History, Environment and Complexity


I have been away from the blog for a couple of weeks due to a particularly busy period of deadlines and other projects. As a ‘doer’ I tend to fill my life with projects and get involved as much as I can, in so much as I usually always have a few voluntary projects on the go. The down side of this is that sometimes I cannot find the time to sit down and write a blog article, or at least one that people may want to read so I apologise for the lack of communication recently. Having said this, there are many benefits to filling my life in this way, perhaps none more so that I meet and interact with many inspiring people who motivate me in turn to achieve my goals. They introduce me to ideas and concepts that I may not otherwise hear about, I experience new things and I can reflect through coming into contact with other perspectives. I enjoy balancing the perspectives of each group, be that historians, farmers, conservationists, environmentalists, against the others and I always try to look for common ground but also arguments that may favour one side over another. It also means I can reflect on why and how these differences of opinion have come about in the first place. I realise this approach heavily draws on my historical training but it is also influenced by my more recent understanding of other issues which I will openly admit is always growing and being challenged. Whilst all of my projects are broadly based around environmental issues their thematic base reaches far more widely, meaning that my understanding is constantly shifting.

Like many of you, my dear readers, my interest in conservation and the land sector more broadly means that I am faced with a myriad issues and there is the potential for me to spend all of my time either staring at a screen or engrossed in a book reading about the natural world and the intricacies surrounding it or experiencing it directly in the outdoors. My interest in history magnifies the scope of issues I like to engage with. This short context sets the scene for a theme that I have wanted to engage with for a while – complexity.

Complexity fascinates me and is the linkage between the disparate yet connected interests in my life. From the web of historical narratives and arguments to perspectives on landscape change and management, ecological processes and the subtle interactions between culture, nature and economics, I tend to approach issues with a broader perspective in mind, attempting to draw on the wide framework and to analyse the complexity amongst the perceived tangle. This doesn’t necessarily lead to understanding but critically it can raise questions that can be reflected on and will perhaps offer answers to dealing with developing issues from a nuanced perspective.

Gonna poke the croc
‘The Lake Ecosystem’ by Abhishek Singh

Complexity can be found everywhere – it’s in every topic, in every challenge we face, in relationships, in academia, in business, economics, the natural world, space, time and Planet Earth itself.

I have often made the supporting case for society needing ‘generalists’ in addition to specialists and am aspiring to fit myself in this category by slowly broadening my experience, knowledge base and personal network to allow me to engage with the diverse issues to do with land, its past and future. I am a strong believer that it is important to focus on carrying out small changes that are achievable but never forgetting the bigger picture. By at least attempting to understand the interactions and mutual impacts between historical narrative, agriculture, conservation, cultural change, landscape change, community identity, economics, political science, natural science, the arts and literature, one is able to take a more balanced view of the bigger picture. This can then be used for educational purposes, policy making or, in my case, literary reflection.

Is it however possible for such a generalist approach to have real utility in an age and a culture where it is seemingly only really ‘experts’ who are respected and we are all encouraged to be specific in our own personal knowledge paradigm? This question is constantly in my head, challenging my perspective and perhaps suggesting that instead of looking to achieve a broad brush approach I should choose to specialise in a single area. There is no right or wrong answer to the question but it is a difficult one and we are all faced by it at some point in our lives. The reality is however that most (perhaps sensible) people choose to go down the specialist route, if indeed they choose to channel their life and career down a particular path.

Making the case for complexity

So what is complexity and why is it important that we don’t shy away from it from an individual perspective?

I suggest you watch this short video first of all to gauge an idea of the scale of complexity.

Complexity is described in the Oxford English dictionary as a noun representing ‘the state or quality of being intricate or complicated’.

Complexity science originated in physics, maths and information theory but it has grown into other areas of study, particularly ecology. It recognises that complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. Complexity is about connections and interactions. Small causes can sometimes have big effects elsewhere – in the economy for example or in global climate change. Causes are also often unpredictable and it is incredibly important that we do more work to understand small interactions and how these can develop to have big effects.

Why is it important we don’t shy away from acknowledging and attempting to understand complexity on an individual basis?

  • Firstly, our own actions, if individual or as part of a collective, have the potential to impact more widely, on a personal basis, a societal basis and an ecological basis.
  • Secondly, if we live our lives through a single perceptual perspective we close our minds to other points of view and other exciting topics and challenges.

We should not and must not shy away from it.

It is also important to understand it on a cultural basis, even when it comes to understanding and acknowledging the term itself.

If you search for synonyms of complexity you meet the following:

  • Complication
  • Intricacy
  • Ramification
  • Convolution
  • Elaboration
  • Entanglement
  • Involvement
  • Multiplicity

In my head however, many of these words conjure up very different associations and I’m not sure I would use them all synonymously with the way that I see complexity in my head. Complexity needn’t be a tangle of issues but merely issues that are seemingly on different flight paths and are in need of tying together in such a way that there is mutual benefit. Complexity has its intricacies but I’m not sure whether it is an intricacy in itself. It can certainly be complicated but it is also possible to understand it in its entirety.

Many historians are drawn to their discipline through a fascination with complexity and questions of how to approach it. In the video below, social and cultural historian Dr Erika Hanna, now a lecturer in modern history at the University of Bristol, explains how complexity was fundamental in her reasons for becoming an historian and how different sources, in this case photographs can be used to explore it through a social and cultural perspective. The clip highlights my earlier point that complexity can be found everywhere and is of interest to all disciplines.

So where do generalists come on board here?

Society could deal with complexity by allocating individual members distinct roles that they can perform or set problems they can deal with. Then, when we come together we can solve these problems by sharing group ideas. However, although I largely take a communitarian perspective in life I would like to make a case for the role of the generalist who can directly understand and sympathise with the points of view of the individual expert. The generalist will not have as in depth knowledge of the problem or solutions as the ‘expert’ but critically they bring to the table a more nuanced understanding of the broader picture and can perhaps see potential impacts on other people and sectors that the ‘expert’ cannot. I am not saying that it is impossible for the expert to see this bigger picture but it is certainly easier for someone whose interests bridge several camps to see a solution that might have broader benefit.

I come to this perspective as someone who, in quite a short time period, has seen and experienced several relationships of dichotomy where the value of each side has perhaps not be valued sufficiently by the other. For example, conservation v farming; arts v sciences; birders v lepidopterists. I am perhaps going a little too far here, especially with the latter groups who I hope will not take offence (naturalists are invariably very good at seeing the broader perspective – perhaps due to a general interest in ecological interactions), but hopefully you get my point that sometimes we entrench ourselves to such an extent within a single camp that we struggle to see the perspective of the other side. We should look for mutual ground but also put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss etc will be much better tackled if we involve many different groups (of experts), but also bridge the gaps between these groups by generalists who will encourage mutual cooperation.

Complexity can be dealt with in many ways and is certainly not something to shy away from. Indeed, I find complexity is the glue between my different interests. By embracing it and working to understand the interactions between these I believe I will be able to achieve a more balanced and nuanced way of approaching the world. To discuss, let alone completely understand complexity is perhaps an impossible hope, but in life I am already finding that the old cliché ‘the more you know the less you know’ is highly profound and if in reflecting metaphysically we avoid tackling complexity we cannot hope to make any progress in terms of the ultimate questions regarding space, time, morality and life.

3 thoughts on “History, Environment and Complexity

  1. This is an excellent post. Biodiversity conservation involves many different fields: ecology, psychology, sociology, economics, political science, history, etc. Consequently, I think we need conservationists who have a general understanding of several of those domains; so that they can spot patterns that might otherwise be overlooked. As you mentioned it’s also possible to deal with this issue by bringing together lots of different experts. But my own experience has been that when an individual studies one area so intimately as to be christened an expert, they run the risk of developing strong biases towards their own field. As such they may be tempted to dismiss perfectly valid arguments from those who specialize in other areas…especially if their expert status makes them overconfident.

    1. Thank you for this comment Josh. You hit the nail on the head when you suggest how easy it is to dismiss other arguments when your own point of view becomes so inherently entrenched in the subject at large. The most important thing is to open our awareness and remain open to debate, questioning and other points of view. Instead of digging our heels in we should be encouraged to appreciate and seek out the perspectives of other disciplines which, I believe, can only enhance our experience and overall knowledge of the subject or object.

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