The Interdisciplinary Significance of South Asian Environmental History in the Longue Durée

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Sumit Guha, University of Texas at Austin
As climate change continues to unsettle the patterns of life so briefly stabilized by the Industrial Revolution, a growing body of research in several disciplines recognizes our epoch as the Anthropocene – an era in earth history dominated by a single species. The dating of the anthropocene is still uncertain – it was initially conceived as only the period from the second Industrial Revolution centered on steel, coal, electricity and petroleum that began after 1850. But now the role of soil and associated vegetation as a sink for and reservoir of carbon, has led to a consideration of longer-term anthropogenic change. These changes began millennia ago when humans began to modify the landscape for hunting and agriculture. They accelerated after Iberian voyages durably united the Old and New worlds after 1500, or the epoch of early modern empires world-wide. These wider concerns require early modern historians to contribute their specific skills to the debate. They were largely absent from the work that produced the widely cited HYDE data-set (Goldewijk, 2001). The only true inquiry for South Asia was published by John Richards and his collaborators 25 years ago. That was a brave pioneering inquiry, but its results need re-assessment and adjustment. It had for example, a tendency to label all uncultivated land as “forest” and thereby exaggerate the biomass stock released by the expansion of tillage that occurred from the late 19th century onward. Yet sketchy and speculative inferences about land-use changes are being used as the basis of models published even in highly regarded venues such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (e.g. Takata 2009). I hope this Round Table will kick off collaborative historical research that can improve the emerging science of the anthropocene epoch in earth history.