Historians on Planetary Futures, 2021-2022 Seminar Series

Historians on Planetary Futures, 2021-2022 Seminar Series

The future of the planet is an overwhelming problem, which stretches and confounds the limits of human conception. In our climate-changed present, attempts to confront this topic have swelled with an understandable sense of urgency and a compelling ethical force. Inspired by this, Historians on Planetary Futures presents perspectives that explore the interrelated ecological, biopolitical, and existential challenges that face humans across multiple temporal and physical scales. The series will broach new histories of the planet and its future that explore the nature of spatial, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries, the connections between politics, humans, and earth processes, and the traditions, opportunities, and difficulties of thinking about the future.

The historians in this series bring a set of concerns and questions that broaden and deepen our collective conversations about possible futures of the planet Earth and the entanglement of such visions with the viability of human habitation. What pasts prefigure planetary futures? How have planetary futures been produced and reproduced by discrete projects of world-making? When and why do planetary futures revolve around the question of human population? Do planetary futures ever slip out of anthropocentric frames? How have world, earth, and planetary histories overlapped and how have they diverged?

By asking questions like these historians might traverse the threshold between planetary pasts, presents, and futures, and strike a balance between the urgency of our times and what Donna Haraway calls the ‘sublime indifference’ induced by despair of what’s to come.

This series ended in April 2022. Catch up on recorded sessions below.


8 February 2022, 10am (AEDT/UTC +11) – Dr James Dunk, University of Sydney

‘Safe Operating Space? Limits, Boundaries and Psychology on a Small Planet’

22 February 2022, 10am (AEDT/UTC +11) – Professor Libby Robin, the Australian National University

‘”World-mindedness” and the Local: National Parks for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics’

1 March 2022, 6pm (AEDT/UTC +11) – Professor Duncan Kelly, University of Cambridge

‘Wartime for the Planet?’

15 March 2022, 10am (AEDT/UTC +11) – Assistant Professor Perrin Selcer, University of Michigan

‘A Life in Planetary History’

29 March 2022, 10am (AEDT/UTC +11) – Professor Kavita Philip & Dr Paroma Wagle, University of British Columbia

‘Climate Crisis and the problem of Scale in Planetary History’

12 April 2022, 6pm (AEST/UTC +10) – Dr Mica Jorgenson, University of Stavanger

‘Smoke Seasons: Living with Wildfire since 1900’


‘Should Historians Spend More Time Thinking about the Future?’

I will make two arguments. First, I will make the general case for more inter-disciplinary scholarship, on the grounds that disciplinary borders can blinker us. Second, I will make that case by focusing on a particular scholarly border: the border between past thinking (what historians do) and future thinking (what futurists do). These different domains require very different kinds of scholarship, but I will argue that historians have much to gain by taking future thinking more seriously. Indeed, I will argue that careful thinking about plausible futures can transform our understanding of the past by encouraging discussions about very long trends in human history, including trends that may extend beyond the present.

Professor David Christian, UNSW & Macquarie University

‘Safe Operating Space? Limits, Boundaries and Psychology on a Small Planet’

The 1972 report Limits to Growth, the first production of the planetary management think tank Club of Rome, used new technology and systems modelling to plot a series of simulated growth scenarios. Selling 30 million copies in over 30 languages, it made a powerful intervention in a foundational environmental discourse of finitude, becoming one of the most influential contributions to planetary imaginaries. Twenty, thirty, and forty-year updates to the report helped structure a continuing anxiety about limits which led into the planetary boundaries framework – a set of theoretical and diagrammatic, contestable and contested numerical parameters which defined a ‘safe operating space’ in which the human species might subsist. They were intangible and theoretical but apparently deadly thresholds.

In this paper I interpret this discourse as the expression of a certain spatial logic written into environmental governance, and show how, as the limits continued to press in to that safe space, the data scientists who authored the report began to ask what might explain the continuing lurch towards general collapse. I show how lead author Donella Meadows, in particular, turned from the study of exterior limits for economic growth to the interior boundaries which separated the human psyche from the planet.

Dr James Dunk, University of Sydney

‘“World-mindedness” and the Local: National Parks for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics’

The idea of “the environment”, a multi-faceted new understanding of the natural world emerged in the 1940s it was an integrating idea with deep origins in western thinking “whose time had come”, joining together conservation, preservation, agriculture, water management and waste disposal. The environment emerged out of natural resource management, wise use philosophies and natural history, putting them together in new ways. It was both planetary and highly local, and its definition was broad and inclusive, yet its regional manifestations depended on the ecologies, concerns, and expertise locally, with a few exceptions that defied national political borders (such as international “flyways” created by mass migrations of birds and marine environments).

In Australia, post-war reconstruction was practical and often rural. By the mid-1950s, new ideas about whole landscape management, including national parks, were filtering through international scientific networks. National parks required new alliances between local, State, and federal governments, and these came together for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, when conservative forces led a conservation movement that looked very different from 1970s environmental activism. This historical story suggests ways for environmental and climate activism in the 21st century to become less polarized, more inclusive, and more effective.

Professor Libby Robin, the Australian National University

‘Wartime for the Planet?’

The language of planetary war, or of a war for the planet, is part of the general discourse around an ‘uninhabitable earth’ as well as the politics of the Anthropocene today. My discussion will attempt to connect the evolution of this language of planetary war in the epoch of the Anthropocene, to the theory and practice of a ‘global’ war during the First World War. By doing so, the discussion will consider some similarities, as well as divergences, that might exist in terms of our understanding of ecological destruction, population politics, and the environmental history of political theory, that connects the two periods. The tension between the ‘global’ and the ‘planetary’ provides an intriguing framework through which to pursue the wider question of whether or not we might, at least at the level of political theory, want to think about the genealogy of the Anthropocene with reference less to the period of the Great Acceleration, than to the First World War.

Professor Duncan Kelly, University of Cambridge

‘A Life in Planetary History’

After world, transnational, and global comes planetary history. The “great acceleration” of the planetary turn provides a thrilling ride, zooming historians across temporal and spatial scales and into a future that is both more predictable and more uncertain than ever before. The stakes feel existential for our families, our species, and life on Earth. Explorations into the unstable conditions of the Anthropocene inspire heady multidisciplinary collaborations between humanists and Earth System scientists (ESS), which leading scholars of the planetary turn recognize as a paradigm shift. Yet the embrace of ESS also represents a return to functionalist approaches about which historians have long been suspicious. Beyond issues of determinism, Earth System models necessarily lack the structural resolution to reproduce the history of particular species, let alone actual individuals, about which people care. Types of life animate the models merely as functional processes. Rather than dismissing the valuable perspective ESS affords, this paper describes alternative paleo-scientific practices that begin with individual organisms, in this case mammoths and mastodons. These “life histories” recall older forms of descriptive natural history, but incorporate state-of-the-art techniques (especially CT imaging and isotopic analysis of tusks) that enable reconstructing an ancient animal’s internal and external milieu at sub-seasonal temporal scales. From biographies of unique specimens, scientists reconstruct regional environments and contemplate the evolution and extinction of species. I argue that these microhistories of the deep past provide a rich source of insights, analogies, and narratives for humanists telling planetary histories.

Assistant Professor Perrin Selcer, University of Michigan

‘Climate Crisis and the Problem of Scale in Planetary History’

This paper studies some common narratives of climate change, observing a contrast between universalist narratives of nature’s beauty and power, on the one hand, which seem to articulate hopes for a universal human subjectivity that can shape a planet-saving agenda, and Global South urban histories, on the other, that appear to articulate locally-circumscribed claims to social justice. We argue, via an example of South Asian urban history, that climate change activists need to stage difficult arguments about inequality and justice. Beginning from local urban politics, with agendas inflected by race, class, gender, and other historical axes of inequality, can help develop a strategy for global climate justice that is more effective than universalist humanism.

Professor Kavita Philip & Dr Paroma Wagle, University of British Columbia

‘Smoke Seasons: Living with Wildfire since 1900’

Climate change means wildfires on every continent are getting longer and more intense. As apocalyptic images of orange skies and charred landscapes circulate on social media, those of us living in fire ecologies add a fifth season to our annual cycle: the smoke season. Although the first sparks of combustion are localized events, forest fires quickly become cascading crises impacting massive geographies. Each year, airborne pollution from distant forest fires darkens the skies of the world’s cities, kills hundreds of thousands of people, slows economies, and provokes environmental anxiety.

Today’s smoke seasons lie within a longer history of human-smoke interaction (wild and domestic). That relationship has been brought to a breaking point over the last century. Based on research conducted in Northern Canada and Scandinavia (and extended to Australia, America, and Southern Europe), this talk chronicles our sensory engagement with wildfire through smoke. The smell of burning and the sight of rising plumes held specific meanings for people that changed over time. I argue that smoke history is tangled up with colonialism, industrialisation, and the environmental movement. Our complicated relationship with smoke creates serious challenges for modern wildfire policy. Understanding the historical roots of these challenges offers insights to help us navigate our smokey future.

Dr Mica Jorgenson, University of Stavanger

This series is sponsored by the Laureate Centre for History & Population and the New Earth Histories Research Program, UNSW

Convenors: Dr Jarrod Hore, Dr Stephen Pascoe, and Dr Emma Thomas.