World after
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Dagomar Degroot, Environmental History


Environmental History

Dagomar Degroot


Dagomar Degroot is an associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University. He is the co-founder of the Climate History Network, co-host of the podcast Climate History, and the founder and director of He is the author of Ripples in the Cosmic Ocean and The Frigid Golden Age, which was named one of the ten best history books of 2018 by the Financial Times

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Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

From the perspective of being halfway through this first wave, at least here in the United States, one thing that strikes me as being very positive is that the political fortunes of the populace, and I would say of populism and isolationism more broadly, kind of coming apart. It’s weakening. Because a pandemic is international by nature. The institutions that helped to combat it and to prevent a pandemic tend to be multilateral and even within countries, it’s very difficult as we’ve seen here in the United States to confront pandemics amid widespread political polarization and amid broader distrust in government and expertise, which is of course associated with populism. And so partly for those reasons I think we are seeing the political fortunes of, obviously the likes of Donald Trump, but also, populists elsewhere in the world that have been hard hit, Mexico, for example, Brazil, we see the political fortunes of some of these populace decline. Now, it’s entirely possible that come the second wave, come the fall from the spring, that could all change and history suggests that in some political and social contexts, the fortunes of those who appeal to our basest instincts they seem to rise when there’s a period of profound crisis. So the book is not out on this yet, but right now, that is, I think, a hopeful message.

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

Remain politically engaged. And this has been a common problem, whether it concerns issues of climate change, or racial justice, is that there’s these punctuation moments. To really act on the potential of this moment, people need to remain politically engaged. Obviously that means voting in elections, but that also means, speaking to one another, that means protesting in many cases. That means getting involved in very local politics, whether that’s within corporations, universities, or at the municipal level at the county level. They’re the key really to mobilizing action, I think against populism, but more broadly against are really in favor of action. To prevent and to mitigate, pandemics or climate change or what have you, is to remain politically engaged on many different scales.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

What I would flag would be shortcomings and the capabilities and the prestige of democracies. So this is a geopolitical point, but it’s also a point related to domestic politics. The example of the United States faltering right now is so profound, and will be so profound for people around the world that I think it is contributing to a change in the balance of power between the United States and China, but also in perception of the competence of democracies and authoritarian states, which actually has nothing to do with how competent democracies have been in the face of this crisis versus authoritarian states. There’s democracies, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, the list goes on that have functioned very well, and there are authoritarian states, arguably China, Russia, for example, Turkey, Iran, that have not, I think this is important because we are spending so much capital and creating so much debt and delaying so many important priority areas, including work, to confront climate change and ecological problems, although that might be part of whatever stimulus comes out of this in many societies. We might be looking at is long term degradation in what we’re capable of doing in democratic societies that might not exist to the same extent in authoritarian states and particularly in China, which is, of course, the most important, authoritarian state.

What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

Staying politically engaged is crucial to capitalize on the positive stuff. I think that’s also the case for these more negative elements, for example, turning to higher education, it’s unconscionable that we don’t have stimulus here in the United States for higher ed. $50 billion, could alleviate a lot of the problems that we currently have. And that’s basically pocket change, considering the amount of money that’s flowing through the system right now. So if there was more of a groundswell of outrage, about the fact that we might be losing many of our universities in the coming years, this would be a very different story. Remaining politically engaged voting, obviously, maybe changing political opinions, I think that’s going to be crucial.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

Accurate historical knowledge is very important of how these things end, of what to compare the current pandemic to, as we look into the past, there’s been a lot of bad history that’s been written over the last few months, particularly in major news outlets. But what you want to do is give people a sense that this is a problem that can be overcome and that will be overcome if they act wisely. The less pain they’re prepared to accept in the short term the more pain they will incur in the long term. So accurate historical knowledge of how pandemics have ended in the past in ‘68, ‘57, for example, the 1918, 1919 this is important. That’s what we kind of need to see more of, I think going forwards.
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