New Directions in Environmental History
Mark Hersey and Lisa Brady
In recent years, apprehension over the consequences of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other pressing environmental issues has made it increasingly difficult (perhaps even untenable) to disentangle the traditional concerns of historians—politics, economics, diplomacy, social identities, and the like—from the natural world. If race would prove to be the central question of the twentieth century, as W. E. B. Du Bois presciently predicted in The Souls of Black Folk, it may well be that environmental matters prove to be the central concern of the twenty-first, even if, as proposals like the Green New Deal make clear, those issues are inextricably entangled in disparate power relations, social inequities, violence, and dislocation. It is not altogether surprising then that such developments have helped fuel the growth of environmental history.
Over the past four decades, as the American Historical Association (AHA) reported in 2015, no historical subfield has matched the proportional expansion of environmental history. Like other specialties noted for their growth by the AHA (women’s and gender history, for example, or public history), environmental history had its origins in a moment in the American past characterized by protest movements and massive social change. And like other fields that emerged from that moment, it was born out of and with a moral purpose that has shaped it since. Even at a moment when the influence of the environmental movement is arguably less pronounced in the field than it has ever been, environmental history nevertheless continues to draw individuals committed to understanding and remedying environmental problems.
Although origin stories are always fraught, environmental history’s emergence as a self-conscious field is probably best marked by the founding of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) in the mid-1970s. The new society provided an intellectual and institutional home for a group of disparate scholars bound together by a shared desire to explore the historical connections between people and the natural world. In the wake of a series of environmental crises, it seemed self-evident to practitioners of the nascent field that it no longer made sense to treat people as if they were ethereal beings whose decisions had little connection to (or ramifications for) the natural world. As they made their case to an initially skeptical historical community, environmental historians were fortunate to count among their number uncommonly nimble pathfinders whose work highlighted how applying an environmental lens to the past could fundamentally reshape our understanding of it. The successes of scholars such as Donald Worster, Carolyn Merchant, Alfred Crosby, Richard White, and William Cronon, among others (measured in landmark books and myriad awards) won them the plaudits of the historical profession and attracted other talented scholars to environmental history. And as the field shifted and matured, it steadily grew. From a small group of scholars—numbering in the dozens (by even the most generous counting) at the close of the 1970s—the field has expanded across the nation and around the world to encompass a large and diverse community.
If race would prove to be the central question of the twentieth century...it may very well be that environmental matters prove to be the central concern of the twenty-first.
From the start the field embraced an interdisciplinary approach and so has fostered a strong tradition of welcoming scholars from disparate disciplines to the fold. It isn’t especially startling, therefore, that environmental history has experienced some degree of fragmentation. As subfields such as climate history, envirotech, spatial history, sensory history, evolutionary history, and others have proliferated, a given scholar might as readily identify as, say, a historian of energy as an environmental historian. This has proven to be a blessing for the field in some regards, spurring new overlaps, for instance, with fields such as animal studies. But it has also made it difficult to pin down a core question driving its inquiry and so has contributed to the impression that environmental history functions more like a “megamart of subjects and approaches,” in the evocative words of Daniel Rodgers, than a discrete field unified in purpose. Nevertheless, a number of threads have emerged out of this historiographical landscape over the past decade that might be taken as representative of environmental history’s broader flowering insofar as they capture some of the field’s vibrancy and seem likely to shape its contours in the coming years.
One such thread centers on questions of race and ethnicity. Apart from some early overlaps with ethnohistory, environmental history proved slow to engage issues of race. But over the past two decades, a steadily growing number of scholars have explored how racial and environmental considerations have often proven profoundly connected. Easily the most thoroughly studied aspect of those connections has been the persistence of environmental racism in American history. Much of this research has centered on the degree to which toxic waste and other forms of pollution have disproportionately affected communities of color and illuminated how those communities have fought against it with varying degrees of success. Other environmental historians have examined environmental racism in work and recreational spaces. Still others, however, have looked at how race and ethnicity have helped shape diverse groups’ prceptions of and interactions with nature more broadly, undermining persistent myths in the process.
This growing emphasis on race and ethnicity underscores a number of facets of environmental history’s emerging landscape. It highlights, for example, the field’s continued interdisciplinarity, bringing work by geographers such as Carolyn Finney, sociologists like Dorceta Taylor, and environmental scientists like Ryan Emanuel into conversation with that of environmental historians such as Connie Y. Chiang, Mary E. Mendoza, and Ellen Spears. Perhaps most obviously, however, it points to a significant way in which environmental historians have begun to speak more effectively to some of the central currents of American historiography, facilitating access to historiographical arenas where it had previously gained little traction.
The American South offers a case in point. In an influential essay penned in 2005, Mart Stewart contrasted environmental history as it had developed—that is, with a disproportionate emphasis on the American West—with how it might have developed had its focus been on the South instead. Among other things, he suggested that it “might not have taken environmental historians so long to discover that landscapes are always riven by what we used to call ‘race.’” Even as Stewart was writing, a number of scholars were engaged in that important work, and by 2010 a veritable cottage industry in southern environmental history had emerged that recast iconic figures, reframed ostensibly familiar stories (like that of the boll weevil), and called attention to the degree to which African Americans had often understood their second-class citizenship as an environmental predicament.
Histories of science, health, and technology offer a second prominent thread reshaping the field’s historiographical landscape. In contrast to race and ethnicity, the history of science and technology occupied the attention of a sizable number of the field’s founding scholars, from Worster and Merchant to Joel Tarr and Martin Melosi. Even so, methodological tensions between environmental historians (who often employed science as evidence) and historians of science and technology (who saw science as a subject of enquiry) made for a fraught disciplinary intersection. The cultural turn in environmental history in the 1990s, together with recent shifts in the history of science—including a growing emphasis on field science and the importance of situating the production of knowledge in particular places, as well as studies of polar and ocean science—has eroded those tensions considerably. Thus, while suspicions still linger in some quarters, there’s no question that the new overlaps mark as fertile a space for crossover as can be found between environmental history and any field.
The works that have emerged at the intersection of the histories of science and environment in recent years are too diverse to easily characterize, often overlapping with other important threads in the field—agricultural history, climate history, energy history, forest history, ocean history, sensory history, and animal studies among them. Collectively, however, they have shed new light on some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today, even as they’ve offered reminders that our understanding of those concerns emerged from historically contingent circumstances. Taking two prominent environmental issues as examples of the latter, recent studies have shown how biodiversity and climate science came to be appreciated as a result of decidedly imperial scientific practices. Moreover, scholars working at the intersection of the fields have helped shift much of the ground explored by environmental historians from out there (such as it is) to right here—by amplifying the attention urban environments have received and helping to position human bodies as important spaces to be studied.
A third emerging thread poised to shape the contours of the field going forward can be found in its growing intersections with subjects that a newcomer to environmental history might have expected to be thoroughly explored. Military history offers perhaps the clearest case in point. Military historians, after all, had long been aware of the importance of things like terrain, supply lines, and horses, yet their work seldom intersected with that of environmental historians as recently as two decades ago. Edmund Russell’s War and Nature and Jack Temple Kirby’s National Humanities Center essay “The American Civil War: An Environmental View” proved to be outliers when they were published in 2001, but they helped open a conversation that has blossomed in the years since. Indeed, the growing cadre of scholars working at the intersections of the fields has formed a subfield within environmental history, with its own website and a regular presence at the annual ASEH conference.
Certain conflicts have predictably garnered the lion’s share of attention; none more so than the Civil War. Even so, in many ways the scholarship straddling the divide between military and environmental histories has proven diverse, ranging from studies of individual wars to broader analyses of how the American military has transformed landscapes at home and abroad through the establishment of military bases, widespread weapons testing, and other means. While many studies in this realm focus on the ways war and military developments have negatively affected specific ecosystems (and the natural environment more broadly), there is increasing interest in how environmentalism has shaped, and been shaped by, military concerns. There is also considerable overlap between environmental-military history and science and technology studies, especially with regard to twentieth-century conflicts. These contributions not only help us better understand the short- and long-term environmental implications of military activities, but also how wide-ranging those influences have been socially and ecologically.
Even as environmental history’s influence continues to expand, there remain some rather yawning historiographical gaps. Despite an impassioned plea by Worster in 1982 for histories that crossed political borders as readily as environments did, for instance, studies placing the United States in a genuinely transnational context remain few and far between. Relatedly, environmental histories of migration merit additional consideration, especially as the number of climate refugees is poised to grow in the coming years. While studies of the environmental consequences of colonial migrations (typically couched as the Columbian Exchange) are readily available, those focused on the most iconic era of American migration that marked the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are notably rare.
To the degree a focus on migration necessarily entails an emphasis on social and economic inequities, it would dovetail with another area that could use some development. While class and labor questions are prominent in certain areas of environmental history—in studies of mining, for example, or forest history—a wider application of class and labor analyses would be deeply beneficial across the broader spectrum of the field. Likewise, the work of environmental historians and historians of gender and sexuality seldom overlap despite sharing a central concern with deconstructing what is natural. Moreover, although environmental historians frequently explore issues related to access—what lands are open to which people for what purposes—the field has all but ignored such questions from the perspective of disability studies.
Although recent years have seen environmental historians pay them greater attention, commodities and consumerism (both of which are tied to business history, which also has fewer connections to environmental history than one might expect) remain ripe for future studies as well. Finally, it’s worth noting that environmental histories of early America remain limited, which is perhaps surprising given the degree to which it occupied the attention of some of the field’s most influential founders. Despite some promising work on colonial science, wild and domestic animals, and agricultural practices, there remain enormous gaps awaiting exploration by ambitious scholars attuned to them. As yet, to offer but one obvious example, we have comparatively little insight into how the American Revolution transformed American views of and interactions with the natural world.
As the field has grown and diversified, and in the face of increasing global anxieties, environmental historians have spent considerable time thinking about ways to make their intellectual contributions relevant to other scholars and beyond the walls of academia. During one recent moment of self-reflection, the Munich-based Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society asked a number of environmental historians to contemplate the field’s usefulness. All but one of the seven authors whose essays comprise the online forum contended that environmental history is inherently useful and, moreover, that its practitioners have an obligation to engage scientists, policy makers, and the general public to help address the pressing problems confronting society. Several contributors issued passionate calls for environmental historians to apply their scholarship toward fighting injustice, ignorance, and inaction. Others focused on practical advice about how to do such work: include local communities in research projects, for example, or write editorials, give public talks, or write posts for blogs and social media. The single outlier, John R. McNeill, argued in his essay “As Useful as We Want to Be” that environmental historians need not feel compelled toward usefulness, especially since it is not at all clear that such attempts would be (or ever have been) successful, at least in so far as noticeably affecting public policy. McNeill’s biggest concession was that teaching may be the most useful thing an environmental historian might do: “thousands of my former students are citizens and consumers,” McNeill wrote, “and it is possible that by exposing them to environmental history I have helped shape their behavior in ways that, however small, address global problems.”
While some environmental historians might take issue with McNeill’s stance on being useful, few would disagree with his assessment of the promise of teaching. Indeed, interest in the field as a research focus has been matched—if not surpassed—by a demand for it in classrooms. This became patently clear during a state-of-the-field roundtable at the 2015 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in St. Louis (in which both of the authors of this essay participated). Many attendees of the session identified as new to environmental history yet noted that their institutions were asking them to offer courses in it, and so the conversation veered away from disciplinary practice toward a discussion of teaching resources that might help them offer courses in the field.
Since that OAH session, two important teaching resources have been made available: Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry’s book A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles and Nancy Langston’s website “The Syllabus Project: Diversifying the Environmental History Syllabus.” The book by Wakild and Berry provides practical advice on how to build environmental history courses from the ground up and on ways to integrate the field’s insights into courses across the curriculum. Organized into three parts—concepts, pathways, and tools—the book aims “to convene a conversation about how—not merely what or why—teaching environmental history can be done.” The authors rely on examples from their extensive teaching experience to illustrate their recommendations; what they do not do is identify specific texts instructors might assign in their classes.
Fortunately, Langston’s website and its affiliated Zotero library fills that need admirably. The Syllabus Project grew out of a concern (corroborated by data, which are available at the website) that a majority of syllabi for environmental history courses—whether focused on the United States or more globally—assigned texts by white male scholars only, despite the ready availability of publications by women and people of color. The library is fully searchable and, as of August 2019, lists over 550 books, articles, chapters, websites, and other sources instructors can assign to diversify their syllabi in meaningful and powerful ways. Beyond its utility as a source for course readings, the Syllabus Project in many ways symbolizes the evolution of environmental history as a field and serves as a touchstone for both its intellectual growth and its scholarly promise.
But even as the field evolves and takes new directions, it remains tied to the core insight that first distinguished the field: that it is impossible to disentangle human history from the natural world. Indeed, environmental history seems poised to extend its remarkable run in no small measure precisely because new generations of scholars continue to leverage that conviction to reframe historiographical debates, offer fresh insights into ostensibly familiar topics, and help us better understand environmental concerns that often appear intractable.
Lisa M. Brady is professor of history at Boise State University. She is author of War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (2012) and a number of articles on the environmental history of the Korean DMZ.
Mark D. Hersey is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, where he directs the Center for the History of Agriculture, Science, and the Environment of the South (CHASES). He is the author of My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver (2011), and currently serves as the co-editor of Environmental History.
In his introduction to Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois noted that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” See W. E. B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), vii.
Robert B. Townsend, “The Rise and Decline of History Specializations over the Past 40 Years,” Perspectives on History, Dec. 1, 2015
The eminent environmental historian Donald Worster acknowledged this in a now classic essay penned in the late 1980s. See Donald Worster, “Appendix: Doing Environmental History,” in Donald Worster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (1988), 290.
Daniel T. Rodgers, “Afterword: The Distinctiveness of Environmental History,” in A Field on Fire: The Future of Environmental History, ed. Mark D. Hersey and Ted Steinberg (2018), 263. Rodgers was speaking of the discipline of history writ large rather than just environmental history, but it certainly applies to environmental history.
The literature on race and ethnicity is far too expansive to include in a note, but a good introduction to that literature can be found in Connie Y. Chiang, “Race and Ethnicity in Environmental History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Andrew Isenberg (2014), 573–599. See also Ellen Spears’s new history of the environmental movement. Ellen Griffith Spears, Rethinking the American Environmental Movement post-1945 (2019).
The quote is from Mart A. Stewart, “If John Muir Had Been an Agrarian: American Environmental History West and South,” Environment and History, 11 (May 2005), 153. For a recent historiographical treatment of the development of southern environmental history, see Mark D. Hersey and James C. Giesen, “The New South and the Natural World,” in Interpreting American History: The New South, ed. James Humphreys and Brian McKnight (2018), 241–66.
On the intersection of the history of science and environmental history, see, for instance, Michael Lewis, “And All Was Light?: Science and Environmental History,” in Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Andrew Isenberg (2014), 207–26; and Mark D. Hersey and Jeremy Vetter, “Shared Ground: Between Environmental History and the History of Science,” History of Science, 57 (Dec. 2019), 403-440 (forthcoming). Relatively recent treatments of the intersection of environmental history and the history of technology can be found in Sara B. Pritchard, “Toward and Environmental History of Technology,” in Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Andrew Isenberg (2014), 227–58; and Edmund Russell, James Allison, Thomas Finger, John K. Brown, Brian Balogh, and W. Bernard Carlson, “The Nature of Power: Synthesizing the History of Technology and Environmental History,” Technology and Culture, 52 (April 2011), 246–59. On health and environment, see Christopher Sellers, “To Place or Not to Place: Toward an Environmental History of Modern Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 92 (Spring 2018), 1–45; and Linda Nash, “Writing Histories of Disease and Environment in the Age of the Anthropocene,” Environmental History, 20 (Oct. 2015), 796–804.
Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (2001); Jack Temple Kirby, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” National Humanities Center (2001).
For more on the intersection of environmental and military history, see Chris Pearson, “Researching Militarized Landscapes: A Literature Review on War and the Militarization of the Environment,” Landscape Research, 37 (2012), 115–33; and Lisa M. Brady, “From Battlefield to Fertile Ground: The Development of Civil War Environmental History,” Civil War History, 58 (Sept. 2012), 305–21.
Donald Worster, “World Without Borders: The Internationalizing of Environmental History,” Environmental Review, 6 (Autumn 1982), 8–13.
For a discussion of the place of environmental history in early American history see, James D. Rice, “Early American Environmental Histories,” William and Mary Quarterly, 75 (July 2018), 401–32. Rice rightly underscores some promising indicators that point to the field’s growth in recent years. See also Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 13 (Spring 2015), which was devoted to environmental history.
John R. McNeill, “As Useful as We Want to Be,” in “Seeing the Woods: The Uses of Environmental History,” Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society Links to the other essays can be found here.
For a discussion of the session, see the follow-up post “Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?” on the OAH Process blog and the related podcast by the same name on the Network in Canadian Environmental History/Nouvelle initiative Canadienne en histoire de l'environnement (NiCHE) website.
Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry, A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles (2018). Nancy Langston, “The Syllabus Project.” The Zotero library can be found here. Another searchable bibliography of environmental history scholarship can be found on website of the Forest History Society, which publishes Environmental History in concert with the ASEH.
Wakild and Berry, 2. Now in its fourth edition, the most commonly assigned textbook in American environmental history courses is Ted Steinberg’s excellent Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in America’s History, 4th ed. (2018).