Professor links past and present to improve environment’s future

York University Professor Colin Coates (right) sees an important connection between the study of history and the future of the environment – whether it’s the physical effect of an ancient tsunami on the coast of British Columbia, or the psychological idea of landscape that Europeans brought to Canada in the 1700s and 1800s.

Coates is working with scholars from different disciplines interested in the history of the environment to form The Network in Canadian History and Environment ( NiCHE) to develop a coherent field of inquiry. Coates believes Canada is behind many other countries in this effort.

“The project operates under ecology’s first law: that everything is connected to everything else and that includes history,” said Coates, a professor of Canadian Studies in York’s Glendon College and Canada Research Chair in Canadian Cultural Landscapes. “Understanding Canada’s contemporary environmental challenges demands a clear understanding of the past. Unless environmental matters are studied in their historical context, there can be no measure of relative change.”

For example, deforestation is not merely a 20th-century phenomenon, but can be seen in many other instances, such as the founding of certain Bavarian monasteries some 1,200 years ago. Study of Austrian alpine lake sediments shows a fascinating process called “eutrophication” – in short, pollution caused by excessive plant nutrients. This type of pollution goes hand in hand with the clearing of forests and increase in agriculture that occurred when these monasteries were built.

As well, like the Great Lakes in North America, these alpine lakes also show similar effects over the last 50 to 100 years, linked directly to modern agriculture and pollution from domestic sewage. In the latter case, however, the presence of heavy metals linked to industry may also be detected, as well as fallout from atmospheric testing of atomic weapons in the last 60 years.

“Without understanding the historical component of what are eminently historical processes, it is difficult to make sensible contemporary decisions on environmental issues,” explained Coates.

Another example of the value of environmental history was uncovered in a New Brunswick farmer’s diary, the contents of which made it possible to reconstruct the climatic impacts of volcanic eruption that occurred in the Indonesian archipelago in 1815. This led to a phenomenon known as the “year without a summer” – a cooling across Western Europe and Eastern North America which in turn contributed to subsistence crises in Europe.

This historical data provided valuable evidence that distant and remote locations on the globe have been bound together by environmental processes – even prior to globalization, trade, and communications linkages. “It is truly folly to ignore the information about the environment that a scholarly and scientific study of history can bring to the table,” Coates said.

The group will soon reach out to natural scientists and policy makers to develop the field of environmental history in Canada, leading to better environmental research and a healthier and more sustainable environment.

Colin Coates is Professor of Canadian Studies in York’s Glendon College and holds a Canada Research Chair in Canadian Cultural Landscapes. He is the co-recipient of a Strategic Research Cluster Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).