Can we learn from the past? Towards better analogies and historical inference in society-environmental change research


In light of the challenges posed by contemporary environmental changes, interest in past environmental impacts and societies’ responses to them is burgeoning. The main strength of such research lies in its ability to analyze completed society-environment interactions. Scholars have argued that such analyses can improve our understanding of present challenges and offer useful lessons to guide adaptation responses. Yet despite considerable differences between past and present societies, our inherently limited knowledge of the past and our changing understanding of it, much of this research uses historical antecedents uncritically, assuming that past societal impacts and responses are directly analogous to contemporary ones. We argue that this approach is unsound both methodologically and theoretically, thus drawing insights that might offer an erroneous course of action. To illustrate the challenges in drawing historical analogies, we outline several fundamental differences between past and present societies as well as broader limitations of historical research. Based on these points, we argue that scholars who apply historical inference in their work should do so critically, while reflecting on the objectives of learning from the past and the limitations of this process. We suggest a number of ways to improve past-present analogies, such as defining more explicitly what we can learn from the past, clarifying the rationale for using the analogy, and reducing the number of variables compared between past and present.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Amit Tubi
Eran Feitelson
Paul Kay
Dan Tamir
Global Environmental Change