‘Pollution was seen as an inevitable consequence of development’

Today, we are facing major challenges in the areas of climate change, inequality, and health. Historian Sunil Amrith is convinced that by charting the historical development of these problems, we can tackle them more effectively. For his research on environmental, health, and migration history in South and Southeast Asia, he received the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History.

Lees dit interview in het Nederlands (NewScientist)

Air pollution is one of the most common causes of death in India today. As early as the 1940s, doctors warned of the harmful health effects of air pollution, but it has not been possible to solve this problem to date. The same is true of climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Sunil Amrith, professor of history at Yale University in the United States, is trying to understand how such problems can continue to grow for years when the knowledge is there. ‘Hopefully, this understanding will help us determine how to get out of this mess,’ says Amrith.

Amrith focuses specifically on the history of South and Southeast Asia – roughly the area between Pakistan and Indonesia. In addition to environmental and health history, he also charts the large-scale migration that has taken place in this region. A common thread in his work is inequality between and within countries, which often has its origins in colonial history. This inequality in wealth, power, and political voice continues to be felt today, causing people to face today’s challenges, such as climate change, from very unequal starting positions.

Whereas historians have been recording the history of politics, social systems, and culture for centuries, environmental history only gained a firm foothold in the 1980s. ‘Environmental history helps us better understand economic change and social history,’ says Amrith. ‘People have never been detached from nature, although that has often been the ambition of engineers and governments.’ One of the environmental aspects Amrith has studied is water. ‘In the Netherlands, you know only too well how great an effect water and water management can have on history,’ he laughs. ‘The same applies to South and Southeast Asia. Take the monsoon, for example, a highly seasonal pattern of rainfall that is very unevenly distributed over the area. It has caused great regional disparities in food security and has had far-reaching consequences for the way in which agriculture and the economy are organised.’

Rivers, too, have strongly influenced the history of South and Southeast Asia. ‘About three billion people depend on the rivers that rise in the Himalayas for irrigation, drinking water, and fishing, among other things,’ says Amrith. ‘These rivers have faced various crises, such as climate change and pollution. But damming has also caused great tensions between countries. The tendency is to build bigger and bigger dams, at ever shorter distances from each other, and higher up into the mountains.’ This increases the number of dam breaches, with all that that entails – not only for the inhabitants near the dam, but also in the countries further downstream.

‘The question is always who pays – directly and indirectly – for these projects,’ says Amrith. ‘It is not evenly distributed. In India, for example, some 40 million people have had to relocate since the 1940s due to damming and other major infrastructure projects. This is not a random forty million, but mostly tribal people. They do not have the same political voice and the same power to negotiate for compensation, let alone to prevent these projects from taking place. This is a pattern that is still relevant today. The people who consume very little, and thus have contributed very little to the global climate crisis, are often the first to suffer the consequences. Over the last twenty years, extreme weather conditions have become more frequent worldwide. Communities in South and Southeast Asia that live in informal settlements are the first to suffer, as these are often low-lying settlements with little protection from storms and flooding.’

Yet the relationship between devastating environmental conditions and migration is less straightforward than you might initially think, Amrith discovered. ‘About half a century ago, the idea prevailed that environmental factors determine everything, especially in poorer countries in Asia. The thinking was: if Asian workers migrate, it is because of floods or droughts. But since the 1980s, we have realised that it is much more complex: family networks, economic opportunities, and people’s dreams also play a major role. But now we have gone a bit too far – at the end of the twentieth century, migration studies no longer had any connection with the environment. This was because historians were anxious to keep away from the image of Asian migrants as an unwilling plaything of circumstances. So, when we talk about climate migration in the future, we can learn a lesson from this: there are always multiple and complex reasons for migration. Even in the case of climate change, not everyone can migrate just anywhere. Where people can go is limited by the politics, borders, and policies of neighbouring countries. There is definitely a relationship between climate change and migration. But it is always cumulative. It is not as if climate change comes out of nowhere and suddenly makes an area uninhabitable. Mostly it is about how climate change brings existing inequalities and other challenges to a head.’

Amrith studied the history of migration in South and Southeast Asia and wrote the book Crossing the Bay of Bengal, which appeared in 2015. ‘The Bay of Bengal, the north-eastern part of the Indian Ocean, was one of the most interconnected and mobile regions in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries,’ he says. ‘Historians often focus on large-scale migration across the Atlantic. But at least as many people crossed the Bay of Bengal at the end of the nineteenth century.’ Amrith showed that this migration ensured a constant circulation of cultural, religious, and political ideas. But in addition to the story of solidarity, the book also tells the story of growing division. At that time, Southeast Asia was largely in the hands of the British Empire. As more and more countries gained independence, nationalists wanted to stop large-scale migration, believing that the free movement of people was not in the interest of the newly formed countries. ‘That is also a message of the book,’ says Amrith. ‘How quickly a region held together by the movement of people can freeze and fall apart.’

Health crisis
Currently, Amrith is working on the relationship between air pollution and health in India. ‘Cities in India are among the most polluted in the world. Yet this has only recently been treated as a public health crisis. Previously, it was seen as an inevitable consequence of industrialisation and development.’ Doctors in India warned of the harmful health effects of air pollution and supported this with studies. An important question is how this nevertheless could have become such a major problem. ‘This has to do with a universal problem,’ says Amrith. ‘Since the middle of the twentieth century, the world has stuck to a specific path of development. The goal was: increase the middle class, they buy cars, and use them instead of public transport. It was supposed to provide more freedom and comfort. Cars, along with industrial pollution, are a major reason why the air pollution problem has grown so rapidly. For a long time, the idea prevailed that pollution was the inevitable consequence of welfare development. The same happened in industrialising European and North American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In London, for example, there was a major smog problem. It was only after the smog crisis in the 1950s that the UK began to regulate air quality. The American Clean Air Act only really came into being in 1970. India too has had good air pollution laws since the 1970s, but enforcement is a major problem. It is outsourced to local governments that do not have the authority to do much. Yet it is not an entirely negative story. In the early 2010s, around two hundred million people in India had no access to electricity. They only had access to cheaper, more polluting sources of energy. For example, they cooked using biomass. Now, the availability of electricity in India has grown significantly, although much of it is still generated by coal. But more and more comes from solar panels. So, things are definitely moving in the right direction.’

Sunil Amrith (Kenya, 1979) grew up in Singapore and then moved to the United Kingdom to study history at Cambridge University. He received his PhD in history from the same university in 2005. After working briefly as a researcher at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was appointed lecturer at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. In 2015, he was appointed Mehra Family Professor of South Asian History at Harvard University. Since 2020, he has been Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History at Yale University. Among other things, he has received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Sunil Amrith studies the history of South and Southeast Asia. He is interested in the close ties between the two regions, focusing mainly on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among other things, he has mapped out the large-scale migration between these areas. He also focuses on the history of the environment. He recently wrote the book Unruly Waters, in which he explains why water has played such an important role in the history of South and Southeast Asia. In his work, he tries to find the historical origins of the great inequality that exists today between and within countries.

Heineken Prizes
Every two years, Heineken Prizes are awarded to five renowned international scientists and one artist. In 1964, Alfred Heineken established the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics as a tribute to his father. Later, Heineken Prizes for the Arts, Medicine, Environmental Sciences, Historical Sciences, and Cognitive Sciences followed.


Sunil Amrith — Historian