Historians and Sustainability

by | Oct 31, 2019 | Guest Posts | 1 comment

How can historians respond to the demands of a career that can be both environmentally – and emotionally – unsustainable? In this post for the RHS, Toby Green and Simon Sleight introduce their working paper on “Historians and Sustainability“. The full paper contains a number of practical suggestions at different scales of operation in the profession and they invite others to join their conversation.

Academia is inextricably connected with global networks. Career progression can be directly correlated in multiple ways to the level of global integration which academics have. This means that from a very early point in a career, academics are aware of the need to develop global networks – largely through attendance at international conferences. Inevitably, the result is that many academics have a very large carbon footprint.

Internationalisation has been at the heart of the academic sector for at least two decades, at the heart of university rankings and professional development. Use of the concept “international” makes it seem as though it should have a progressive core, but this isn’t necessarily so. Most international networks are pushed in the development of North-North connections, rather than North-South or South-South ones. Thus university internationalisation may largely contribute towards the growing economic inequalities which characterise the current world economic structure, as well as to the unsustainability of current carbon emissions.

The rise this year of movements such as Extinction Rebellion, and of Greta Thunberg’s campaign against the Climate Emergency, should focus our minds as to how we can respond creatively, constructively, ethically and responsibly to these multiple and irreconcilable pressures. It is clear that continued expansion and internationalisation agendas are utterly unsustainable, and therefore entirely in contravention of the stated policies of the university sector (e.g. ‘In service to society’); but it is also clear that value systems, career ladders, and competitive environments are far too entrenched to make change easy to come by.


“Fridays For Future” Demonstration in Hamburg with Greta Thunberg (2019) Credit: Wikipedia. Image licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Over the past few months, we have been developing a working paper. It is not our purpose to cast judgments or call anything, or anyone, out. We also draw a definite line between professional and private lives. When so many of us have personal commitments in far-flung places, it would be misplaced to draw an equivalence between university internationalisation and the maintenance of vital emotional bonds. With regard to our professional lives, all of us are involved in these networks, and indeed the two authors of this blog especially so given the nature of our research. Moreover, while the current career structure is in place, it would be completely wrong for academics who have benefited from internationalisation to pull up the ladder after them.

At the same time, it is our view that we cannot sit here and pretend that nothing is happening, nor that there is no requirement for us as intellectuals and scholars responsibly to begin conversations as to the sustainability of our discipline, and what changes can or should be made to improve this.

We are both firmly of the view that “sustainability” is an elastic term which does not refer only to the environment. Improving the environmental sustainability of our discipline may also prove to be at the core of the intellectual and emotional sustainability of us as academics, scholars, and human beings. Many of us sense that the current university structure encourages overproduction and overactivity, which is conducive neither to our mental health nor to the sustainability of the environment – nor indeed necessarily to good scholarship. Making changes to increase the sustainability of our discipline can also therefore address the increasing emotional unsustainability of academia.

Starting a Conversation

The intention of our working paper is simply to begin a conversation in which anyone who so wishes can participate. It is hoped that something concrete might come out of that conversation, and if so, that this could potentially be rolled out to other History departments and organisations such as the Royal Historical Society as a starting point for a broader discussion within the Academy.

Our fuller working paper contains a number of practical suggestions at different scales of operation in the profession:

  • local departmental-level action (History departments/schools)
  • University-level action, where we can work at an institutional level
  • within the framework of national bodies
  • within each of our own individual research networks.

We would particularly welcome feedback on our suggestions under these broad headings.

Some will feel that such suggestions are unwarranted interference. The “market”, they say, will sort it out, or else state forces beyond our control will take the lead. However, it is our conclusion that all evidence suggests that the “market” (including that within the university sector) has not and will not resolve this issue, and state forces are proving imponderably slow. Academia is increasingly unsustainable in multiple ways. Thus it is beholden to us to begin to consider solutions for ourselves.

Greta Thunberg has called for Zero Carbon by 2025. Clearly this is likely to be unachievable, but what concrete steps could/should departments and academics take in the current climate crisis?

We are ruling nothing in and out; our working paper contains some suggestions for discussion, just to get the ball rolling, and we welcome more. The ideas have been generated in an attempt to balance the different requirements of intergenerational climate justice and professional activity: prioritising sustainability, but at the same time recognising that scholars at earlier stages in their career have more need to circulate internationally.

You can download our full working paper here, and please do get in touch!

Toby Green is Senior Lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture at King’s College London. Simon Sleight is Reader in Urban History, Historical Youth Cultures and Australian History at King’s College London.


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