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Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?


Lisa M. Brady is Professor of History at Boise State University and Editor in Chief of Environmental History. Her research focuses on the environmental history of modern war, most recently the Korean War. She published War Upon the Land, an environmental analysis of the U.S. Civil War, with University of Georgia Press in 2012.

Road kill. Plywood. Gas Masks. Black soil.

These were among the myriad topics covered during the “State of the Field: Environmental History” panel at the 2015 OAH in St. Louis. With the exception of soil, they are not, perhaps, the first subjects that come to mind when we think of environmental history. That is precisely why, when Lincoln Bramwell (Chief Historian of the US Forest Service and a member of the conference’s program committee) asked me to organize the panel, I asked Gary Kroll (SUNY Plattsburgh), Janet Ore (Colorado State), Gerard Fitzgerald (George Mason), and Mark Hersey (Mississippi State) to be panelists.[1] With the exception of Hersey, none of these scholars claims environmental history as his or her primary field of expertise. Kroll and Fitzgerald have degrees in the history of science and Ore is a historian of vernacular architecture. Nevertheless, all of them do environmental history.

Kroll’s recent work examines what happens when technology and nature meet; more specifically, he traces the history of the science of roadside ecology, which developed out of concerns over deadly interactions between motorists and wildlife and resulted in innovative highway designs that protect species and their habitats. Ore’s current project focuses on the building boom of post-World War II America and the widespread introduction of toxic materials (such as plywood and plastics) into our homes, arguing that, by off-gassing toxic molecules, these new buildings—these new ecosystems—actually changed the biology of human bodies. Fitzgerald’s research traces the long reach of the U.S. Army during World War I in its search for effective filters for gas masks (coconuts from the tropics and peach pits from California, for example), a study that has him “knee deep in questions involving American Imperialism, labor relations, racism, and agricultural production both at home and in various tropical ecosystems.” Hersey’s work reveals the connections between land use, race, and poverty in the physiographic Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi, a cultural region that is also a geological formation.

Within each of their projects the material world—nature—plays a central role. In their analyses, nature influences history by impinging on scientific studies and political decision-making, influencing personal and public health, contributing to geopolitical developments, and shaping regional social and cultural traditions. Nature is at the heart of these scholars’ work, making it, one might assume, inherently environmental. However, the distinctions between their approaches —some focused more on cultural implications, others on more material transformations—brings into question just what environmental history does and should do. Indeed, the conversation we had at the session mirrored the larger debates within the field as a whole (more on this in a moment).

Image from the panel at the OAH annual meeting in St. Louis, 2015.

Image from the panel at the OAH annual meeting in St. Louis, 2015.

I invited Kroll, Ore, Fitzgerald, and Hersey to participate in the “State of the Field” session because I believe their work is pushing the boundaries of environmental history, challenging us to expand our analysis, broaden our perspectives, and incorporate the unexpected into our inquiry. I asked them to briefly talk about their research but urged them to focus more specifically on their views of the field: where it is and where they’d like to see it go. I expected some debate over the benefits and costs of integrating subjects and methods of analysis more typically found in other fields (Science and Technology Studies, for example, or military history) but what I didn’t expect was Hersey throwing down the gauntlet (respectfully and civilly, of course) at the get-go.

Expressing his misgivings with the field’s drift from its materialist roots, Hersey, who studied with Donald Worster, wondered if the field’s elasticity had begun to compromise its analytical utility. He suggested that environmental history has shifted away from being a distinct lens, through which we can assess the past with a discrete set of tools, into being a tent under which we gather all comers and have great conversations but where the field’s analytical power gets diffused to the point of unrecognizability. As a result, environmental history has, in Hersey’s view, become less capable of informing our understanding of the past even as it has moved toward the historiographical mainstream. Moreover, Hersey argued, if we fail to examine the material, both in terms of its effects on human development and vice versa, we fail to uphold the moral impetus of our field, that is, raising awareness of and promoting action to remediate environmental problems and their related social ills.

The other panelists’ responses were equally impassioned. Kroll and Ore made compelling points about the field’s remarkable ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and break down the isolating character of super-specialization. By expanding our view, they argued, we draw in more students and scholars, thus widening our influence and spreading our message to those who might not otherwise have listened. Fitzgerald agreed, noting, “What drew me to environmental history from earlier work and graduate training in the history of technology, science, and medicine is the multi-disciplinary nature of the work one sees in the literature and being presented at meetings such as [the OAH] and at ASEH [American Society for Environmental History].” Fitzgerald cautioned that promoting an explicit political (i.e., environmentalist) agenda, as environmental historians have tended to do, could be off-putting and might diminish the reach of the important work environmental historians conduct. Ore and Fitzgerald also talked about the important contributions of those, like Linda Nash, Nancy Langston, and Gregg Mitman, who have urged us to incorporate the human body into our discussions of nature.

None of them contested Hersey’s point about the need to retain a focus on the physical world and its role in shaping history, but they did clearly advocate for welcoming a wide range of practitioners and approaches. Each of them supported maintaining the central tenet of the field—that is, that nature is a historical agent—while also proposing that this can be achieved using any number of analytical tools. Indeed, Ore noted, “environmental history gives my work new significance” by broadening out its questions and expanding its relevance.

Such discussion about the purpose and meaning of environmental history is not new. For at least twenty-five years (since the publication of a roundtable on environmental history in the Journal of American History in 1990), environmental historians have debated the nature of our field. In the roundtable and since, leading figures and emerging scholars have attempted to define the field along the lines of their own interests. In the original roundtable, Worster, an avowed materialist (though no Marxist), called for renewed attention to the soil and to ecosystems more broadly as the starting point for our analysis.[2] In response, Richard White and William Cronon argued for increased analysis of human perceptions and views on nature, noting that what we call “nature” is often a cultural construction, irretrievably a product of human ideas.[3] A growing adherence to the views of Cronon and White, called by some the “cultural turn” in environmental history, left those with more materialist perspectives feeling that the heart had gone out of the field, or at the very least, that it had lost its way.[4]

When I describe environmental history to students or the general public, I usually rely on a simple definition: environmental history examines the changing relationships between humans and nature over time and space. It is often as unsatisfying for them as it is for me, probably because it ignores the nuances that environmental history uncovers, and yet it remains the best explanation I’ve found. I continue to use it because, as an avowed environmental history proselytizer and dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, I want as many people to read and engage with our work as possible. I want our work to mean something outside the academy and I want it to inspire on-the-ground change. The simple descriptor isn’t freighted with political baggage and it gets to the central issue of the field, characteristics that I hope will inspire non-environmental historians to explore the field’s deeper meaning and apply its lessons to their lives.

The simple definition also allows us to be open to novel subjects and unlikely points of inquiry. What it doesn’t do is require us to relinquish our firm grasp on the material world; we must remain, as Hersey exhorts, committed to discovering and explaining the implications of human activity on non-human nature and on our species’ ability to survive in a world much diminished in biodiversity and facing potential crises related to climate change.

Nevertheless, I wondered after the panel, which was attended mostly by non-environmental historians trying to figure out what the field is and what sources they might use to teach it (as many of them stated they were now being asked to do), whether we on the stage had fallen into the same trap our predecessors had in the original JAH roundtable. Were we dividing ourselves into camps, arguing that there is only one way to understand the complex and confusing relationships devised by humans across space and time, thereby ignoring that the field’s beautiful, inherent, necessary diversity? Were we trying to define a field that, by its very nature, is interdisciplinary, messy, and continually evolving? Were we attempting to reify the concepts and methods of a field that defies hard and fast rules? Was it we, not the field itself, that had lost the our way?

I don’t mean to criticize my co-panelists in expressing my own misgivings. Their insights highlighted important issues in the field and our discussion, enriched by questions from the audience, rekindled my passion for the field. But I do wonder whether these types of conversations distract us from our larger purpose: to educate others about the important role nature plays in human experience, even when nature seems to exist far away and separately from our daily lives. Do we get lost in our own confusion, in our own need for internal clarity, and forget that our path should take us out into the world that both humans and nature have created?

In the end, I think that to remain on track, we need environmental history to be both a tent and a lens. We need to embrace scholars tackling new questions and subjects while encouraging them to rigorously apply our methods. Inclusivity need not blur our focus; instead, it can sharpen and broaden our vision, enabling us to successfully navigate the way toward environmental history’s sweet spot: that place where our work enlightens, inspires, and evinces positive environmental and social change. By embracing all paths to environmental history, we aren’t losing our way, we are discovering that all roads lead back to nature.

[1] Ruth Alexander of Colorado State was also slated to speak, but was unfortunately unable to attend.

[2] See, for example, his essay and rebuttal in the JAH roundtable, “Transformations in the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1087–1106 and 1142–47.

[3] See their responses to Worster’s essay in that roundtable, 1116–21 and 1122–31, respectively. Cronon expanded on these ideas in his now classic essay “The Trouble with Wilderness, Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 69-90.

[4] Andrew Isenberg explains this “cultural turn” in his introductory essay “A New Environmental History” to The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1–22. In 2013, the JAH published a new environmental history roundtable, curated by Paul S. Sutter. See “The World With Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100 (June 2013): 94–148.