Understanding how our ancestors may have benefited from industrialisation and colonialism could help us become more climate-friendly citizens.
Engaging people when it comes to climate change can be challenging. Climate conversations are often technical and dry, making it hard to see how it connects to our own lives. As a historical researcher I’ve been figuring out how we can make this connection clearer, and believe that taking a look at our family histories might hold the answer.
While climate change might seem abstract or distant, our own history is inherently personal. Tracing a family tree can show how historical events, including those that influenced climate change, altered life courses. Through pilot research with my own family tree, I’ve found that family history can be a useful tool for understanding how the root processes that kickstarted climate change created the world we now inhabit.
Put simply, climate change is the result of two processes: industrialisation and colonialism. Industrialisation is when a society’s primary mode of production shifts from manual agricultural labour to machine-aided manufacturing. Colonialism is when one nation occupies and exerts control over another, usually involving violence and exploitation.
Both processes are underpinned and sustained by a culture of extraction: the mindset, still present in western societies today, that all resources (natural, like trees, and cultural, like traditions) exist to be capitalised on in some way.
The industrial revolution was a major contributor to climate change. Shutterstock
In British history, this is reflected in the intertwined growth of the industrial revolution and the British empire. Both were fed by extracting coal to fuel factories, railways and steamships; extracting the raw materials required to produce goods; and exploiting land and labour from subjugated nations and the British working class.
Let’s look at some examples from my own family. Samuel Polyblank (born around 1816), one of my great-great-great-grandfathers, was a shipwright from London’s East End. The ships he worked on helped to feed demand for international trade, taking goods to and from the colonies. They may even have been used by the East India Company, the world’s first global corporate superpower, and a key player in colonial rule and exploitation in Asia.
Through his work, Samuel Polyblank found himself caught up in, and working to support, a system whose impacts – including widespread deforestation, pollution, soil sterilisation and biodiversity collapse – continue to be felt today.[…]
Postdoctoral Research Associate in History, Aberystwyth University