Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Institute's new theme, “Climate in Context: Historical Precedents and the Unprecedented,” to examine the historical and historiographic complexities of environmental breakdown

Thu, December 19, 2019
Institute's new theme, “Climate in Context: Historical Precedents and the Unprecedented,” to examine the historical and historiographic complexities of environmental breakdown

The Institute for Historical Studies is pleased to announce its theme in 2020-21, “Climate in Context: Historical Precedents and the Unprecedented,” and call for residential research fellowship applications.

Drawing inspiration from the present-day climate crisis, History Professors Erika M. Bsumek and Megan Raby envision “Climate in Context” as a critical forum for scholars from UT and across the country to historicize the complexities of environmental breakdown, and consider the ways history as a discipline can offer new insights on contemporary concerns about climate. The theme is described as follows:

The present climate crisis seems to confront us with a rupture with the past. What can historians offer in the face of scientists’ predictions of unprecedented warming and the breakdown of the planetary systems that have sustained civilizations? As anthropogenic climate change subverts the traditional timescale of historical consciousness, do old distinctions between human history and natural history collapse? Does this situation call for new forms of historical writing, or are traditional approaches as relevant as ever? For its 2020-21 theme, the Institute for Historical Studies calls for projects that grapple with the challenges that climate change presents to the discipline of history.

Taking the category of “climate” in broad terms, we seek scholars whose work explores the historical and historiographic complexities of environmental breakdown. How have history and our understanding of the past shaped social responses––or failures to respond––to environmental concerns? How might social, political, economic, or cultural crises have unexpected historical connections to environmental change? Might we find precedents for the “unprecedented” by uncovering and analyzing the historical roots and analogues of contemporary climate change? For example, how have people understood, adapted to, and recovered from climate events and other environmental disruptions across different time periods and places around the world? Can history offer an alternative to visions of the future that appear to be determined by prevailing climate models, and help provide us with new ways of understanding human agency, adaptability, and resilience? We invite proposals of historical projects that engage these and other questions, in all time periods and all parts of the world.

“Getting scholars to think about how people in other eras have responded to climate events will help us put things in perspective,” says Dr. Bsumek. “Studying those responses will help us, as a society, think about how we want to, and can, respond to a changing climate today.”

“On one hand," Dr. Raby notes, "it is an opportunity to show how relevant historical perspectives are in conversations about climate. How we understand both the causes of the climate crisis and the array of responses available is not just a matter of scientific facts. It also takes an understanding of human societies, cultures, and their histories.

"On the other hand, this is also an opportunity for us as historians for self-reflection. How do the questions that climate change poses make us reimagine what we do as historians? Climate change raises methodological questions about temporality, scale, historical causality, sources and evidence––not to mention the ethical and existential questions––that should concern all historians.”


Professors Bsumek and Raby will serve as the Institute's Thematic Coordinators in 2020-21, and will organize next year's annual conference, exploring various approaches to the historical processes of climate change and environmental degradation.

For more information about the Institute's fellowship opportunity and application process, please visit liberalarts.utexas.edu/historicalstudies/fellowships/resident-fellows. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about the theme, and be the first to learn about the annual conference in Spring 2021. The deadline for residential fellowships applications is January 15, 2020.

Story by Tiana Wilson, Graduate Research Assistant in the Institute for Historical Studies, and Doctoral Student in History, University of Texas at Austin.

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