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Environmental History

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.


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——. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 A.D. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hancock, W. K. Country and Calling. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.

Jacobs, Nancy J. Environment, Power, and Injustice: A South African History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kaufman, Polly Welts. National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

McCann, James C. Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1999.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

——. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Moore, Henrietta L., and Megan Vaughan. Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 1890–1990. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994.

White, Richard. "American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field." Pacific Historical Review 54 (1985): 297–335.

Thomas Pyke Johnson

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