History matters to the present and the future

2015-05-20

On my personal website, I have a tagline that summarizes my thoughts about why being a historian matters:

I study history not to understand how people were in the past, but rather why we are the way we are now. This is the value of history.

My core belief is that history is absolutely vital for understanding today. History explains why things are the way they are—what motivated decisions in the past, how systems (both physical and mental) have been built up over time, why some things remain the same while others change. Other disciplines particularly in the natural sciences and social sciences are very good at explaining what exists now, but they rarely reach back to explain why this is so. In my opinion, if we don’t understand why things are the way they are, we miss out on opportunities to rethink approaches and question what we are doing.

So when I received feedback on a grant application I had submitted to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s Wildlife Committee this week, I was livid. I had actually gotten a notice two months ago that I was not funded, so that was no surprise, but now I was sent the reason for rejection and it encapsulates so many things that are wrong with contemporary politics, ‘rational’ management, and applied sciences.

The committee who evaluated my application had understood what I wanted to do. They summarized the project as “an historical study of the decisions taken and solutions implemented on wildlife accidents in Sweden to gain insights into how and why particular policy decisions have been made in the past that constrain and/or enable future actions.” And that’s a pretty good summary. I am interested in looking at how wildlife-automobile accidents have been constructed (and reconstructed) as a risk since the invention of the automobile, why certain technological solutions have been implemented (or not), and how agency has been assigned to the drivers or animals at different points in time through technological choices.

The committee’s reason for not funding me was:

It’s not convincingly clear to the committee that we can learn for the future by evaluating our decisions from the past for this specific topic. Many of the technologies that can nowadays be used to mitigate wildlife accidents simply were not available in the past. Also, the situation in Sweden (e.g changing wildlife densities and communities, human perception etc.)  have[sic] changed substantially during the last 100 years.

In essence the committee argued that because things change, history doesn’t matter. Their conclusion was that “The practical relevance of this work for current and future wildlife management is valued as relatively low.”

They could not be more wrong! Especially in the case of infrastructure with a long life (like roadways), what was done in the past leaves tangible and lasting footprints. Technological momentum (as discussed in Thomas Hughes’ brilliant classic Networks of Power) means that systems build upon themselves and tend to converge on certain solutions for problems whether or not they are the ‘optimal’ solution. Our perception of risk is a historically situated and changing idea which directly affects what technological solutions are put in place, if any, to address the risk. Of course things change—I’m a historian so I count on this!—but that’s what makes historical studies important rather than unimportant. Things do not just change because a new technology is ‘available’. Rather, people develop technologies because of perceived needs, they choose to implement them because of certain understandings of the world, and in the process they often reject other possibilities.

That this committee rejected the idea that historical inquiry can expose prior decision-making processes and help lead to better decisions in the future is infuriating. It shows how shortsighted our politics, management, and science have become in modern government. Many think that the future only depends on the present, which is a fundamentally flawed assumption. If we are unwilling to examine how the things we do came into being over time, we cannot critically examine our present and future practices to make meaningful changes. History matters to the present and the future.

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