Economic and Social History Blog


Ecological Armageddon?! What can historians do to help?

By Thomas van Goethem

The Guardian raised some eyebrows with headlines such as ‘Warning of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbersand ‘Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn. The message is clear though: species are disappearing, and it matters! Biologists around the world report species loss across the board. The fact that even common and widespread species show sharp declines in occurrence and abundance signals wide environmental problems. “But what can historians do to help tackle this problem?”, you might ask. A lot, actually!

Biodiversity is a complex concept, encompassing the variety and variability of all life on Earth. Most people know this as the number and abundance of different species that occupy a location. The decline of biodiversity is one of the most urgent problems facing humanity. Biodiversity plays an important role in ecosystem functions ranging from crop pollination and protection to maintaining a livable climate. These services are essential for human well-being. However, the truth of the matter is that there is no complete understanding of what drives biodiversity loss, which impedes our ability to redress the process and mitigate its impacts.

A historical perspective on biodiversity can help identify the specific drivers and processes responsible for current declines. This knowledge can help conservationists develop environmentally rational and historically accurate plans of action. In a broader context, modern societies, pursuing sustainable development, can use the long-term perspective to determine the carrying capacity of ecosystems and the services they provide. Even though historical research on biodiversity decline is much needed, it is currently lacking. This is somewhat surprising as environmental historians know a lot about the fate of certain species and about the use of natural resources by man, but this is only rarely studied from the perspective of biodiversity change.

In a paper to appear in Environment and History, Jan Luiten van Zanden and I explore different ways to study biodiversity based on historical records and data. We argue that historians have an important role to play in reconstructing long-term trends in biodiversity, as they are trained to interpret historical sources. But maybe even more important is the fact that historians are well equipped for analyzing heterarchical systems. Analyzing the non-linear and non-hierarchal interactions between the socio-economic and natural systems is essential to understand historical biodiversity decline. Here, two studies are briefly discussed to illustrate the potential of using historical sources and methodology in biodiversity research.

Rob Lenders showed in Scientific Reports (2016) how historical proxies can be used to reconstruct pre-19th century Atlantic salmon stocks in North-Western Europe. The disappearance of Atlantic salmon has generally been ascribed to large-scale river regulation, water pollution and over-fishing in the 19th and 20th century. However, by analyzing historical fishery, market and tax statistics, independently confirmed by archeozoological data, they demonstrated that populations already declined by up to 90% between the Early Middle Ages (c. 450–900 AD) and Early Modern Times (c. 1600 AD). The dramatic declines coincided with improvements in watermill technology and their geographical expansion across Europe. Conservation programmes aimed at recovery of salmon populations can use this information by not only focusing on water quality, but also look at the spawning areas which have been changed by the water mill damming. The decline in salmon stocks may also have had cascading effects. The hundreds of tonnes of salmon that once swam up the streams every year carried nutrients from the ocean into the mountains. The decline in bears, wolves and eagles could be explained by the gap in the food chain caused by the disappearance of the salmon.

The work of Lenders illustrates the impact that humans have on biodiversity on a transnational level, but there also “big” histories describing historical interactions between the human and natural worlds on a global scale. For instance, William Denevan in his influential paper, ‘The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492’, attempted to debunk the belief that the Americas were an untouched and untamed wilderness until the European settlers arrived. Central idea in his work is that the native peoples of the Americas were more numerous, more culturally sophisticated, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape much more than previously thought. Based on findings from historical accounts, archaeological sources and field surveys, Denevan suggests that the native population was significantly large enough in the 1400s to alter the landscape. Fire seemed to have played an important role in the agricultural practices to transform dense forests into fallow growth and grasslands. Denevan even argues that environmental damage was less significant in 1750 than it was in 1492 because of the demise of 90% of the native population due to European diseases. This seminal paper raises fundamental questions in the debate on how we should view “wilderness” in relation to the long-term impacts of humans on their environment.

These two examples show that a historical perspective can provide meaningful insights on biodiversity decline and its determinants. What these examples also show, however, are a biologist and a geographer, Lenders and Denevan respectively, using historical records and methodology in their research. This is to be applauded, of course, but historical biodiversity research would ultimately benefit greatly from more historians participating in this field. Scholars that combine intimate knowledge of historical sources with a deep understanding of the complex interaction between man and nature are much needed.

To conclude, biodiversity decline is one of the most urgent problems facing humanity. It should be on top of the agenda, and historians can bring an essential piece of the puzzle. So what are we waiting for: let’s study biodiversity!


The Athena project

To understand biodiversity decline from a historical perspective, we need to draw from a broad spectrum of evidence from the humanities, biological and physical sciences, ecology and the social sciences. The Athena project was set-up to do just that. The project brings historical, archaeological and biological sources on flora and fauna in the Netherlands together and combines them in a digital research environment. Much needed additional and contextual information is provided to the individual sciences involved. By doing so, Athena aims to open doors to novel data and exciting new interdisciplinary collaborations.


Denevan, W.M. (1992). The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82:3, 369-385.

Lenders, H.J.R., Chamuleau, T.P.M., Hendriks, A.J., Lauwerier, R.C.G.M., Leuven, R.S.E.W., Verberk, W.C.E.P. (2016). Historical rise of waterpower initiated the collapse of salmon stocks. Scientific Reports 6:29269.



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