It’s the Entanglements, Stupid

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Frank Uekötter

Published Mar 31, 2021


The article discusses the pandemic against the backdrop of the recent globalisation of environmental history research. It proposes to view COVID-19 as an exemplary case for the conceptual challenges of the global environment. Rather than searching for the one narrative that captures the essence of the pandemic, scholars should focus on the entanglements of multiple threads. The article identifies four trends that converged in the current pandemic: the global spread of the coronavirus, the efforts of the medical sciences, the global circulation of iconic pictures, and the forceful interventions of nationstates in the fight against the virus and the support of struggling peoples and economies. Each of these trends had its own set of requirements and consequences, but it was the amalgamation of these four narratives that shaped the trajectory of COVID-19 responses. The entangled narratives created a surprisingly narrow path of legitimate action, which suggests that entanglements tend to act as constraints in environmental history. This runs counter to a tendency in global history writing that cherishes entanglements as harbingers of an exuberance of possibilities. The article acknowledges the significance of national and regional differences. But scholars are encouraged to look beyond the specifics. Environmental challenges create a baseline of similarities that transcend national borders, as the current pandemic has shown. If COVID-19 is a typical case for environmental challenges in an age of globalisation, we can view the multidimensional narratives that it requires as a template for environmental history writing across the board. Against this background, the article makes the case for a new style of entangled, non-linear history writing. It discusses the challenges of non-linear histories with particular attention to the moral and methodological quagmires. It also shows how linear narratives gain a fairy tale quality in the face of a multidimensional crises. COVID-19 has opened a narrative void that environmental historians should seek to fill.

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