Profile: Emma Rothschild
By: Dan Morrell
Emma Rothschild’s first book, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (1973), was borne of a trio of influences: An interest in the politics of Michigan and the auto industry, a fascination with the decline of one of the country’s leading economic sectors, and a blossoming interest in the environmental challenges posed by automobiles.
Those early days of the environmental movement—as it was beginning its ascent into the public consciousness—were heady times, says the Knowles professor of history, recalling her involvement in environmental issues while attending MIT in the late 1960s. “It was a change in perspective in the world. It was tremendously exciting.”
Rothschild shares a similar enthusiasm about the recent rise of environmental concerns in her field of study, which today focuses on eighteenth and nineteenth century history. “Environmental history has become much more established in the last ten years, and is connecting to central parts of historical scholarship, political history, and social history,” she says. “It’s part of the mainstream.” An example of particular interest to Rothschild is the recently launched Energy History Project, a research collaboration between Harvard’s Joint Center for History and Economics and the MIT Research Group on History, Energy, and Environment.
Her interactions with other scholars on the project have been revelatory. While writing her most recent book, The Inner Life of Empires, which examineseighteenth century Scotland through the well-documented exploits of one of its (what does prolific mean in this context?) political families, she says she began to think about the family’s (the family’s? antecedent unclear) reliance on wind and rivers for transport and the effects of climate and environment on their health and character. “It is by talking about energy history that I had the idea that one could re-evaluate eighteenth century economic history by incorporating an energy accounting. And I expect that other really quite important issues in world history—like the economics of the slave trade—will be illuminated by adding an energy perspective.”
This kind of historical work has modern applications. Rothschild notes that one of her Energy History Project colleagues, Paul Warde of the University of East Anglia, is studying historical periods of energy transition—from wood to coal and coal to oil—and all of the economic, social, and spatial transformations that came with those changes. “I think there is a real possibility there of contributing to a relatively new part of the historical discipline—one that has huge implications for how we think about important public policy choices,” she says—“in particular, how we deal with energy transitions. That is… extremely important for people to think about as the world contemplates an even larger scale transition from the use of fossil fuels to renewables.”
Practicing historical research that has contemporary utility is exactly what Rothschild sees as the ultimate goal of the Energy History Project: “We want to understand how our societies got to where they are now—with respect to energy use and the ensuing patterns of land use and social organization,” she says. This kind of information will “help us to think about the enormous choices that lie ahead—in the not-very-distant-future.”