Environmental History

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Environmental history is the study of the changing affairs of humans within the natural world. This definition, in contrast to other useful phrasings, such as the study of "interactions between humans and nature" (Merchant, 2002, p. xv), embodies a fundamental, not merely semantic, point of emphasis. First, and obviously, humans are part of nature, biological organisms subject to the laws of physics and biology. More importantly, humankind must be situated within natural processes because, not only do they affect human societies and economies, but human actions increasingly influence natural processes. In the past one hundred years and more, human transformation and degradation of the environment has grown to such proportions that humanity fondly imagines it is liberated from physical limitations and controls nature. It does not. What people need, instead, is an accurate view of their place in nature. Environmental history is a powerful tool for gaining knowledge that can secure humanity's future.

Certain key characteristics of the relatively new field of environmental history, especially its parameters and achievements, can be apprehended in a number of ways: by describing its emergence since the 1970s as a coherent subfield of historical inquiry; identifying the range of interests pursued by environmental historians; assessing the crucial importance of interdisciplinary methods in its practice; considering how environment intersects with gender as an analytical category; and discussing the interplay of different genres and narrative strategies, and the progressive expansion of scale in individual studies.

Development of the Field

Environmental history seemingly burst into view in the scholarly world in the 1970s. Intellectual and political trends, such as the controversy over Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and the first Earth Day (1970), motivated many historians to explore historical aspects of environmental problems. But there were important precursors to the developments of the 1970s, even though this research derived from other specialties and was not explicitly conceived as environmental history. Samuel P. Hays's Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (1959) was a landmark work on environmental politics, and Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (1967) carefully documented evolving perceptions of nature as embodied in wilderness in the United States. Walter Prescott Webb and James Malin produced even earlier work on the Great Plains, which are now acknowledged as pioneering environmental histories, though their primary impact only came later. Influential work by Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and other French historians of the Annales school (founded 1929) inspired others to look anew at agricultural landscapes and the broader role of geography in human affairs.

From the 1940s, the Berkeley school of historical demographers (including historians Woodrow Borah and Lesley Simpson, physiologist Sherburne Cook, and geographer Carl Sauer) initiated the study of Indian population decline in colonial Mexico and the related topics of economic stagnation, land exploitation, and soil erosion. But among the most important contributors to this "prehistory" of environmental historiography were historically minded researchers who were not professional historians, such as geographers Sauer and Clarence Glacken and scientists such as Carson and Aldo Leopold, as well as unclassifiable intellectuals such as Lewis Mumford. By the mid-1970s, with the founding of the American Society for Environmental History and its journal, Environmental Review (now Environmental History ), a distinct field of inquiry had emerged, making it almost impossible to discuss the environment without referring often to the substantial contributions of history.

What Is Environmental History?

A coherent definition helps one understand environmental history. The field emerges still more clearly when considering its range and subject matter, including the prominent issues raised in public discourse on the environmentland degradation, air and water pollution and waste disposal, wildlife conservation and wilderness preservationbut its importance goes beyond simply adding time-depth to current political debates. Environmental history encompasses a holistic view of history through the humannature nexus, and, while not all history is environmental, the field has quite broad parameters. A recent list of topics in U.S. environmental history applies well, with modifications, to global concerns:

modes of living and patterns of natural resource use of indigenous peoples in the Eastern and Western hemispheres;

ideas, plants, animals, diseases, people, and production systems transplanted or encountered by European colonizers and entrepreneurs;

interactions between genders and racial and ethnic groups vying for control of resources;

practices, regulations, and laws used to manage the land;

effects of industrialization and urbanization in creating environmental problems;

ideas about nature and humans' place in it; and

struggles to direct or moderate the impacts of economic development (Merchant, 2002, p. xiv).

Environmental historians also address issues specific to particular places and times, and in this endeavor they are strongly influenced both by historic and current events. The African droughts and famines of 1968 to 1974 and 1984 to 1985 drew attention to the history of famine and food supply, and highlighted the importance of fluctuations in global climate related to El Niño episodes (the periodic warming of ocean currents in the South Pacific), which helped account for still earlier droughts. The post-Columbian collapse of Native American populations brought on by European-introduced diseases inspired fierce debates and research on this unprecedented catastrophe, and on the history of disease in general. Asia's densely populated agrarian landscapes and ancient cities shaped historians' interest in agricultural ecology, irrigation systems, and patterns of urban production and consumption. Few of these issues are exclusive to one area: they point to the necessity of addressing variations in the historical experience of different regions and indicate the broad scope of environmental history.

Richard White's overview of environmental history shows how the field has expanded. While early studies often focused on ideas about nature or political struggles over conservation, partly because of abundant data in the written sources traditionally available to historians, White speculated on future developments in environmental history. After twenty years, one major trend is clear: the proliferation of studies that document and analyze the actual processes of ecological change occurring around the world. Environmental historians have not abandoned their interest in politics and philosophy; they increasingly link them in suggestive ways to interpret observable transformations. Carolyn Merchant formulates a promising synthesis with her theory of ecological revolutions, which are

major transformations in human relations with nonhuman nature. They arise from changes, tensions, and contradictions that develop between a society's mode of production and ecology, and between its modes of production and reproduction. These dynamics, in turn, support the acceptance of new forms of consciousness, ideas, images, and worldviews. (1989, pp. 23)

Her New England study identified colonial and capitalist ecological revolutions, and posited a coming global ecological revolution, offering hope for a sustainable world. Searching everywhere for the same sequence of revolutions would be problematic; in much of Africa and Asia, for instance, capitalism arrived before formal colonialism. But the general concept of ecological revolutions is a valuable one, and has been applied elsewhere (see Jacobs, p. 75).

Interdisciplinary Methods

As the preceding discussion indicates, environmental history draws on an array of disciplines for data, research methods, analytical frameworks, and theoretical insight. Like other historians, environmental historians still rely on written evidence for primary source material. But their subject matter, emphasizing the role of nonhuman nature in human history, requires them to look beyond written records, which contribute so much to history, because for many times and places the physical environment is sparsely documented. Those conventional sources that do exist may not readily yield answers to the questions asked of them, compelling researchers to turn to other disciplines for interpretive assistance. Anthropology, ecology, economics, epidemiology, geography, philosophy, political science, religion, sociology, the history of technology, and women's studies all make vital contributions to understanding the history of humans within nature. Environmental history developed out of necessity as a kind of "interdisciplinary discipline," and it remains so at the start of the twenty-first century, albeit with most practitioners identifying themselves as historians.

Some environmental historians initially drew on ecology, in particular, to enhance their work, attracted by its holistic conception of the earth as a web of organic relationships. In practice it has proven difficult to apply concepts derived from the sciences to human history directly, with all its messy indeterminacy, contingency, and unpredictability. Geography probably did more to shape the field by documenting changing patterns of settlement, land use, and alterations in landscape itself. Field scientists, geographers, and anthropologists inspired the strong commitment to field research that distinguishes environmental history from other kinds of history. As R. H. Tawney famously observed, "What historians need is not more documents but stronger boots" (quoted in Hancock, p. 95). His point was more about engaging with the wider world, but some historians responded literally by pulling on boots and exploring the great outdoors.

Anthropology's fieldwork methods, particularly participant observation, increasingly influenced environmental historians, who took up extended residence in the communities and environments they studied and learned how people actually utilized and interacted with nonhuman nature. Such fieldwork, including data from oral interviews with informants, opened new avenues of inquiry, especially in regions like Africa, the Americas, and other places where literacy either developed relatively recently or reflected the experiences of dominant political and economic actors (Jacobs; Moore and Vaughan). The most fruitful approaches combine written sources with the results of community-based fieldwork.

Environment and Gender

One sign that environmental history is still an evolving field is an awareness of gaps in coverage of its subject matter. As William Cronon notes, environmental historians need to do more "to probe below the level of the group to explore the implications of social division. In the face of social history's classic categories of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, environmental history stands much more silent than it should" (cited in Jacobs, p. 17). It is not enough to document the role of irrigated rice production in South Asian economies, Americans' changing perceptions of nature, or the benefits to Argentina of commercial wheat and beef production. One must always ask who dug or maintained irrigation works and who appropriated the harvest; who wrote and read books on wilderness; and which Argentines owned or worked the fields and factories.

Analyzing class and race or ethnic relations in these and other settings clearly strengthens environmental history, as recent studies show. Perhaps the most crucial analytical category for environmental history is gender, and not only because this "minority" actually comprises a majority of humankind. Past discussions of gender and environment mythologized men as hunters or exploiters of nature and females as mothers, nurturers, and protectors of nature, with the latter an especially problematic class-and race-based notion. Merchant provides much data on women's work in New England agriculture and industry, but this issue emerges still more clearly when examining the lives of women beyond modern Europe and America. For the vast majority of non-Western women, living with nature involves hard, unrelenting work: fetching water and wood for fuel, growing and preparing food, craft and commodity production to generate income, in addition to the demands of childcare. Enjoying nature's beauty is an unaffordable luxury in such circumstances. One recent study does much to bridge the gap in understanding by revealing the history of women in U.S. national parks, with a strong oral history component linking their activities as tourists and conservation advocates to professional careers as National Park Service employees. As Kaufman shows, accurately reconstructing past lives requires using sophisticated and multilayered levels of analysis.

Genre, Scale, and Narrative

In what form does environmental history scholarship reach its audience? The choice of unit of study influences research and writing. This is often geographical, such as a national park, river valley, dam, region, or individual city, but can be an idea like environmentalism or an occupation such as hunting; detailed case studies presented in research monographs and articles comprise the most common publications. Despite occasional misgivings among practitioners, the case study is the essential building block for knowledge in environmental history. The need for in-depth research, using archives, field exploration, oral history, and expertise in related disciplines helps keep projects within manageable size. Singling out any particular book discriminates against numerous other fine case studies, but Nancy Jacobs's Environment, Power, and Injustice (2003), on the Kuruman region in South Africa, realizes much of environmental history's potential in exploring the connections between nature, race, class, gender, state power, and economic development.

Some of the most exciting environmental histories synthesize primary data and case studies to expose crucial connections between regions or events previously examined in isolation. Alfred Crosby's excellent The Columbian Exchange (1972) shows how exchanges of people, plants, animals, and germs between Eastern and Western hemispheres shaped their history. His Ecological Imperialism (1986) extended that analysis with the concepts of "demographic takeover" of Neo-Europes (including North America, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Uruguay), though his earlier emphasis on mutual exchanges between colonizers and colonized is missing. Richard Grove's many publications on the history of environmentalism break new ground by showing the development of environmental thinking in Europe's island colonies such as Mauritius, St. Helena, and the Caribbean, and also India and South Africa. His work extends the search for environmentalism's roots beyond U.S. intellectual history, though the issue of whose influence was first and greatest is best viewed in terms of multilinear intellectual evolution. Such works conceived on a global scale seem well suited to making connections between human activity and nonhuman nature over time.

Environmental histories often have a characteristic structure, a declension narrative, or story of decline and degradation. The facts of ecological change and nature's devastation by humans provide ample evidence of destruction, but historians increasingly recognize the need for more conscious choice in telling such stories. Describing the replacement of indigenous species by exotic invaders, for instance, as a process of decline, let alone in terms of good or bad, reveals an implicit value system. Do people destroy nature or improve on it? Cronon's analysis of soil erosion in 1930s America shows how the same events can be variously interpreted, depending on how one perceives change. Part of the burden originates in assumptions that major historical processes, such as the spread of capitalism or colonialism, are inherently wrong, yet even Karl Marx viewed capitalism as a progressive force, creating as much as it destroyed. In Cronon's words, "At its best, historical storytelling keeps us morally engaged with the world by showing us how to care about it and its origins in ways we had not done before" (p. 1375; also see McCann). The challenge is to avoid unknowingly smuggling one's moral values into a narrative under the guise of objectivity.

Present and Future Prospects

An accurate conclusion requires a dose of realism. In spite of its numerous contributions and the respect accorded to individual practitioners, environmental history has not taken over the historical profession. Some other historians continue to view it as marginal, even trendy, though an endeavor that flourishes for decades surely constitutes more than a "trend." The finite influence of intellectuals in public discourse, notably in the United States, amplifies this marginalization, as does any public perception that environmental regulation entails job losses or lower standards of living. Unlike disciplines such as economics or public health, history is more suited to reflection, not solving practical problems, so a presentist quest for utility or "relevance" remains a lesser priority.

Despite these caveats, environmental history helps to educate an informed citizenry. Contemporary environmental challenges are not going away, and will likely worsen in the twenty-first century: a global capitalist economy that neglects environmental and social costs of maximizing profits; a growing and aging human population that everywhere aspires to higher material standards of living; sharper conflicts over access to increasingly depleted critical resources such as water, land, food, and sources of energy. These and other potential crises must be confronted if humans are to sustain life on the planet. One is left hoping, as Merchant suggests, that a global ecological revolution in thought and behavior is on the horizon, and environmental history has a part to play in this transformation.

See also Development ; Ecology ; Environment ; Environmental Ethics ; Nature ; Science ; Wildlife .


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Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1972.

. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 9001900 a.d. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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Moore, Henrietta L., and Megan Vaughan. Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 18901990. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994.

White, Richard. "American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field." Pacific Historical Review 54 (1985): 297335.

Thomas Pyke Johnson

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Environmental History

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Environmental History