Managing and Mismanaging the Earth’s Resources Through History

ACMRS speaks to Director of Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Director of Lightworks Project, Professor Gary Dirks

By Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Asst. Director, ACMRS

When Professor Gary Dirks, born and raised in South Dakota, speaks of sustainability as a concept, he stresses that human well-being is inseparable from natural well-being. Any attempt to distance the two is, in his words, a “fool’s play.” It is also an example of a “bubble mentality,” one that purports to analyze factors in isolation when they are, in fact, inextricably linked. Humans must live well, Dirks emphasizes, because if we cannot live well, we will also be incapable of dealing with the environment in any reasonable manner.

ACMRS sat with Professor Gary Dirks recently, and, in an enjoyable and enlightening session with the Dean of the Wrigley School of Sustainability, we exchanged impressions on the role that the environment has had in history, and the need to understand both the environment’s impact on humans and human’s impact on the environment. For instance, geological analysis of the British and Irish coastlines of the so-called Dark Ages (500-900 AD), when compared with photographic evidence from the late 19th century, shows a marked receding of the land; legends of “disappeared islands”, such as Avalon, may have their basis in a climatological phenomenon. In the Andes, climatologists are studying how the rise of the Inca Empire may have been facilitated by a warm spell in the early 12th century. Armies and people matter, but they are never the sole determining factors.

If we are just one piece of a puzzle then, what is our role, particularly in the Humanities, of effecting any sort of positive change in our ecosystem? Professor Dirks notes that this question has several components. Humanities, he says, not only have an important role in the conversation regarding the stewardship of earth’s resources, they can initiate and lead the dialogue. This would, it should be added, be tantamount to a return to the active role of the intellectual in the Early Modern period, and it provides an alternative to the “ivory tower” refuge preferred by some. It’s an ivory tower fraught with danger, because it risks makes Humanities irrelevant.

As scholars of Renaissance thought know, intellectuals of the 16th through 18th centuries adopted radically divergent positions: one can think of Bartolome de Las Casas, Montaigne, and Jonathan Swift, with their unequivocal condemnations of imperial conquest; one could think of the chronicler Juan Gines de Sepulveda, at the court of Carlos V in Valladolid, or the spymaster Frances Walsingham, at the court of Elizabeth Tudor in Greenwich, who lauded colonial wars. Whatever their points of view, one cannot accuse any of them of hiding from the issues. Their positions centered on the ethical dilemmas of their day. There was no ivory tower to hide in.

What Gary Dirks speaks of is a return to this type of engagement apropos our planet and the environment in which we live. It should be, he stresses, an engagement framework that functions at all levels: the community, the school, the professional world. Engineers, says Gary, won’t initiate the dialogue: they are involved in the analysis and planning that their job entails. But initiating dialogue, real dialogue, is as Dirks rightly observes, the role of the Humanities: to involve, to engage.

And, as ever, there are rules of engagement. Dirks notes that to facilitate true give-and-take on issues of sustainability and human/natural survival, we must be prepared to face what he calls “generations of conversations” that can envision the future; to be more specific, different alternatives for different futures, as all the variables play out. And for that to work, Dirks sees the necessity of peers being able to disagree at the level of their core values, and, this being recognized, continuing to speak and create an interchange of ideas. Easier said than done, perhaps, but this is an absolute necessity in today’s overly polarized political debates. This requires the ability to “manage difficult conversations”, as he says, conversations that must assume the element of uncertainty as a constant presence. These are, to use an excellent example that Gary provided us with, intellectual exchanges with no facile “yes or no” responses. He mentions the telescope on top of Mauna Kea, in Hawaii.

Two years ago, Gary explains, in Hawaii, there was (and is) a need for managing one of the above-mentioned “difficult conversations” as scientists began to move the observatory up the mountain on which it sat, Native Hawaiians protested: the move impinged on traditional sacred land. This is a thorny question, and Gary gets to the heart of the matter: do the two sides even view this issue as different responses to the same problem? Or do they see it as two entirely distinct dilemmas: i.e. indigenous sacred land versus contractual obligations for scientific undertakings? And is it possible to reach a consensual grey point where dialogue can commence? In what Gray refers to accurately as the “increased polarization of our political debate” he asks us to “face the prospect of oncoming generations of difficult conversations which deal with complex systems and issues, in which all of the conversations have, at their core, the issue of uncertainty.”

One is reminded of Native American shamanic philosophy, and indeed of aspects of Buddhist philosophy, in which the illusion of certainty is always undone by constantly changing forms. Change and the environment, and different ways to answer the thorny dilemmas that arise from clashing attitudes towards ecological management, have always constituted the marrow of land-management debates, during the medieval and Early Modern periods, as well as long before, and as we can attest, long afterwards.

We may never entirely understand the nature of ecological and cultural exchanges in Greenland, but we do know that from the 10th through the 14th centuries, Inuit hunters and Norse farmers coexisted, with a fairly constant degree of contact, in a climate that most would view as extreme. Increased evidence for Inuit-Norse contact has been presented by archaeologist Patricia Southerland in Canada’s Baffin Bay area, one that also encompassed several centuries. How was that fairly “extreme” climate managed by two coexisting and unique societies? Sustainability is not a new question, and we can only hope that our answers to the environmental factors which surround us (and sometimes constrict us) will also allow us some degree of success. Humanities, Dirks emphasizes, can fill the void that exists in terms of communication between the sciences, the arts and yes, politics as well, and return to the active role it took in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when ethical and natural dilemmas were debated, endlessly, in centers of learning. This is a historical and contemporary manner of bridging between the university and the wider community that it serves.


Did you like this article? Would you like to learn more? Please attend our upcoming event: Climate Change in Historical Perspective: Lessons for Today from Greenland & the Americas in the Medieval & Early Modern Period on Thursday, October 6th. Free and open to the public