In recent decades, the West has appeared almost ‘invincible’ when faced with the threat of exogenous environmental or biological shocks. In accordance with traditional modernity narratives, infectious diseases particularly seemed to belong to either the premodern world or a contemporary ‘underdeveloped’ world. Now that the West is in the full grip of a pandemic, however, it has become increasingly difficult to uphold the same modern/non-modern dichotomy. Moreover, the arrival of COVID-19 in Western countries has been characterised as a consequence of institutional failure or at least an omen of future structural institutional change. These institutions, however, are known to have been designed for perpetuating the ‘status quo’ rather than protecting the societies they govern against environmental shocks. Accordingly, we argue that modern institutions should not be seen as smooth, hermetically sealed, protective systems, but rather as inherently uneven, imperfect structures whose imperfections come to the surface in times of crisis. That is to say that institutional systems may ultimately prove capable of withstanding environmental shocks, yet social groups and ecological systems may still remain vulnerable, raising questions with regard to theoretical frameworks and methodologies used by historians on this topic.

dx.doi.org/10.1484/J.JHES.5.122476, hdl.handle.net/1765/133044
Journal for the History of Environment and Society
Department of History

Hilkens, B., van Besouw, B., & Curtis, D.R. (2020). A Modern Rendition of a Pre-modern Scenario: Imperfect Institutions and Obscured Vulnerabilities. Journal for the History of Environment and Society, 5(1), 211–221. doi:10.1484/J.JHES.5.122476