Previous calls for cooperation between historians and conservation scientists published in ecological and conservation journals have been made by nonhistorians. This Comment on Szabó and Hédl's (2011), paper “Advancing the Integration of History and Ecology for Conservation,” provides the other half of the sought-for antiphonal duet from the perspective of an environmental historian.
Most calls for interdisciplinary research frame their discussions in terms of problems to be overcome. They elaborate reasons for the failure of this union to be consummated, and this shapes discussions of what is to be done. In their welcome article, Szabó and Hédl follow this route, noting contrasting tendencies toward generality versus particularity for ecologists and historians, respectively, and mismatches in scale and precision of data collection. They frame the lack of ecological research before 1800 as a “major obstacle to successful cooperation between history and ecology” but then show that this lack of ecological data is really an opportunity for ecologists to gain from history (Szabó & Hédl 2011, p. 685). Helpfully, they advise us to pay attention to “difficulties in communication rather than to fundamental differences between the 2 disciplines” (Szabó & Hédl 2011, p. 681). Yet, they also suggest there exists a fundamental divide between the social and natural sciences (not to mention humanities). In the practice of interdisciplinary research, this fundamental divide is more often a divide between those who do primarily quantitative research and those who do primarily qualitative research.
Szabó and Hédl's suggestion that there is a communication breakdown between the “two cultures” of the social and natural sciences, exacerbated by the poor editorial practices of interdisciplinary journals, is arguably now less true than the authors suggest (their references span 1959–1999). More recent analyses of the publication of interdisciplinary research in ecological journals find matters somewhat improved (e.g., Reyers et al. 2010). Of course, structural challenges for collaboration do remain, and power differentials in funding levels and eligibility between disciplines bedevil interdisciplinary research on conservation problems. To paraphrase Jane Austen: it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single discipline in possession of good funding must be in want of research partners.
Szabó and Hédl suggest that ecologists are characterized by a focus on generality and historians by a focus on particularity. This is a very broad statement, but interesting in light of the recent production of “big histories” (e.g., Christian 2004; Spier 2010). These histories either seek to impose major periodizations on all dimensions of Earth's history, including human histories, or to mine history for data to test predictive models. As Robin and Steffen (2007) observed, the former are plagued by the heterogeneity of human histories (e.g., the very differently timed development of agriculture and industrialization in Europe vs. Australia) and the unevenness of available historical evidence resulting from these heterogeneities. Devised without the input of historians, the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE 2009) project aims to recover useful data from the past for testing predictive social–ecological models. Projects include building a dynamic model of the social–ecological interactions and ultimate collapse of the Maya. In practice, marrying up archaeological and cultural sources will be challenging, as will adequately incorporating human agency.
These big histories, along with the kinds of large-scale historical panoramas offered by Jared Diamond and E.O. Wilson, are united in offering histories in which human agency, while present, operates within and in response to larger deterministic frameworks of evolution and environmental contingencies. They offer informed speculation on why human societies behaved and developed as they did, rather than detailed attempts to reconstruct these trajectories through the use of historical sources. To these “evolutionary meta-histories” (Sörlin & Warde 2007, p. 117), environmental historians bring a human scale, a sense of human agency (can you model a Hernán Cortés?) and open a dialogue with the extensive literature on, for example, the reasons for the ascendancy of Western Europe and its New World territories. They aim for more synthetic analyses of causation than those attempted by science-based and big-history historians on the one hand, and social scientists and historians allergic to any whiff of biological determinism on the other.
By no means do all environmental historians “[focus] on specific cases and [approach] the study of general patterns with caution” (Szabó & Hédl 2011, p. 682). This is a long-running tendency, but the breakthrough books in the discipline are works of synthesis that tackle big issues and themes, for instance Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism (1986), Richard Grove's Green Imperialism (1995), and John McNeill's Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (2010). Sörlin and Warde (2007) urge environmental historians to move beyond regionalized, local studies and write more ambitious histories along such lines.
Szabó and Hédl's discussion of research methods provides a useful characterization of the different approaches of historians and ecologists. However, it offers a narrow version of how conservation scientists actually work and misses the interdisciplinary nature of good environmental history. What, then, is good environmental history? Worster (1988) exhorted environmental historians to study how the biophysical world shapes human history and how humans understand and shape the natural world through time by: addressing the ecological study of nature, including humans, cultivated and domesticated species, and flows of materials; the socioeconomic dimensions and interactions of social–ecological systems; and the ways in which human cultures and ideologies have been shaped by nature and have shaped our conceptions of and effects on nature. At the very least, this schema implies scientific literacy and the comprehension and use of scientific data alongside the more traditional materials and techniques of social, economic, and cultural histories.
If Reyers et al. (2010) are correct that cultural and social values and their political expressions drive policy and management priorities, which in turn drive how resources are managed and ultimately how knowledge acquisition is structured and funded to enable this, then it is necessary to try to understand the relations between all these dimensions of conservation (including the biophysical). By taking a historical approach, these kinds of relations can be unraveled, and although they may be convoluted, they are not irreducibly complex.