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Environmental 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 environment—land degradation, air and water pollution and waste disposal, wildlife conservation and wilderness preservation—but its importance goes beyond simply adding time-depth to current political debates. Environmental history encompasses a holistic view of history through the human–nature 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. 2–3)

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).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental History - Development Of The Field, What Is Environmental History?, Interdisciplinary Methods, Environment And Gender, Genre, Scale, And Narrative