The traditional focus of agricultural history has been the study of rural landscapes, societies, and economies, as well as agricultural production and technologies. In contrast, environmental history has adopted a more interdisciplinary research approach, offering both ecological and political analyses, and addressing the world's current environmental crises from a historical perspective. Drawing on the environmental perspective, this article explores the development of human food production. Subsistence has been an important part of history from the earliest times to the advent of modern, industrial agriculture. The seasonal migrations of gathering and hunting peoples were based on their procurement of food. Although the emergence of farming and herding led to the rise of urban, elite classes specializing in other activities, food production remained the focus of the vast majority of people in agrarian empires. This article investigates the transitions between three basic modes of production: what I. G. Simmons has called the distinct "cultural ecologies" of gatherer-hunter, agrarian, and industrial societies.
This chapter examines the role of science in environmental history. Environmental historians use science as a tool for revealing the material past. At the same time, however, they study science as a set of culturally mediated ideas about the non-human world. The chapter also discusses three different calls for “new directions” in environmental history and its relationship to science: the first by US scholar Edmund Russell, the second by Sverker Sorlin and Paul Warde, and the third by US historian W. Jeffrey Bolster. Russell encourages environmental historians to integrate scientific theory (specifically evolutionary theory) into their central scholarly identity. Sorli and Warde argue environmental historians need to acquire more critical distance from science and participate more fully in the reflexive turn in the social sciences, while Bolster called on environmental historians to collaborate with scientists without embracing the more quantitative social sciences and turning the past into an ecological baseline.
Brett L. Walker
In 2005, Kenton Joel Carnegie, a geological engineering student, was attacked and killed by four wolves on a trail near a uranium mine in Saskatchewan. Carnegie’s kill site evokes the many tricky theoretical issues that arise when writing about nonhuman animals, and serves as a cruel reminder that humans are indeed animals. This chapter explores the principal lesson of writings on animals in environmental history, focusing on two broad themes: the intimacy of violence and the intimacy of transcendence. It considers environmental history’s preoccupation with the role of nature’s agency in driving history and cites Val Plumwood’s “death roll” with a crocodile in the wetlands of the Kakadu National Park in Australia as a reminder that animals possess real agency in the world of humans. It discusses colonialism and empire as a persuasive example of humans setting “conditions on life” through biological and cultural transcendence.
Disease has emerged as a key topic in the field of environmental history. This chapter surveys the intersections between histories of disease and environmental history in three key areas: conquest and colonization, urbanization and industrialization, and the re-emergence of infectious diseases in the late twentieth century. Critiquing work that has focused predominantly on presumed differences in immunities among racialized populations, this chapter argues that the best histories of disease combine deep knowledge of the social and material changes that contribute to illness with a critical perspective on the cultural contexts that have produced past and present understandings of disease. Scholars have generated excellent studies on the environments and uneven geographies of urban pollution and their contribution to tuberculosis, asthma, and obesity, particularly among the working classes. In the 1990s, the AIDS pandemic generated immense scientific interest in emerging infectious diseases and its environmental components, opening up new topics for environmental historians.
This chapter explores the cultural and political dimensions of climate change in the past and present in order to highlight the achievements and limitations of environmental history as a discipline. It argues that scholarly work on climate historiography has become particularly strong in terms of sources, knowledge, agency, and culture. Yet there are things that still need to be done, as researchers continue to face significant obstacles that they must overcome, from environmental determinism to the careful analysis of scientific data used to reconstruct precise climatic data, the persistence of stories about how distinct peoples have perceived and explained both climate and their environments, and the difficulty of identifying the historical agency of climate.
Andrew R. Graybill
This chapter focuses on recent historical literature that explores the interconnection between borders and the environment in North America and other parts of the world, with emphasis on state sovereignty. It discusses topics and issues raised by leading scholars in their writings, including the competition between national states for control of natural resources such as land, water, and wildlife; the role of borders in determining the human impact upon ecosystems; and how landscape shapes human perceptions of regions that defy and transcend the borders of the singular nation-state. The chapter concludes by considering future directions in research on borderlands and environmental history.
This article discusses that with a new focus on patients and the quality of care, illness experiences have become an important topic in recent years in scholarly and biographical literature, but also in the wider world of newspaper, inviting comparisons with nineteenth-century accounts of consumptive lives and deaths. This article is about continuities of consumption and tuberculosis and the historical change that has obscured them. It discusses the belief in medical progress and its power, informed by laboratory research in bacteriology and physiology, replacing the feeling of impotence characterizing earlier medical encounters with incurability. It further suggests that the continuities with consumption go beyond descriptions, shaping the ways in which we deal with chronic illness today. It concludes with reasons for the use of comparative accounts to balance the dominance of the American case in the historiography and also histories of chronic illness in the developing world.
This chapter examines the intersection between environmental history and urban history, with emphasis on the place of nature in the city and vice versa. More specifically, it considers the central role of cities in environmental history as confluences of nature and culture. The chapter begins with an overview of urban origins and natural settings, particularly the creation of colonial cities by settlers and early efforts to merge nature and the city. It then turns to a discussion of how industrialization and urbanization transformed nature into capital and cities, what makes American cities different from other cities of the world, and scholarly work that explores the link between nature and the city. Finally, it assesses thematic variations on environmental urban history, focusing on disasters, inequality, and sprawl.
This chapter explores the complex relationship between nature and nation in American history. It first considers Philadelphia physician John Kearsley Mitchell’s juxtaposed placement of Niagara Falls and George Washington as great and unable to be described. It then turns to a discussion of the environmental history of the United States, with emphasis on how nation, nationalism, and nationhood are linked to environmental realities and environmental perspectives. It also cites examples of scholarly works, including Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness and Nature’s Nation.
This chapter examines the development and historiography of environmental diplomacy, broadly defined, and it argues that there are opportunities for environmental and diplomatic historians to cross their disciplinary boundaries. It discusses three types of environmental diplomacy: bilateral treaties aimed at regulating access to fisheries; multilateral treaties that apply conservationist principles to fish and other wildlife; and accords that address pollution control. The chapter concludes by assessing the environmental ramifications of traditional diplomacy.
Diana K. Davis
Development in deserts and arid lands, approximately 41 percent of the earth, has met with many failures. This chapter argues that a significant reason for these failures lies in the problematic notions of deserts that inform our understanding of arid lands. Our conceptions of these regions are most often as barren, defiled, parched places—wastelands with little value. These widespread perceptions of deserts, those that inform global development and anti-desertification agendas from local NGOs to government bureaucracies to international institutions such as the United Nations, derive primarily from Anglo-European notions of deserts that are centuries old. This western conception of arid lands is problematic for many scientific, social, and environmental reasons detailed in this chapter. The current belief that deserts are ruined wastelands needing improvement is ideologically informed, politically motivated, and has a deep history that must be understood in order to formulate sustainable development policies in arid lands.
J. R. McNeill
In the Atlantic world in the centuries from 1450 to 1850, tumultuous changes in ecology had outsized impacts on human affairs. Historians have already laid useful foundations for an environmental history of the Atlantic world. Atlantic West Africa from Senegambia to the Gulf of Guinea participated in the ecological Atlantic by providing a few cultigens to the Americas, its share of pathogens (notably malaria and yellow fever), and above all by supplying the majority of the workforce — several million slaves and their descendants — who would remake the ecology of the Atlantic. This article examines pan-Atlantic processes such as climate change. It also summarises the important themes which are the most central to the whole subject: the Columbian Exchange, including its often-neglected African components, and the ecology of plantations, slavery, and slave trades. This provides some sampling of the ecological regions of the Atlantic, as well as of the commodities and cultural processes involved.
While humans have been interacting with and reshaping environments for millennia, the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have witnessed a shift in the scale of our transformative capacity with the development of technologies associated with fossil-fuelled energy regimes and monumental dam-building. These have affected the Middle East and North Africa at a time when colonial and nation-state borders carved up the region, dividing environments that were once contained within single empires. Environmental history offers new lines of inquiry to assess the consequences of these transformations. Contrary to pervasive, often colonially derived, narratives of a self-induced environmental decline in the region, critical analyses from an environmental perspective facilitate critiques of such “declensionist paradigms.” Evaluating indicators of longue durée change alongside more short-term shifts in approaches to environmental management exposes the interests served by these narratives while demonstrating the suitability of local environmental practices to the particular ecological zones that characterize the region.
Richard P. Tucker
This chapter, which examines the history of the international environmental movement during the Cold War, analyzes the emergence of and tenuous collaboration between the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. It discusses the early anti-nuclear movement in the 1950s, the emergence of the international environmental movement in the late 1960s, and the environmental controversies in the Soviet Union. The chapter argues that it was the June 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which marked the official recognition that environmental challenges must be addressed globally.
Andrew C. Isenberg
The introduction explains that this book focuses on the integration of the insights of environmental history with a host of other subfields of history, such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, labor, law, consumption, borderlands, and the history of science. More specifically, it explores the historiographies of these established subfields without deviating from the methodology of environmental history. The introduction provides a summary of each part of the book. Part I addresses the environmental context of historical change by analyzing issues associated with climate, disease, fauna, and regional environments. Part II examines the changing understanding of scientific knowledge and the need for environmental historians to confront a more complex, dynamic idea of ecology than that faced by their predecessors. Part III considers the link between environmental history and economic change, whereas Part IV looks at the intersection of environmental history with the history of politics and the nation-state.
T. C. Smout
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topographers spoke of the Scottish environment as though it were a given, a gift from a good, but often incomprehensible, God. The food of all life on earth rests ultimately on photosynthesis, the process by which vegetable growth is able to capture solar energy. Compared to other parts of the British Isles, Scotland suffered from two interlinked disadvantages in garnering photosynthetic energy. The first was altitude and slope, and the second was climate. The most critical developments in the environmental history of Scotland after 1750 related to energy supply. Two forces were at work: a change in the availability of food energy and a revolution in the application of thermal energy. Since 1950, there have been changes in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries; advances in pollution control; and the rise of an environmental movement. What happens on land is always better studied than what happens invisibly below the surface of the sea. Marine fisheries provide the example of the most profligate of all resource exploitations, not only in Scotland but throughout the globe.
Kathleen A. Brosnan
This chapter examines how legal actors constantly negotiated the balance between individuals’ freedom to use their property and a community’s general welfare as they contemplated the human-nature relationship. It first explores adaptations of English common law in American colonies, when property law and nuisance law defined agriculture as a natural use demanding protection. It also considers alternative legal systems in Spanish colonies. It then turns to a discussion of natural law as an ideological foundation for the American Revolution and the emergence of public domain as a national issue. The chapter next considers how the nation’s move toward industrialization and more market-oriented agriculture prompted instrumental approaches that promoted dynamic capital more than traditional agrarian activities. In exploring legal decisions regarding resources as diverse as water, minerals, and wildlife, it contemplates growing inclinations toward greater ecological exploitation and the favoring concentrated capital. The chapter concludes with an assessment of US postwar environmental law, its identification of value in nature beyond economic utility, and its influence on international environmental law.
This chapter examines the history of capitalism and how environmental historians might better integrate it into their teaching and scholarship. It argues that environmental historians can confront the root cause of many environmental problems by treating the social system as a historical artifact. Doing so, however, means reconstructing the elements of capitalism and seeing environmental change as social change as indistinguishable from social change. The history of capitalism remains controversial and characterized by two broad interpretations—the commercialization model and the Marxian. The chapter describes both, along with the historians’ representative of each, including Fernand Braudel, Joyce Appleby, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Immanuel Wallerstein, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, Robert Brenner, and the French Economists. This chapter offers environmental historians a way of deepening their own understanding and of addressing the assumptions of many students by linking land and labor, enclosure and colonization, peasants and Indians through a critical understanding of capitalism.
The history of humanity is a history of migration rather than an early nomadic ‘prehistory’ and a subsequent ‘history’ of settled peoples. Migrations involve intercultural exchange as well as conflict; a human-agency approach emphasizes that even forced migrants leave their mark, if under severely constrained conditions. This article describes the Homo sapiens' migrations and the ‘agricultural revolution’; cities, civilizations, and seaborne migrations to 500
This chapter examines the environmental history of consumption, first by considering Yvon Chouinard’s 2005 memoir, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. In particular, it analyzes Chouinard’s relationship to consumerism and allegiance to sustainability, along with their implications for environmentalism. It then turns to a discussion of how earlier historians have defined and researched consumption and consumerism by focusing on issues such as those connected to the mass market, advertising, and corporate manipulations of consumer behavior. It also explores how the cultural turn in environmental history led scholars to reassess capitalism and the salience of consumerism. Finally, it looks at consumption through three themes—political economies and cultures of consumption, commodity chains and flows, and the embodiment of consumerism as health—that should be addressed by scholars willing to study consumption.