Brian Lander, formerly a Ziff Environmental Fellow at Harvard University, joins the ranks of IBES fellows this fall as Assistant Professor of History.
Lander, an environmental historian, specializes in examining the millennia-long degradation of Chinese ecosystems—specifically, the conversion of lowland environments into farmland. His research examines this transformation through a variety of historical lenses: political, ideological, economic, cultural, and more.
“I chose to focus on China,” he explains, “both because humans have transformed its environment more than anywhere else on Earth, and because that process is recorded in unprecedented detail in 3000 years of documents.”
This extensive written record allows Lander to revise common assumptions about the longevity of China’s concerns over pollution.
“Discussions on how to deal with environmental problems are usually based on unspoken assumptions about what the ‘natural’ environment was in some poorly defined ideal past,” he says. “But by looking at human impact on the environment over millennia it becomes clear that environmental problems are not new. The growth of human civilization has been based on destroying the habitat of other species, so any attempt to solve our environmental problems requires us to think hard about what our civilization is and what it could be.”
Lander believes that the Institute is the perfect place both to continue his research and to collaborate with others investigating related concerns pertaining to environmental sustainability.
“A long-term historical perspective suggests that solar panels and organic farming cannot save the Earth unless they’re combined with more profound changes to our social, political and economic systems,” he says. “An interdisciplinary center devoted to the environment is the ideal place to think through these questions.”