty. We can contribute a fuller understanding of the dependency human societies have on the planet’s resources, its laws of energy and matter, and its evolution through time. Until the development of our field, this dependency was generally ignored by historians, who overemphasized human institutions, political conspiracies, the march of technologies, the advocacy of racial beliefs and ideologies. Environmental history leads us beyond that familiar intellectual landscape, but too often, its practitioners have failed to meet its promise. We, too, have been fixated on national political and social issues and failed to see history from the vantage of the whole earth.

To write a broader environmental history that can explain how we have arrived at today’s age of crisis, all time scales will be necessary, covering not only centuries and millennia but even entire geologic eras and epochs. But enlarging our view should not mean overlooking diversities. Historians must recognize that nature is composed of thousands of discrete ecosystems, all of which have been entangled with human life.

To become more truly relevant to the age of crisis, all historians have to acknowledge that nature has not been a static background for civilization but a dynamic and autonomous source of change. Violent disasters such as earthquakes or tornados may have changed communities, forcing adaptation of policies and ideologies, undermining the legitimacy of a regime, or subverting an empire. At the same time, less dramatic and obvious changes, like gradual shifts in climate or demography, have also shaped the trajectory of human history. Many of these changes have admittedly been discussed by environmental historians, yet we often fail to tackle them at the broadest scale or follow them to their deepest roots.

Adopting an earth perspective will help us see how the same human pattern is repeated again and again: the discovery of abundance is followed by a sequel of scarcity. Whenever communities went through a food and resources crunch, they tried to escape by expanding into new territory. Often they found such an outlet accidentally. Then after a while they became trapped in their newly depleted and overexploited environment. They escaped that trap into greener pastures. They found new sources of plenty, but those did not last.

And now we are up against the limits of the planet itself. Today’s political anxieties and turmoil are fundamentally rooted in a growing sense of nature’s limits, but this time we do not have the possibilities of another earth—a third earth—to flee to. There is no new hemisphere filled with fresh soil, undisturbed forests, teeming wildlife, and modestly armed competitors. As Worster puts it, this time “we’re stuck on our little rock!”3 Our once immense planet Earth, larger than any imagination or knowledge could grasp, now seems quite tiny. It must be, as it always has been, shared with millions of other species, plants and animals, and yet also accommodate some seven, or perhaps fifteen, billion human beings, all of whom have their needs to meet.

Human history should not be just about an expanding web of humans communicating with other humans, but also about interacting with an ever-changing web of life. Unless we environmental historians actually begin to write that full planet-wide history of interaction, how can we claim that we really know the past? No matter what span of time we choose to write about, this planetary history should always be our ultimate context and biggest story.

Finally, environmental historians should not shun moral obligations, but those obligations should go beyond simply denouncing small-minded and outmoded thinkers like Mr. Trump. We have the duty to transcend nationalism and to draw attention to other forms of life and to the fate of the earth. In the new age of scarcity, probably the most important contribution environmental historians can make is to tell the public that human history has always been part of all the other lives on the earth, and there is no way for us to escape from that common fate. Confronting this fundamental truth across the planet is still not established among all historians, and only when we have done that will the world have a better chance to find its way out of uncertainty and fear.


Shen Hou is an associate professor of world history, School of History, and deputy director of the Center for Ecological History, Renmin University of China, Beijing. She is the author of The City Natural: Garden and Forest Magazine and the Rise of American Environmentalism (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

1. Donald Worster, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

2. Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

3. Worster, Shrinking the Earth, 222.