History & Ecology

History & Ecology

 NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.

Some Thoughts on History… And Ecology
By Dr. Ben S. Malayang III, President
(Note: Keynote, 2012 National Conference of the Philippine National Historical Society, Silliman University, Dumaguete City, October 18-20, 2012.)

Most mortals like myself are only casual students of history. Of course, most people readily relish in narratives, but only if they’re juicy. Many always get excited with gossips but hardly with systematic scrutiny of the facts of events and with piecing together a tale for its truth and correctness.

Today, you come together to engage in serious history. Okay, some gossips, too. But mostly you’ll be discussing serious topics relating to human progress and survival. Some topics may seem trivial but the methods of scrutiny employed in investigating the historicity of an event can be serious contributions to the study of human history.

I see the study of history as some gradation of factuality to metaphor. At its most fundamental, history is about collecting, organizing and reporting facts. This is to me history in its simple narrative form. It’s like listing the events relating to Magellan’s journey, from when and where he started in Spain to when and where he died in Mactan. Then there is history as a weaving of events into a unified story of grit and romance that tells of a saga of human progress. It’s like telling the story of Magellan as being about the confluence of commercial enterprise, advances in shipbuilding and navigational technologies, and hubris, which motivated and moved him to sail west. Then, beyond narrative and story, there is the study of history that seeks to unravel the unfolding discourse of human survival. It is like looking at Magellan as a strand of the broader movement of Western civilization to dominate the rest of the world. Finally, I see the study of history as progressing toward its highest gradation, and that is when it becomes a metaphor. In this case, history becomes a revelation of the elemental nature of human life, like when, in the saga of Magellan, we see in it how the grandest of schemes of venturing around the world and proving that it is round, can be cut short by the squabbles of inconsequential men fighting over some small and unknown islands somewhere. In fact, to the eminent economic historian, O. D. Corpus, Magellan was a great metaphor of how unhealthy and deadly it can be to get mixed up in local politics in the Philippines.

But whether as a simple narrative, or a grand story, a discourse, or a metaphor, history presents a vast array of information on the successes, travails and abject failures of human societies and communities, and how these eventually led to human progress toward better abilities to survive and achieve higher levels of organization and civilization. History offers a rich cocktail of narratives, stories, discourses, and metaphors, on the greatness and, too, the corruptibility of human beings.

The power and potency of history as a discipline stems from its ability to inform us about ourselves and in chronicling and explicating the rise and fall of human civilizations. Gatherings like yours today are dedicated to enhancing this power and potency.

But to do so, two things, I think, need to be done.  First, there is a need to lessen and moderate our appetite for specialization. While solidly founded on Kantian, Humboldtian and Cartesian traditions of European academia, specialization, if not done assiduously and carefully, has the unfortunate tendency to divide otherwise broad discourse into separate parts. It enhances depth, but easily severs interconnectedness needed to create a unified perspective of human transitions and transformations.  The Kantian rationale for specialization is that it creates depth. But, too often, it gets used as excuse for dividing the professions into professional provinces. It can digress to abject “disciplinal gerrymandering”. Rather than enrich scholarship, it sets up professional walls that make it harder to produce fuller accounts of human progress and failures. This must be checked.  By all means, let’s continue with specialization, but only if it creates depth and not mere excuse for absence and incapacities for wider discernments, or worse, for ego-boosting academic differentiation.

A second thing to do is of course to ensure depth of our historical accounts. It is certainly interesting to know what Magellan did and how his journey led to some twists and turns in world and Philippine history, but we can probably dig deeper and do more.   We can expand our historical accounts to beyond the interactions of peoples (which is often what most historians do).  We may widen our research to include how ecological events provided driving and inhibiting influences on peoples’ behavior. We can imbue history with an account of the more profound and longer history of our planet.  

Indeed, why talk only of Magellan and how his journey was dictated by social, economic and political events? Why not as well by environmental events? What if in the face of the commercial and political pressures to find alternative routes to the Orient, the Gulf Stream (in the Atlantic) had an opposite direction from circling toward the north and instead circled toward the south? How might this have affected Magellan’s navigation and the conditions in the Strait of Magellan?   Or, what if Magellan found himself in the southern tip of South America and had rounded it at a time when tidal and wind conditions in one of the most perilous straits in the world were more severe than then? What if the Philippines were a single large land mass and not an archipelago? Would have Magellan thought that his ships and naval armaments could help resolve the tiff between Humabon and Lapu-lapu? Wouldn’t have this tiff taken a different turn?

Even if only a casual student of history, I take the view that historical accounts will likely gain more breadth and depth if they were to include an ecological analyses of incumbent conditions associated with events. Without falling into the traps of environmental determinism and possibilism, it’s not far fetch to imagine, for example, that Mongolians developed skills and stamina to ride horses over far stretches as their adaptive strategy to living in the vast desserts of North East Asia. And this adaptation eventually led to their developing a military capability to conquer far places on horseback.  Or, closer to home, it is not far fetched to surmise (as an esteemed colleague, Dr. Percy Sajise, often uses as example of interconnectivity of ecosystems) that the historical pattern of durian prices in Davao might be associated with spates of building constructions in Metro Manila.  That is, because durian is open for pollination only between midnight to early morning and its active pollinators are bats that live in caves. It is from caves that in Mindanao lime is quarried for making cement. Loss of cave habitats following extensive mining for lime in response to episodes of high demand for cement in Manila, could explain rising prices of durian in Davao.

For sure, historical accounts are replete with narratives and stories of natural events like flooding and volcanic eruptions causing people to migrate and great civilizations to get wiped out. There is precedence in the use of environmental events as basis for explaining historical movements. In fact, there are theories that the Mongols suddenly stopped short of conquering Europe because, it is surmised, that Genghis Khan died of severe stomach upset due to having drank too much grape wine which was abundant in Europe and favored by its climate but not in the more arid deserts of Mongolia.

Most efforts to link history and ecology, however, often stop short in narration.  There is more to be done to seeing history as being compelled by ecological processes.

My modest proposal to you today is that you begin to look into the possibility of developing formal analytical frameworks and methods to do history research from the perspective of ecological changes across our planet. My intention is not to propose something that overwhelms all other frameworks and methods now available to you, but simply to add to your research toolkits. My suggestion is that it just might be possible that with this added framework, the study of history can take on more interesting twists. There seems to me no reason why we can’t construct historical narratives, weave stories, shape discourses on civilizations, and extract metaphors on human nature, by systematically analyzing how such events like climate change, biotechnological innovations and the modification of genes and living organisms, biodiversity loss, or ozone depletion, affect human health, food security, energy security, water security, and food safety. And that because they do, they could alter the world’s financial, economic, social, cultural and political systems and set new directions, trajectories and transitions of human civilizations.

Indeed, isn’t it not meaningful, if not entirely valid, to ask how the increasing intensity and frequency of typhoons and flooding in Metro Manila will likely cause population movements that had not happened before? Or that they might cause the rise of new institutions on disaster management with powers on public policy and discourse not seen before? Isn’t it not worth looking into how the emergence of new diseases and vectors brought about by altered temperature and moisture regimes, might create new tracks of political and commercial adaptation across the globe, quite yet unknown in the history of our world?

Friends, you are our country’s leading scholars on history. I pray that without any motive to merely gerrymander the province of historical research, you will find it expedient to think about developing a serious and inclusive framework for “ecohistorical analysis”, which is to see history as a swirl of ecological and human institutional dynamics. This framework, if it can be shaped and found doable (as I believe it is) might yet prove useful, and much needed, by our people today.

Thank you and welcome to Silliman!