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We use the living earth to make our histories

This working paper was produced in early 2020 to start a conversation about how academic historians can help to address the climate and biodiversity crises in their professional practice. Since it was drafted, responses to the rapid spread of covid-19 have shown that it is possible to undertake much academic historical work in low-carbon modes. We encourage academic historians to circulate this paper at Discipline, Department, School and/or Faculty level within their home institutions, in order to gather support and develop specific initiatives for reform of existing policy frameworks (eg travel policies), and establishment of new policies and procedures.


Working paper on sustainable history: the responsibilities of academic historians in a climate-impacted world

Andrea Gaynor, Carla Pascoe Leahy, Ruth Morgan, Daniel May and Yves Rees.1

Environmental degradation, particularly anthropogenic climate change, is the most urgent and challenging global issue of the twenty-first century. Australia is particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.2 Climate-linked bushfires of unprecedented scale and damage ushered us into this new decade, across a fire season that lasted six months. More than 10 million hectares were burnt, and 34 people and at least a billion animals died in the 2019-20 fires.3 By the end of November 2019, after low rainfall for more than two years in many areas, 99.9% of New South Wales was declared in drought or drought-affected; 67.4% of Queensland was drought declared.4 Other ‘natural’ hazards like cyclones and flooding are also increasing in severity due to climate change.5 Nearly 80 per cent of Australians are concerned about climate change.6

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is caused by human activity and poses a ‘catastrophic threat’ to humanity.7 The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that ‘human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history’.8 In response, a range of professional bodies have formed and/or composed policy statements on the responsibilities of different professions to combat this threat. These include physicians,9 lawyers,10 engineers,11 scientists,12 architects13 and psychologists.14

Such efforts have reached higher education as well. Many universities and TAFEs now have environmental policies that cover initiatives such as reducing landfill waste, encouraging non-car-based transport, constructing energy-efficient buildings, and reducing non-renewable energy consumption.15 Some institutions have gone further. Harvard University has pledged to become fossil fuel-free by 2026 and fossil fuel neutral by 2050.16 The University of Bristol has pledged to become net carbon neutral by 2030.17 Charles Sturt University became Australia’s first and only carbon-neutral university in 2016.18 The United Nations Environment Programme has supported such initiatives through resources such as its ‘Greening Universities Toolkit’ and its Green University Networks.19 As climate change moves from our imagined futures into our urgent and troubling present, there is increasing recognition that every person, household and organisation needs to act in meaningful, not purely symbolic ways, to tackle this most difficult of issues. The global climate strikes demonstrate that rising numbers of people also acknowledge that lifestyle changes are not enough: collective political action is also required.

What, then, are the opportunities and responsibilities for historians to better align our work with climate and ecological realities?

Efforts are underway among historians overseas to show intellectual leadership and produce working papers and policies on how academics can work more sustainably.20 In fields cognate to history such as the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector, colleagues are also thinking seriously about our individual and collective responsibilities.21 In other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences efforts are underway to reduce the carbon costs of our teaching, research and outreach/engagement.22 Building on these initiatives, we have an opportunity to produce something similar for academic historians in Australia. An open letter from Australian historians in January 2020 calling upon political leaders to do more to tackle climate change suggests that there is an appetite among colleagues to use our professional skills and positions to combat environmental destruction.23 Meanwhile, eighty Australian Research Council Laureate Fellows from different fields have written an open letter to the Morrison government stating that there is an “urgent need for deep cuts” in Australia’s carbon emissions.24 Such examples point to some of the constructive interventions that academics can make in public debate, as individuals whose research is funded and respected by the public and who enjoy privileged access to media channels.

If we have opportunities to contribute to shaping public opinion on climate change, we also have obligations to lessen the damage caused by our work.  Many academics have large carbon footprints – we are explicitly encouraged to travel for research, conferences and networking through our systems of hiring, performance review, promotion and career development. Increasingly, academic excellence is predicated upon internationalisation. The hypermobility that this demands has not only environmental impacts, but also exacts a human toll.25

This working paper suggests ways in which to reduce the detrimental environmental impacts of our work as academic historians and opportunities for us to contribute to a more sustainable future. Considering key issues, individual measures and institutional measures, the paper seeks to begin a conversation about how we can work in a more sustainable fashion, by acting consciously and collectively.

Key issues

We can no longer afford to imagine that historians’ research practices have no environmental consequences. While individual historians’ ability to re-shape their research practices will be contingent on a range of factors, there are some readily-identifiable areas on which to focus efforts toward sustainable research.

Firstly, there is the issue of travel to access archival sources, which in some cases can be addressed through either digitisation or remote capture by research assistants. The creation and maintenance of digital archives has a carbon cost but this is almost certainly lower than the carbon cost of scholarly travel to visit archives; digitisation also has wider public access benefits. While scholars have pointed to various aspects of the non-equivalence of analogue and digital archives,26 and the capacity for digitisation is highly variable across regions and organisations in which archives are held, as historians we can promote the creation and use of digitally-captured collections in order to minimise travel. Where there is no prospect of digitisation, we should consider hiring a local research assistant to make digital copies of required archival material, minimising the need for researchers to undertake long-distance travel, while also developing skills and sharing employment. Note that this does not entail the expectation that assistants will undertake the intellectual work that is rightly the remit of the historical researcher.

Secondly, where it is necessary to conduct academic business with people from interstate, meetings should always be conducted via video conferencing or teleconferencing unless attendees are travelling for multiple reasons.

Thirdly, we need to change the way we develop professional networks, solicit feedback on our research and update our skills and knowledge. At present, this work is often undertaken through conference participation. However, we can no longer regard these benefits as sufficient justification for the high ecological cost of conferences-as-usual. We must therefore work to refigure the ways in which we achieve the ends of conferences, bearing in mind the different needs of academics at various career stages. As a first step, we could make virtual attendance and presentations at conferences available to all who wish to use it, with an appropriate fee structure attached. This entails active support for development of virtual conference and virtual conference presentation protocols.27 We might also consider making ‘in person’ conferences biennial, holding virtual conferences in alternate years, with local nodes for people co-located in an area to come together in one venue to engage with the conference. Here it is worth noting that while research shows a close relationship between travel-related carbon emissions and academic salary level, there is no significant relationship between academic travel and research productivity.28

Measures to reduce the environmental impact of ‘in-person’ events have featured at recent AHA conferences, and these should where possible be routinised and extended. For example, paper and food waste can be reduced through non-printed programs (available on websites or through apps); reusable or compostable cups, plates and cutlery; elimination of conference bags and their associated marketing; reusable or BYO name tags; and default vegan/vegetarian catering from sustainable/social enterprise suppliers where available. Research has shown that vegan diets give rise to lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as lower land and water use, than vegetarian and omnivorous diets.29 Organisers can where possible request caterers who divert surplus food from waste by connecting with organisations such as Second Bite or Ozharvest.30

As another alternative or complement to the outward-looking academic conference, we could commit more resources to nurturing local scholarly networks. This need not entail completely reorienting current research agendas, but finding thematic or methodological resonance with nearby researchers, and encouraging the formation of less transient scholarly communities within and between proximate universities. We might also work with a more diverse range of institutions to encourage inclusive historical work that connects communities and their local places, as such work supports community resilience in challenging times.

Finally, we have a role to play in creating a society that keenly understands that nothing happens outside of living earth systems; even events and ideas that at first appear divorced from ecology are entangled with ways of understanding and dealing with the environment. While acknowledging the need for historians in Australia to research diverse questions, we might each consider whether our research lends itself to normalising acknowledgement of humanity’s constant embeddedness in the living earth’s systems.31

Institutional Measures to Support Change

Universities are organisations with immense resources and immense carbon footprints; they therefore have a significant role to play as a force for positive change, both directly and as exemplars.

Universities could implement measures which work to reduce carbon footprints from travel. These could include requiring every application for research funding and performance review to include justifications for why travel is essential and how avoidable travel is being reduced; encouraging or limiting funding support to domestic travel via forms of transport with lower carbon footprints (such as trains/bus); and extending funding to include carbon offsets in the case of justified/approved travel. Efficient travel (such as combining fieldwork/research with conference attendance/meetings) could be rewarded or targeted in performance reviews. Such measures would need to be cognizant of career and research focus contexts; caps for travel would need to include flexibility for more travel for junior, less experienced/networked academics. Senior academics could aim for no more than one international and one domestic trip per year.32

Additionally, universities could consider measures to more effectively provide alternatives to travel. Investment in excellent internet connections and digital conferencing capabilities with instantaneous IT support is essential, as is the provision of appropriate facilities allowing online meetings with minimal disturbances. Departments might mandate that seminar series should include digital presenters or participants. However, universities should acknowledge that working online is not carbon-neutral and also needs to be offset.

Universities also have the capacity to reduce environmental impact through directing catering. Beef, lamb, and single-use plastics could be phased out on university grounds. University events might be directed to make vegan/vegetarian/low-impact catering the norm, and encourage such retailers to provide a presence on campus.33

Individual Measures

Although the scale of the environmental challenges we face may seem overwhelming, historians as individuals can play a role in tackling them. Each one of us can ask: how can I contribute to climate action through my professional and personal lives?

Academia is a highly educated profession with the training and expertise to understand the scientific, economic, and political issues underpinning climate change, not least its causes, effects, and intractability. For many, we are also a trusted source of information and are regularly invited by media outlets to make public comments on issues of contemporary concern. Given these privileges, we have an ethical and intellectual obligation to centre the crucial environmental challenges we face – including climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as the socioeconomic and political structures and relationships that underpin them – in our research, teaching, leadership and engagement.

Beyond academia, we are also citizens with the capacity to engage in collective action – as voters, consumers, unionists, investors, campaigners. These roles are fundamental to the function of our democracy and our economy, and allow for individuals to make a difference, however small, to achieving climate action and climate justice.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to advise which particular individual measures historians might take in their personal lives and households, but there is ample research pertaining to the carbon footprint of particular diets, modes of transport, electricity sources, and so on. These actions help us to live more lightly on this fragile planet.

At the very least, taking individual action is a means to overcome climate anxiety and to contribute to slowing the rate of global heating.

Conclusion and recommendations

In writing and circulating this paper we are seeking to start a discussion rather than foreclose debate or dictate the circumstances of other people’s working lives. We also recognise that these suggested measures will apply differently and unevenly across our ranks. People living with disabilities or with care responsibilities, for example, may need to prioritise air travel over other forms of transport for its comfort and efficiency. Historians disadvantaged by structural issues, geographic location or institutional hierarchies, such as those working in the Global South, in regional Australia, or those at an early career stage, may need to travel more frequently to build networks, develop expertise and overcome the tyranny of distance. We hope that this paper will inspire candid self-reflection and spark vigorous collective discussions, so that we may all become more aware of how our professional lives impact on our planet.


1 We would like to thank Liz Conor for her feedback on the draft document.

2 The Climate Reality Project, ‘How Is Climate Change Affecting Australia?’, 12 January 2019, https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/how-climate-change-affecting-australia.

3 RMIT ABC Fact Check,’Have more than a billion animals perished natinonwide this bushfire season? Here are the facts’, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-31/fact-check-have-bushfires-killed-more-than-a-billion-animals/11912538

4 NSW Department of Primary Industries, NSW State Seasonal Update – November 2019, https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/climate-and-emergencies/seasonal-conditions/ssu/november-2019; Queensland Government, Queensland drought situtation as reviewed on 1 December 2019, https://www.longpaddock.qld.gov.au/drought/drought-declarations/

5 Climate Council, ‘Fact Sheet: Climate Change and Intense Rainfall and Flooding’, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/factsheet-climate-change-and-intense-rainfall-and-flooding/

6 The Australia Institute, ‘Concern about climate change escalates as bushfire crisis continues’, https://www.tai.org.au/content/concern-about-climate-escalates-bushfire-crisis-continues-climate-nation-polling. See also: https://theconversation.com/the-most-important-issue-facing-australia-new-survey-sees-huge-spike-in-concern-over-climate-change-127688

7 Michael Slezak, ‘Climate emergency declared by 11,000 scientists worldwide who warn of ‘catastrophic threat’ to humanity’, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-06/climate-change-emergency-11000-scientists-sign-petition/11672776

8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ‘Climate Change 2014’,  IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

9 Bodies include: International Society of Doctors for the Environment, http://www.isde.org/ and Doctors for the Environment Australia, https://www.dea.org.au/. Such organisations have harnessed their expertise to write papers and face sheets on the health impacts of climate change. See, for example, ‘The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives’ (2018), https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2018/209/11/mja-lancet-countdown-health-and-climate-change-australian-policy-inaction

10 See Environmental Justice Australia: https://www.envirojustice.org.au/who-we-are/

11 See Sustainable Engineering Society: https://www.seng.org.au/

12 ‘There is no strong, resilient Australia without deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions: An open letter on the scientific basis for the links between climate change and bushfires in Australia’ https://australianbushfiresandclimatechange.com/.

13 Architects Declare Australia, ‘Australian Architects Declare Climate & Biodiversity Emergency’ https://au.architectsdeclare.com/.

14 See Psychology for a Safe Climate: https://www.psychologyforasafeclimate.org/. See also climate change resources produced by the Australian Psychological Society: https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Climate-change-psychology/

15 See, for example, this list of initiatives from the University of Melbourne: https://sustainablecampus.unimelb.edu.au/.

16 Harvard University, ‘Harvard’s Climate Action Plan’, https://green.harvard.edu/campaign/harvards-climate-action-plan.

17 University of Bristol, ‘Green university’, http://www.bris.ac.uk/green/

18 Charles Sturt University,’ Charles Sturt University = Carbon Neutral’, https://www.csu.edu.au/csugreen/about-us/carbon-neutral-university

19 UN Environment Programme, ‘Green University Networks’, https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/first-class-how-schools-and-universities-are-practising-what-they-preach

20 See, for example, this paper produced by historians at King’s College London: https://blog.royalhistsoc.org/2019/10/31/historians-and-sustainability/ (longer version available as PDF). KCL has approved a carbon neutral target, divestment from fossil fuel investments and default vegan and vegetarian university catering. KCL’s Academic Board will consider the travel aspects of the sustainability policy at their April 2020 meeting,

21 Project ARCC comprises archivists responding to climate change: https://projectarcc.org/. Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice is a Canadian-based organisation for museum professionals: https://coalitionofmuseumsforclimatejustice.wordpress.com/

22 Linguists at University of Western Australia recently drafted a paper on ‘sustainable linguistics’. It is currently being considered by the Australian Linguistics Society for endorsement.

23 Open Letter from Australian Historians: Climate-linked Fires Summer 2020’, https://climatelinkedfires.wordpress.com/

24 Michael Slezak, ‘Top academics write to Morrison Government asking for ‘deep cuts’ to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions’, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-29/urgent-need-for-deep-cuts-to-australias-greenhouse-gas/.

25 The detrimental effects of hypermobility are also felt unevenly, with mothers and other types of carers particularly impacted in terms of their work/life balance and opportunities for career advancement.

26 See for example Maryanne Dever (2013) Provocations on the pleasures of archived paper, Archives and Manuscripts, 41:3, 173-182,  DOI: 10.1080/01576895.2013.841550

27 See for example https://www.seankheraj.com/how-to-organize-a-virtual-workshop-for-environmental-historians/

28 Seth Wynes, Simon D. Donner, Steuart Tannason, Noni Nabors, ‘Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success’, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 226, 2019, 959-967. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.04.109.

29 Bingli C. Chai, Johannes R. van der Voort, Kristina Grofelnik, Helga G. Eliasdottir; Ines Klöss, and Federico J.A.Perez-Cueto, “Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet? A Systematic Review of Vegan, Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diets.” Sustainability 11, no. 15 (2019): 4110.

30 https://www.secondbite.org/, https://www.ozharvest.org/

31 For further commentary on the role of historians and humanists  in a time of environmental crisis see for example Katie Holmes, Andrea Gaynor and Ruth Morgan, ‘Doing environmental history in a time of crisis’, History Australia, in press, 2020; Tom Griffiths, ‘thinking like a planet – environmental crisis and the humanities’ The Conversation, 1 November 2019, https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-thinking-like-a-planet-environmental-crisis-and-the-humanities-125489; Linda Nash, ‘Furthering the Environmental Turn’, Journal of American History, Vol. 100, 1, 2013, pp. 131–135

32 For further reflections on this issue, see Michelle Ciurria, “The costs of flying: an intersectional analysis,” BiopoliticalPhilosophy.Com (January 30, 2020), https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2020/01/30/the-costs-of-flying-an-intersectional-analysis-guest-post/?fbclid=IwAR2fHrBq8262HXnaWrPrK5Ak8Jm0McJluEbHjfXLpbMujK49INOMUvDn00w

33 For example, Goldsmiths, University of London, removed beef products from sale in 2019, https://www.gold.ac.uk/news/carbon-neutral-plan/

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