Learning from the past: a historical approach for a better understanding of environmental changes

Abstract : Since the international conference of Rio (1992), the scientific community and policy-makers underline the notion of ‘environmental crisis’ arisen from increasing anthropisation of earth ecosystems. Thus, they often consider that conflicts between societies and their environment are new phenomena. Historians have a very different point of view because of the temporal depth of their research. They can reveal the diachronic evolution of ecosystems through centuries. They observe processes responsible for ecological breaks but also in some case the capacity of the ecosystems to adapt after a disaster of natural or sanitary origin. We think that such historical approach would be useful also in China. As concrete examples, here we present lessons learned from research carried out in recent years in Europe, mainly in the Jura and the Vosges Mountains. This work was based on a material both voluminous and extremely well adapted to the current questioning on environmental breaks and changes; administrative archives wrote by forestry officers. Monks and army engineers can deliver numerous reports and observations on the ecological and agricultural characteristics of a region as well as often very precise maps giving an idea of the distribution of forests, wildlife and the cultural practices of local populations (forest clearings and agriculture encroachments, hunting, etc.). In Europe, human population dynamics can also be studied from the death registers drafted by religious and governmental authorities since the 17th century. Unusual for non-historian scientists, historical data must be used according to an interdisciplinary methodology and in an ecosystemic perspective. For instance, various opportunities have been offered to research: 1) An initial state of the ecosystem in the aftermath of the Black Death (one of the most devastating plague pandemics in human history) by the end of the 15th century and the return of the wild. The focus was on reforestation processes and the development of wildlife, in particular big predators. 2) The phase of human population recovery from the 1500s onwards. The dynamics of the anthropisation on the frontiers is widely driven by the impact of the epidemics and the wars on demography and consequently, it allowed understanding the recovery mechanisms. 3) The break with nature between the 19th and 20th centuries. With differences between European regions, the rural populations reached their demographic peak and the capitalist economic model prevailed. Habitat fragmentation provoked the crash of the small fauna and gave birth to real wars of extermination against the last big predators (bear, wolf, and lynx) considered competitors for human populations.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 9:03:40 AM
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  • HAL Id : hal-01366042, version 1

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Emmanuelle Garnier. Learning from the past: a historical approach for a better understanding of environmental changes. Research and methods in ecohealth and conservation, GDRI Ecosystem Health and Environmental Disease Ecology, Nov 2016, Kunming, China. ⟨hal-01366042⟩

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