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Environmental History

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.

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