History, history!

“History, history! We fools, what do we know or care?”  
-William Carlos Williams

When I was in junior high, social studies was second only to english in my list of favourite classes. (science, incidentally, was a distant fourth, after gym).

Back when choosing a career path still loomed far in the distance,  I would sit, enthralled, and listen to my teacher tell wonderful stories about ancient Sumerians, the French Revolution, the Ming dynasty. It was good stuff. Still, one question nagged at me. It was one my teacher had put forth on the very first day of class in grade seven. The question was this: what is the purpose of studying history?

I’m sure historians, like any experts justifying their field, could write pages and pages of eloquent arguments about the necessity of history as a topic of study. As a seventh grader, I had a few ideas, but they seemed to pale in comparison to the immediate relevancy of science or French, or even gym. 

It was actually the lecture that I mentioned in my very first Terry post that triggered this memory of mine (yeah, this post has been tossing around in my head for a while now!). Probably because it was the first time for me that someone had made the explicit connection between history and its immediate relevance in a scientific context. I always had the idea in the back of my mind that it was important to understand the history of one’s chosen field or profession because it provides the contextual framework through which the current field can be understood. But beyond that?

The lecture was on fisheries and protecting Canada’s oceans. In it, Dr. Jeff Hutchings outlined four suggestions for improving the chance our oceans have of survival. One of them was a sense of historical perspective.

(I had planned to address the others in an earlier post but it fell into the same black hole as this one. I probably will eventually. I’m really only mentioning this for the fish-lovers that follow this blog.) 

Historical perspective and fisheries management. Hmm. The first thought that came to mind was learning from the failures of former management programs and legislations. That was one of my answers in the seventh grade too. History is important because we can learn from the mistakes of those who came before. And that’s true. But that was not what Hutchings meant by historical perspective. In fact, his idea was way more revolutionary–at least to me. 

What Hutchings was referring to, was the concept of “shifting baselines”, a term that was first coined by Daniel Pauly, a professor at the Fisheries Centre right here at UBC. Hutchings pointed out with a set of very effective graphs that, like any data,  fish stock population numbers can be presented in such a way that they appear to be rebounding–prompting previously closed fisheries to reopen. But what happens when you step back and examine the current populations, not in relation to the previous year, but in relation to the previous decade? the last century?

What you find is this. The “encouraging” rebound from 10 000 to 20 000 fish means nothing if the original population, fifty years ago, was 1 000 000 000 or 2 000 000 000 fish. 

About a month ago, there was a chillingly beautiful and incredibly well-written article  in the Walrus on the reintroduction of tortoises to the American southwest. The author, Mackinnon, expresses the idea of shifting baselines so well that I will borrow his words:

Tracing the history of the human relationship to our ecology is a new academic endeavour, just a few decades old, and its first principle could be said to be this: to know what is, you must know what was. Consider the Caribbean population of the green sea turtle, a distant relative of the bolson tortoise, which now sits at 300,000. Measured against the green turtle’s near-extinction in the early twentieth century, the figure is a triumph, to the extent that some biologists question whether the International Union for Conservation of Nature should continue to list the green turtle as an endangered species. Look at that datum from a more distant historical baseline, however, and it rapidly loses its cheery sheen. 

In 2006, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography led an attempt to determine historical peak numbers of Caribbean sea turtles based on 163 sources, including Charles de Rochefort’s 1666 The History of the Caribby-islands, and “the first American novel,” William Williams’ semi-autobiographical Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman. These yielded an estimated original Caribbean green turtle population of 91 million adults. Try to imagine the bounty: sea floor grass beds grazed by turtle hordes; beaches roiled by the flipper churn of nesting females; turtles peering from reefs, lolling in surf; an endless shoal of turtles, a flock of turtles, a drift of turtles, a tedium of turtles —more than 300 times as many as today. Can we really say that the green turtle is no longer endangered? 

In 1995, Daniel Pauly, a professor with the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, coined the term “shifting baselines” to describe the tendency of his peers to measure the health of fish stocks against the length of their own careers. Each generation bemoaned the losses that occurred on their watch, but failed to acknowledge the accumulation of extirpations across centuries, if not millennia — “a gradual accommodation,” Pauly wrote, of “creeping disappearance.” The revelation came to him in part from a study he published as editor of an academic journal concerned with aquatic resource management. The article amounted to a scientific review of Sea of Slaughter, Farley Mowat’s 1984 chronicle of Atlantic overfishing, which he based on five years spent reading anecdotal historical accounts. The authors of the study concluded that biomass — literally the weight of life itself — in the North Atlantic has likely declined by 97 percent since written records began. Mowat, exhausting language in his effort to express this reality, refers to the drawdown as “a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” The report’s authors applied the term “genocidal.” 


The effect has been called a “double disappearance”: first, we lose a forest, or a species of tortoise, or the abundance of a fish; then we lose the memory that it ever existed.

The past is a bittersweet destination. The almost magical plenitude is a pleasure to dwell in, but there is tragedy in the knowledge that it could not, did not, hold. Still, it is instructive, revealing the living world as an echo and a shadow of what came before. We wake up and go to work and plan camping holidays and drop the kids off at the beach, in what I’ve come to think of as a Ten-Percent World. Is it the world in which we want to live? 

One lesson of ecological history is uncomfortably clear: we can survive — thrive, even — in a greatly reduced state of nature. Winnipeg and Kansas City live without the bison herds that once ran so strong their migration paths are still visible from the air; Chicago and Toronto do not weep for the days when you could fish the Great Lakes by bashing at the surface of the water with an axe handle; Vancouver and Seattle fail to remember their bays’ humpback whales. For decades, there were almost no grey wolves, grizzly bears, or eagles in the Lower Forty-Eight, and modern recovery projects have brought them back to just a fraction of their former ranges. How low can we go? A Five-Percent World? A One-Percent World? No one can say, but this much I know: the forests and the plains and the sea would still be beautiful. Haunting. 

What we now call the sixth extinction is the continuation of a pattern more than 10,000 years old in North America, and far older worldwide. Nothing yet has compelled our species to make the sacrifices necessary for us to live with a more varied and abundant nature. The fact that ancient Greek texts and the founding stories of indigenous peoples warn against environmental depletion does not suggest that those alarms were premature. Rather, it hints at the scale of past ecological wealth. To spend it down has required a spree measured in millennia, at the end of which we have forgotten where we started.

A one-percent world. Never before had I looked at the world in that way. In a historical way. And I do not want to live in a one-percent world. A world without ninety-nine percent of its original and awe-inspiring biodiversity. A world without half of its indigenous languages. A world without  two-thirds of its rain forests. 

When you begin to look, history is everywhere. In our legal system and ideas on justice and punishment. In the language we speak now. In the sulphur-based chemical reactions that take place in our body, left over from when the earth’s atmosphere was more sulphur than oxygen.

According to the German philosopher, Hegel, all societies and human endeavors–art, science, philosophy, literature–are historical, meaning that they are defined by their history and evolve from, and in reaction to, what came before. Literary and artistic movements such as realism and expressionism are in part reactionary. The powerlessness of women under Napoleon is a backlash to their power during the French Revolution.

Kafka, a lawyer by profession, addresses this historicism in relation to the justice system in his short story, “In the Penal Colony.” In his hands, the historical nature of the legal system is something to be criticized. The machine in the story that is responsible for dispensing justice and punishment malfunctions. It disintegrates until it can do little more than stab a man violently and repeatedly until he dies.

These may seem like such different topics but what I’m trying to express is this: history is more than an academic field dealing with past events. A historical perspective is crucial for a deeper understanding of so many different and important things. It is important if we are to reject historical remnants in our belief and social systems that are harmful and cumbersome. It is important because it opens our eyes to the world that we have already lost, that is slipping through our clumsy, unresponsive fingers.

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.