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Finding its Way: Thoughts on Environmental History


Joshua Specht is a junior faculty member at Monash University. He is currently working on Red Meat Republic, a history of meatpacking and ranching in the nineteenth-century United States.

The more people who want to talk about nature, the harder it seems to say anything coherent about it. In a recent post, Lisa Brady asks if environmental history has lost its way. Brady ultimately celebrates the field’s growth, arguing that “inclusivity need not blur our focus.” I agree. In losing our way, environmental historians may actually have pushed the field further than ever before, provided we think carefully about what these changes have meant.

At the broadest level, environmental historians break into two camps. There are those who foreground the material relationships between humans and the non-human world (described here as “materialists”) and those who emphasize the cultural history of the nonhuman world (described here as “culturalists”).[1] Because environmental history had its origins in materialist approaches but found the mainstream through culturalist ones, conversations about inclusivity and analytic utility are often also about the relative merits of these contending perspectives.

At its best, materialist environmental history highlights how the nonhuman (for convenience here, “natural”) has decisively shaped human history. Alfred Crosby’s analysis of the role of American crops in European demographic growth or Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s argument for animals’ centrality to European imperial expansion are two compelling examples. These analyses do not simply extend from the natural world to the human one; materialist accounts have also provided subtle understandings of the role of economic institutions like commodity markets on ecosystems. Ultimately, this work blurs the boundaries between the human and nonhuman world as distinct entities, or between nature and culture.

And yet there is an unanswered question. If nature has so decisively shaped human history, why is it so hard to appreciate how?  Why is the revelation that nature and culture are intertwined the perennial defense of environmental history’s relevance; shouldn’t everyone already be on board? Answering these questions requires more than the material approach. Jon T. Coleman’s work, for example, reveals that debates over wolf reintroduction were more about folk beliefs regarding the incompatibility of wolves and people than actual relationships.[2] If materialist environmental history explains how the human and nonhuman world fundamentally shape each other, culturalist environmental history helps us understand why the human world so stubbornly stands outside the natural one.

Without appreciating why these two concerns are inseparable, environmental history’s analytic utility is severely limited. The materialist and culturalist approaches are two halves of the human relationship with the nonhuman world. The most innovative materialist history, from Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains through John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, is about unexpected natural forces (or organisms) with powerful and previously underappreciated effects. Understanding the full historical importance of the mosquito is impossible within a predominantly cultural framework. The culturalists, however, can explain why historical actors as well as scholars outside environmental history might foreground gunpowder or republican government over the microbe in their understandings of historical change.

While both approaches are integral to a vibrant field, environmental history must prioritize work that simultaneously takes materialist and culturalist perspectives. The best such work foregrounds material relationships between the nonhuman and human worlds, while also interrogating how this relationship has been obscured, ignored, or mediated. All environmental history does this to a greater or lesser extent—even the most self-avowedly materialist work—but a clear acknowledgement and engagement with this necessity would do much to recapture the field’s power. A recent, excellent example—as Lisa Brady mentions—is Gary Kroll’s “An Environmental History of Roadkill,” which explores how roads and wildlife coexisted materially as well as how ideas about the proper relationship between roadway and nature shaped the built environment.[3] In my own work on the Texas Longhorn, I have taken a similar approach, pairing a study of how cattle bodies and cattle markets shaped each other with an analysis of how the animal’s twentieth-century memorialization elided its material contributions.[4]

This approach to environmental history will also strengthen our field’s reach within the broader historical discipline. Good history is a persuasive account of the past. Yet if it is novel, this account is rarely self-evident. The best history, then, needs to contend with competing explanations, and stubborn assumptions about the past and the human relationship with the world. If we want to persuade economic historians that animal labor was vital to industrialization, or convince imperial historians they should learn about mosquitos, we need careful analyses of the ideas that put the animal world outside the industrial one, or even the insect world outside the animal one.[5]

This approach can also clarify environmental history’s uneasy relationship with environmentalism. Too often, people appear primarily as agents of destruction in environmentalist understandings of historical change. Therefore, environmental protection seeks to set the environment beyond human influence—an approach skillfully problematized within the best materialist scholarship. In demonstrating how specific environmental ideas put specific environments outside human history, culturalist environmental histories can help persuade environmentalists to pursue political agendas that seek the coexistence of people and land, rather than simply the protection of one from the other. If materialist environmental histories help us understand the nonhuman aspects of the world about which we are concerned, culturalist environmental history helps us understand the assumptions that make reform difficult and at times even counterproductive.

If environmental history has lost its way, a new map is to be found in the intersection of materialist and culturalist perspectives. Only in this way can we understand the how as well as the why of environmental change. As a field grows, its analytic thread often frays. Yet this short-term problem can be a long-term source of strength. This fraying forces a collective conversation about what the field is and what it is trying to achieve. This process makes it an exciting time to be an environmental historian.

[1] I’d argue the materialist camp follows the tradition of Walter Prescott Webb and later, Donald Worster. The culturalists are in the tradition of Patricia Limerick, William Cronon, and Richard White.

[2] Jon T. Coleman, Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (Yale University Press, 2006).

[3] Gary Kroll, “An Environmental History of Roadkill: Road Ecology and the Making of the Permeable Highway,” Environmental History 20, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 4–28, doi:10.1093/envhis/emu129.

[4] Joshua Specht, “The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Texas Longhorn: An Evolutionary History” Environmental History 2015; doi: 10.1093/envhis/emv148 . Forthcoming, available advance access here:

[5] Regarding horses, I’m thinking of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work. Mosquitos are surprisingly popular, see both John R. McNeill’s work as well as that of Timothy Mitchell.