Reckoning with Urgency: Crisis & Radical Environmental History

Jarrod Hore

In June 2020, History Australia journal published a series of articles in a forum entitled ‘Doing History In Urgent Times’. The journal editors invited the Australia & New Zealand Environmental History Network to provide a response. The following essay, Dr Jarrod Hore’s ‘Reckoning with Urgency: Crisis & Radical Environmental History’, was commissioned for this purpose.

Google Earth view of the open cut mines between Singleton and Muswellbrook. The Liddell and Bayswater power stations are situated in the centre of the image, near lake Liddell. The New England Highway runs from bottom right to top left.

I’ve been driving through the Hunter Valley for as long as I can remember. Early on I was only vaguely aware of the black rocks deep below the Pacific Highway between Karuah and Minmi. I supported the local footy team, so I was aware that Newcastle was ‘a coal town,’ whatever that meant. Later on, my family moved to Armidale and our civic trips south to Sydney or Canberra were re-routed along the New England Highway. These drives took us down through the valley on a south-easterly diagonal, eventually bisecting the Bayswater and Liddell power stations and skirting the cluster of open cuts between Muswellbrook and Singleton. Recently I travelled through this restless stretch of country again. Late at night, climbing up the ancient Hunter-Mooki Fault that has shaped and reshaped the valley since Gondwanan times,[1] I could sense the earth moving in long chains at the edges of my vision.

This experience reminded me that our times have a particular feel. In their introduction to the recent ‘Doing History in Urgent Times’ forum in History Australia Yves Rees and Ben Huf identify a climate of ‘seemingly incessant crisis’ that has overwhelmed our entry into the 2020s.[2] In many ways, it’s the motion of changes, the way that events and information wash over and around us, that lends urgency to this moment. And rather than narrowing our consciousness, interconnected crises have demanded a whole range of social and temporal explanations. This has invited historians to reflect on, among many other things, the ecological conditions of rapid urbanisation in China, the social practices of quarantine and isolation, the structural vulnerabilities of neoliberal modes of governance, the shocking endurance of fatal racism, and of course, it has led us back to the looming environmental crisis itself.[3]

Perhaps because of the way that these crises flow into one another on different levels, the key challenge in facing up to them is one of scale. As Tamson Pietsch and Frances Flanagan note in their contribution to this forum the processes that define our historical moment span ‘the immediate and far distant, the intimate and the general.’[4] The transformation of those 250-million-year-old carboniferous rocks that slid past me in the Hunter into heat, electricity and greenhouse gases involves the deepest of planetary histories as well as the closest and most personal. A practice of handling these different kinds of stories is possibly the most important contribution that environmental historians might make to our discipline. Using this skill, we can begin to conceive of the feedback loops that have plunged us into these urgent times and name and describe them for what they are. Then we might start telling their history.

As Katie Holmes, Andrea Gaynor and Ruth Morgan all point out at some point in their contribution to the ‘Doing History in Urgent Times’ forum,[5] past-making is inevitably place-making. Taking the form of ‘radical remembering in place’, environmental histories that proceed from this recognition help us move between scales, reconnect people with the environments that shape their lives in myriad ways, and ultimately, ‘make the planetary personal.’ The vast majority of people may not consciously live at a ‘global’ level, but, like it or not, the series of relationships in which we are all now involved in draw us into new global communities and planetary histories. Environmental historians must help construct accounts of places that make sense of these communities and pasts in order to expose our readers to the true dimensions of contemporary crises.  

The impacts of this kind of imaginative place-and-time work can be transformative. The rapid reconfiguration of the southern Australian mallee into a monoculture of wheat, as Holmes observes, became possible ‘because settlers imagined a radically different kind of landscape’. In this case settler imaginations were explicitly geared toward the future – they summoned ‘vast fields of wheat where thousands of acres of dense mallee scrub grew’ – but in many other instances they turned to the past. During the middle of the nineteenth century mineral prospectors across eastern Australia, for instance, avidly read geological accounts of the formation of landscapes in order to identify new sites. Unlike the mallee settlers, who looked to the future, these equally radical imaginations pushed into the nonhuman worlds of the deep past. As miners deconstructed landscapes to extract minerals like tin, copper and gold they generated totally new local ecologies. Anyone who has visited the Victorian goldfields or the northern New South Wales tin belt will have noticed the uncanny geographies left in the wake of mineral rushes.[6] We might now look on these environmental transformations critically (as we should) but their histories show how subtle shifts in imaginaries can enable and accelerate powerful environmental change.

Here, I think, is where the environmental historians’ notion of ‘radical remembering’ connects with Pietsch and Flanagan’s invitation to join in a ‘process of reckoning’. Moments of transformation often grip us because of their velocity and irresistible directionality, but situating these moments means attending to the groundwork that impelled them. The tin-bearing country of the northern tablelands might have been physically remade by the stripping of vegetation, the sluicing of watercourses and the removal of alluvium in the 1870s and 1880s, but these actions were preceded by a torturous process of geological world-making. The surveyor Charles Wilkinson is often credited with setting off the rushes in 1873 but geologists had been musing on the contents of the earth around Tingha and Inverell from the 1850s, connecting hypotheses to earlier fieldwork and even older Kamilaroi knowledges.

Similarly, although settlers have known about coal in the upper Hunter since the 1820s, those open cuts near Muswellbrook were only exposed in the 1940s, and only in the first decades of this century did the mines expand to anywhere near their current size.[7] Many people take extractive geographies for granted – Newcastle, of course, has always been a ‘coal town’ – and this obscures both the gradual processes of environmental reckoning that created the possibility of extraction in the first place and the magnitude of more recent shifts. Radical remembering means telling both of these stories at once; it means reckoning with the spreading crown of our crisis as well as its deep roots.    

BHP, ‘Newcastle Coalfield, N.E.-S.W. Cross-Section,’ 1960s, BHP Coal Geology Plan Set – M7022-001-BHP, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle:

There are risks here. As Morgan points out in the forum, good history often reveals contingencies at the heart of stable or useful knowledge systems. We get anxious that our projects could ‘potentially fuel concerted efforts to erode the legitimacy of scientific research.’ Like all the contributors to the History Australia forum, I’m conscious too, of the way that longer timespans may redistribute responsibility for planetary crisis away from those who have benefitted most from pillage throughout modernity. Those poetic stories of ‘making and unmaking’ that the nature writer Robert MacFarlane offers us in his recent book Underland sometimes feel a bit more like just another strategy of coping, despite the appeal to deep time obligation and connection.[8] Is this another form of the strategic reconciliation that Gaynor identifies ‘in all settler peoples’? MacFarlane’s humans are clearly ‘agents of both destruction and life’, living off various colonised underworlds and life-forms but also desperately generating new ways of relating to the planet.  

In many ways this is a familiar story for antipodean historians. Many of us are able to identify with the intellectual contortions required to tell a story in which both the dizzying (and deadly) impacts we’ve already had on our planet coexist with the transformative and redemptive capacities that are still latent within humanity. To make any sense of this posture we need to craft a way of scaling our histories – what Paul Kramer calls a ‘temporal architecture’ – that incorporates externalities.[9] In much the same way that the field of environmental history has brought extra-human elements into the domain of history, we need to continue to ask what remains on the outside of our frames, and how this inflects our understandings of the past and present. As Morgan suggests, popular understandings of climate crisis as a technocratic problem to be solved or a scientific issue to deconstruct often misconstrue the environment as something apart from humans. Mitigation may indeed be a mostly political problem, but amidst the entangled and incessant crises of 2020, the folly of trying to isolate and engineer the issue of climate breakdown seems particularly stark.

Many of the contributors to the ‘Doing History in Urgent Times’ forum returned at different points to Bruno Latour’s recent thinking on attachment. What Rees and Huf summarised as an ‘injunction to attach ourselves to the soil beneath us and the world around us’, is a provocative incitement to move amongst the various scales that limit our work. As the American environmental historian Deborah Coen shows in her book Climate in Motion, expanding our knowledge of and investments in the surrounding world can have remarkable effects on how we conceive of natural phenomena, how we might arrive at consensus about them, and how we choose to mediate between different interpretations. Coen’s nineteenth-century Austrian climate scientists may seem an odd template for our pressing global moment, but we could do worse than learn from their expansive climatic consciousness.   

Conrad Martens, ‘Burning Mountain (Wingen Mountain, near Scone),’ 1874, watercolour 61×91 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales,

Travelling back down the Hunter-Mooki Fault last week I stopped for a break at the top of the valley, where a couple of carboniferous basins meet along the southern edge of New England’s granite block. About two kilometres north of the highway there’s an oft-forgotten wonder, a smoking coal seam that’s been burning for at least a few thousand years. It’s on Wonnarua country, but close to boundaries with the Kamilaroi and the Wiradjuri. Local folklore marks out the ‘Wingen maid’, who sits on the southern edge of a distant cliff, waiting for the return of further-flung Wonnarua people. On the spur where a handful of openings disgorge the sulphurous breath of the earth the ground is warm and there are imprints of resting wildlife. Here, where the distant roar of fossil-fuelled vehicles on the highway merges with the bluster of the vents, a whole set of scales align. Many different kinds of stories fall into place and frame the world anew.

Jarrod Hore is an environmental historian of settler colonialism and colonial geology. His interests include spatial history, settler colonial identity, landscape photography, early environmentalism and antipodean Romanticism. In 2020 Jarrod is David Scott Mitchell Memorial Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and the Program Manager of the New Earth Histories Research Program, at UNSW.

[1] The Hunter-Mooki Thrust Fault formed between the Permian period and the mid-Triassic, about 250mya. At this stage Australia was attached to all of the original Gondwanan landmasses (Antarctica, India, South America and Africa), which were attached, themselves to northern landmasses in modern-day north-west Africa.

[2] Yves Rees & Ben Huf, ‘Doing History in Urgent Times: forum introduction’, History Australia, 2020,

[3] Thom van Dooren, ‘Pangolins and Pandemics: The Real Source of This Crisis is Human, Not Animal,’ New Matilda March 22 2020:; Alison Bashford, ‘Beyond Quarantine Critique,’ Somatosphere March 6 2020:; Warwick Anderson, ‘Epidemic Philosophy,’ Somatosphere April 8 2020:; Adam Tooze, ‘We are living through the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene,’ The Guardian May 7 2020:; Adam Tooze, ‘The death of globalisation has been announced many times. But this is a perfect storm,’ The Guardian June 2 2020:; Clare Courbold, ‘The fury in US cities is rooted in a long history racist policing, violence and inequality,’ The Conversation June 2 2020:

[4] Tamson Pietsch & Frances Flanagan, ‘Here We Stand: Temporal thinking in urgent times, History Australia, 2020,

[5] Katie Holmes, Andrea Gaynor & Ruth Morgan, ‘Doing Environmental History in Urgent Times, History Australia, 2020,

[6] Archaeologists Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies have diligently traced out the effects that mining effluent, in particular, had on the landscapes of Victoria in their recent book, Sludge: Disaster on Victoria’s Goldfields (La Trobe University Press, 2019).

[7] This information from Muswellbrook Shire Council, which reports that the local coal mines were producing approximately 4 million tonnes per annum in 2001, 43 million tonnes in 2011 and possibly 80 million tonnes by 2014.

[8] Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019),11-16.

[9] Paul A. Kramer, ‘Bringing in the Externalities: Historians, time work and history’s boundaries, History Australia, 2020,