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Per Högselius: Why Historians can and Must Engage in the Public Debate

Published Apr 29, 2021

Per Högselius participated in the Environmental History Week in the event "Why historians can and must Engage in the Public Debate" on April 19. This was the first of a series of three events on "Usable Pasts - Insights from environmental history and the history of technology for today's challenges" as part of the Berlin-Brandenburg Colloquium on Environmental History. The talk is now up on Youtube

 (The full talk, publiced by Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam on Youtube. English auto-generated caption is available under the CC symbol in the bottom menu). 


In this talk I will argue that historians are not well equipped to come up with concrete policy advice or propose solutions to various present-day problems. However, historians are well equipped to engage and participate in the public debate in more indirect ways. I will argue that they can do so in two main ways, which are important to separate from each other: empirically and theoretically. Empirically, historians can enrich the debate by “zooming out”, temporally and spatially. Actors and analysts of current affairs are often surprisingly unaware of the wider historical context in which many burning issues of the present are part. Worse, they often mobilize distorted and “fake” histories to advance their arguments. Clearly, historians have a moral duty to oppose this by unpacking the historical complexity of the present. Based on examples from the fields of energy and water history, I argue that it can be extremely fruitful to do so not merely by writing opinion pieces or giving radio and TV interviews, but rather by making the link between past and present explicit in their academic books and articles. Theoretically, historians can mobilize concepts and theoretical ideas generated in the context of historical research, and apply them to present-day burning issues. This creates a basis for systematically engaging in debates about analogies between current issues and historical events. In this case there is no need for an empirical overlap, in the sense that conceptualizations of, say, medieval forestry can be of relevance for engaging in twenty-first century debates about electrical vehicles. Theory-based analogies can and should be mobilized not only for developing new “perspectives” on current affairs, but also for warning present-day actors about what can go wrong. Unfortunately, many false and “fake” analogies are always circulating, and over-simplifications are common. Paradoxically, however, I argue that at the theoretical level, historians actually need to simplify in order to make sense of their contributions to the debate.