Economic and Social History Blog


Voice to Nature – and the historian

History is about people. Not only do they make history, people’s well-being is also the measure by which we measure historical change – usually implicitly. But then, who writes the history of nature? Culture and society, the subjects the historian is primarily concerned with, are embedded in natural processes and eco-systems. Ecosystems that humans literally need to breathe. If those ecosystems come under pressure, it greatly affects the stability and survival of societies. As we have discovered in recent years, climate change has major social and economic consequences in almost all parts of the world. Viruses, mostly transmitted during intimate contact between humans and animals, also appear to be able to bring down entire societies. And then there are nitrogen emissions, which contribute to the disappearance of plant and animal species. But this biodiversity crisis is much broader and deeper. What exactly has happened to nature, in the Netherlands and beyond? How much has biodiversity actually declined as at the same time animals have come back, such as the wolf and white-tailed eagle? These are questions that historians actually rarely ask.

Historians feel little or no responsibility for the history of nature – they already have enough on their hands with humans. Even environmental historians shy away from this task, focusing mostly on the immediate environment of humans, on the history of pollution, for example. On the other hand, biology and ecology have only limited interest in the past, and lack the historical expertise to carefully study and contextualise sources. Historical ecology, the field that does try to bridge history from ecology, is only a very small specialism with limited impact. So there is a gap in the division of labour in science: hardly anyone cares about the history of nature. And that is a problem. Historians manage society’s collective memory. A highly topical task, because whoever controls the past can control the present. But what to do when collective memory fails, or is just virtually non-existent, as in the case of nature?


Nature amnesia

Ecologist Daniel Pauly has shown what this can lead to. Historical images of nature in ecology tend to be based on the state of affairs during the formative years of the scientist concerned, when he or she first became thoroughly acquainted with nature. A researcher of grassland birds, for example, uses as a baseline the numbers of lapwings and black-tailed godwits that were breeding when he first immersed himself in them. Against this baseline, ecologists plot the changes they experience during their careers, and these are rarely positive. However, there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ baseline, for it is not studied or reconstructed by anyone. As a result, it can tacitly shift from generation to generation: we do not sufficiently realise the true extent of nature’s degradation, as Marc Argeloo has shown in his recent book this topic (Natuuramnesie. Hoe we vergeten zijn hoe de natuur er vroeger uitzag Atlas Contact 2022).

That there is little or no systematic research on the historical development of nature is a problem. There are great debates about how nature should be managed, what the value of biodiversity is, whether it can be restored and how this could be done. However, this largely lacks reflection on historical changes: what have been the driving forces behind changes in the quality of nature? Were policies developed in the past that did manage to halt and perhaps even reverse the decline in nature? How great an impact the conservation movement that emerged in the late 19th century and the new environmental movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s had, for example, is not known. Nor do we know when the problems really started. Was it ‘only’ with consumer society of the 1950s or earlier, with the Industrial Revolution? And even longer back: what was the impact of exploration, colonialism and capitalism from 1500 onwards? What impact did the rise and spread of agriculture have – did it perhaps initially lead to greater variety in landscape and nature? These are questions to which we have no answers, simply because the historical developments of nature have not been properly mapped.


The Fall

In Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World (1991), we can clearly see how historians have long written about the history of nature. According to Pointing, humans had once lived harmoniously with nature when they were hunter-gatherers. However, this paradisiacal situation was disrupted by the rise of agriculture, the Neolithic revolution. After this ‘Fall’, things really only went downhill with nature. This biblical structure of Paradise – Fall – Decline, we find among many historians. Central to this is the search for the turning point after which things went wrong: was it the birth of Christianity, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, or the mass consumption of the 20th century? Or did the misery begin with the emergence of the species homo sapiens, which spread across the world from Africa some 70,000 years ago at the expense of megafauna that disappeared almost everywhere. Candidates abound, but in all cases there is virtually no hope for nature, because after the ‘Fall’ things only went downhill.


However, it is possible to tell a more nuanced, hopeful story about the relationship between humans and nature. This story begins with the disappearance of megafauna, such as mammoths and woolly rhinos, some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. When we systematically review the history of nature from that point onwards, we see that there were probably two periods when biodiversity increased. Firstly, during the spread of agriculture from around 6,000 years ago: as the first farmers cut down pieces of ‘primeval forest’ for fields and grazing land, the diversity of plants and animals increased greatly. A nice example of this is the house sparrow, which split off from the bactrian sparrow as a new species around this time and is a typical follower of culture: it specialised in getting a piece of the crop (in Dutch there is a special word for this strategy: cultuurvolger). The semi-nature that emerged over millennia in the wake of agriculture (and other forms of regular nature exploitation) was probably richer than the primeval forest that preceded it. Man’s intervention created heath and meadow landscapes in the Netherlands, for example; both were not part of the ‘original’ nature here. But gradually, human pressure on (semi-)nature increased and species disappeared. Population growth and economic development started a process of impoverishment. It is development we are still in and which accelerated from about 1800 onwards due to industrialisation, further population growth and increasing animal persecution. Whether it was wolves, crows or gulls: basically everything that was edible or seemed to compete with humans was hunted.


White-tailed eagle and otter

This negative trend was only somewhat halted when the second phase of possible, cautious recovery began around 1970. Changes in thinking about nature played an important role in this. The idea that nature has value as such and not just as a resource was only now breaking through: ‘wasteland’ that needed to be exploited became ‘natural monuments’ that deserved protection. On top of this, the negative effects of industrialisation and growth also became more evident after 1960. A first enemy of nature to be tackled was the insecticide DDT, which had been introduced in World War II and was poisoning entire food chains. The drug was exposed by Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring (1962) and soon banned in agriculture. Certain key species recovered: as persecution was greatly reduced, they were able to return spontaneously or with the help of reintroduction programmes. Well-known are the stories of the white-tailed eagle, crane, otter and beaver, and more recently, of course, the wolf. In addition, more and more exotic species settled in our gradually warming chilly country. However, this was offset by the impoverishment of large parts of nature, as evidenced by the fate of, for instance, field herbs or meadow birds.

But what the whole picture looks like, how all these different species are really doing – we don’t really know. Historical trends in biodiversity have been estimated and modelled, but never reconstructed in detail. In principle, numerous sources are available to chart these trends: from yields from fishing and hunting to archaeological inventories of bone remains, seeds and pollen. And historians are used to working with scarce and partly unreliable sources like no other. That this has not yet happened is strange, though. After all, at the moment the problems linked to nitrogen emissions and their impact on biodiversity is holding us in a kind of grip, both economically and politically. Moreover, the statements regularly made in politics that only 15% of the original biodiversity remains in the Netherlands are not supported by an actual reconstruction of what happened. There is a big hole in our collective memory. It is time for historians to take their role as custodians of that memory seriously and also delve into this subject.


This blog is almost entirely based on De Ontdekking van de Natuur. De ontwikkeling van biodiversiteit in Nederland van ijstijd tot 21ste eeuw (Prometheus 2022), by Jan Luiten van Zanden, Thomas van Goethem, Rob Lenders and Joop Schaminée.

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