The American Historian
a coal plant burns and releases carbon dioxide above a cityscape

Photo by Charles Steinhacker, courtesy Library of Congress.

Possible, Fun, and Urgent: Designing U.S. History Courses to Include Environmental History

Michelle K. Berry, with contributions from Emily Wakild

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In 2016 the Portland Public school system approved a policy commitment to provide its students access to “climate literacy.”[1] It is the first American public school district to do so, but students across the globe are increasingly demanding access to environmental education and to the skills and knowledge that they instinctively know they need to meet the challenges that a changing climate present. Perhaps no field is more poised to offer students the perspectives and skills they need than environmental history (EH). The field is rich and varied geographically. It is, in its essence, interdisciplinary and allows students to learn the interrelatedness not just of species and ecosystems but also of academic disciplines. Environmental history is vividly diverse in its attention to issues of power and justice. And it is easily incorporated into existing social studies (and history) courses at both high school and early undergraduate levels. Indeed, I would argue that EH might be the most important field to include not just in climate curriculum but in any social science, humanity, or hard science course that seeks to impart to students the vital skills of problem solving, critical thinking, empathetic analysis, and effective collaboration.

“But my students think trees are boring and bugs are horrifying.” This was what one teacher said to me recently when we were discussing the possibilities of incorporating EH into her current U.S. history curriculum. But she also readily admitted that the real fear was hers. Like all curriculum changes, incorporating environmental history can be intimidating if it is not your “area of expertise.” Deciding where to begin, what to include, and how to assess can be overwhelming, but remember, “small can mean big.” (after all, think of the power of a termite!) Even just taking some of the lowest hanging fruit and experimenting with environmental history in the most obvious places can set you up for grander experiments and broader inclusion of the field into your syllabi. Here are some ideas for where to start.

Perhaps no field is more poised to offer students the perspectives and skills they need than environmental history

In our book, A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles, Emily Wakild and I lay out several paths toward incorporating environmental history into existing syllabi. One way is to survey your content and pick out those places where EH seems most obvious. As you [2] examine your content, ask yourself the question, “where would centering the nonhuman environment serve to expose my students to a more complete narrative than my singular focus on the human currently does?” A terrific example of that might be the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. As Mark Fiege has shown in his textbook The Republic of Nature, the nonhuman world of colonial New England played important roles in how the witch accusations and trials played out. As important as Carol Karlsen’s 1998 admonition to apply gendered analysis to the trials, Fiege’s urging to add an environmental layer powerfully shifts our understanding of this episode in U.S. history.[3] When one looks for the environment in Salem, one sees it everywhere. As Fiege explains, “New Englanders were an exceedingly anxious and fearful people, because the order they tried so hard to impose was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a biophysical environment in which nothing was stable.”[4] As Fiege demonstrates, one needn’t throw out one’s teaching of Salem (or a host of other typical lessons in a U.S. Survey) to include EH.

Inclusion of EH can be as simple as being aware of the environment as a historical agent and as a lens of analysis and require students to be aware as well. Other aspects of colonial history become richer, more accurate, and more inclusive when enhanced with environmental content. For example, when focusing on the effects of colonization on the indigenous human populations of the Americas, instructors often leave out any discussion of “changes in the land” caused by European settlement.[5] When we include nature in our discussions of colonialized America, American Indians’ ecological knowledge and environmental practices can become the center of the story in ways that more accurately portray the power of indigenous peoples. European conquest becomes more complicated when an ecological story is told alongside the human.

Other “greatest hits” in U.S. history become more compelling when the environment is brought in. If you show students that the building of the railroad relied on the biophysical world and not just on the genius of engineers and capitalists, then suddenly the dependence of human technological artifice on nature seeps into students’ consciousness. For many, this will be the first time they have thought of it. Another terrific example, this one from the twentieth century, is the creation of nuclear energy and weaponry. Usually taught as a diplomatic and wartime ethical and humanitarian dilemma (which it was), understanding the creation of “the bomb” in environmental terms can help students realize the ecological implications of war, see the production of nuclear energy not just as scientific progress but also as a complex issue of toxic natural resource extraction and environmental justice for Navajo uranium miners, and recognize the tradeoffs of this particular technological development as a complicated public policy dilemma for the storing of waste and for the spatial transformations of those communities with atomic production in their midst (Hanford Nuclear Site to name one example).[6]

Another approach to including EH into your existing syllabi is to think about your timeline. Which periodization have you chosen and why? If you step back from that timeline and layer on top of it important environmental developments or shifts, how might the periodization change? You can do this in the quiet summer months, alone in front of your computer. Or you can ask your students to do it as a review activity. While you probably need to do the former to set up the latter, the latter is really powerful. You will find that rather than focus on the more traditional turning points, students might want to prioritize ideas about and conflicts over the environment as the central moments on their timelines. Rather than seeing wars as the crucial turning points, climate disruptions and other natural disasters (insect infestations, massive floods, great droughts, etc.) might become just as important for the students’ understandings of change over time. Take, for example, the Progressive Era. If taught with the San Francisco earthquake and the ensuing Hetch Hetchy controversy as one of the central narratives, suddenly the nonhuman directs much of the course of “progressive” debates and the resulting human and environmental developments in the early twentieth century. All of the political, ideological, and social revolutions that are so important to understanding the Progressive Era are present in the catastrophe of the earthquake and the subsequent efforts of activists to use both local and federal governments to make sense of the quake’s damage and to try to prevent another such tragedy (in part by providing water through the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park). Students can access photographs of the quake’s devastation and primary sources about the Hetch Hetchy debates online. Even Advanced Placement high school classes can use the event as an introduction into the era and, like most environmental history topics, the episode is fraught with unequal power relationships that highlight intersectional analyses of race, gender, and class and thus can be included in any course (not just the survey) that includes the Progressive Era.[7]

If you are new to EH, you can also look at a single event or place that you already cover in your course and rework it to include the nonhuman. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 often figures prominently in histories of gender, technology, race/ethnicity, labor, and the U.S. West, and one can easily weave environmental threads throughout any discussion of this richly textured event. The fair designers’ desire to create an urban space devoid of class or racial conflict and Frederick Olmstead’s engineered park landscape is ripe for analysis. In thinking about the White City’s role in launching the City Beautiful Movement, students can focus on the importance of built environments in shaping spatial power relations and the role of industrial pollution in directing reformers’ most outrageous ideas (the cleaning of drinking water to avoid typhoid for the fairgoers, for example). The fair’s buildings almost all housed “nature” in cultural forms (horticulture, mining and metallurgy, etc.), and students can analyze the new ecological directions that the fair signaled in that moment of American Exceptionalism. The presence of the “future” of agricultural technology and products such as Cream of Wheat allow students to consider the creeping consumer-based material culture that would come to characterize the twentieth century (which, of course, has had profound environmental impacts) and the environmental ramifications of the shift of American demography from rural to urban. A critical turning point in energy history was present at the fair, too, in the use of electricity to light the grounds, and this can offer an opportunity to think about the seemingly endless dilemma of using and mining coal to power America’s communities and industries. Of course the reading of what was perhaps the first environmental determinist history, Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis on the frontier, might be the best and most obvious place to start your environmental investigation of the great World’s Fair, but all of the topics discussed above can be brought together to show students how the nonhuman deeply informed and was forever changed by this cultural moment in U.S. history.[8]

Another way to incorporate EH into your syllabi is to take an EH thread that is consistently present across the content that you already teach. Let’s think, perhaps, about human health. If you are teaching a course that includes the Gilded Age, for example, you probably already teach about immigration, industrialization, Jim Crow segregation and sharecropping, developments in the U.S. West, and corporate corruption. In each of these, human (or public) health, as affected by the nonhuman biophysical world, figured prominently. Boll weevil infestations in the South changed the already unjust power relationships of sharecropping and impoverished African American farmers even more by endangering not just their economic but their bodily health. Overcrowding, filth, and microbial disease in the eastern cities led to the rise of powerful political machines and the eventual establishment of urban reform efforts such as New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Immigrants who poured into those cities were consistently associated with disease and germs. The ideas of the dangerous microbial world as being culturally manifested in “foreigners” informed (and may still inform) the discourse around border policies of exclusion. The coal used in the late Gilded Age was of different and inferior quality than coal used earlier. The new, anthracite coal polluted air and mining for the substance, as well as dangerous working conditions in factories, resulted in bodily harm that set the scene for increasingly radical workers’ and progressive political movements. Thus, we can, as David Stradling suggests, credit coal with significant shifts in air quality, human health, and policy reform.[9] The Gilded Age is just one example of how a subtle shift of focus toward acknowledging the nonhuman world can energize the curriculum and help students gain environmental literacy even as you maintain your learning objectives in your courses.

If you feel comfortable with EH already or are just wanting to completely reword your curriculum to focus on EH—do it! I think the best way is to decide on a topic to which you know students can relate. I have found that students crave topics that they can see in their own lives. Local histories, history of food, and sustainable energy history are all subjects that I have included in my environmental history courses and/or that I have taught as stand-alone seminars to great effect. The more you can ask students to 1) connect their learning to something they already know and 2) apply their learning to real world problem solving the more engaged they become. Let’s take food as an example. When our students order a Big Mac, they don’t see the corn, the cow, or the complicated ecology that went into manufacturing that “all beef” patty. But drawing their attention to those very things and exposing them to the 1950s cultural context of McDonald’s was, in its essence, an environmental development with profound environmental effects (the mass production and consumption of cars, the building of roads, the extension of suburbs, etc.) will force them to think about not only the 1950s differently, it will also provide them with a basis on which to model their critical thinking about developments in the students’ own historical context ( Uber? Starbucks?). Indeed, the growing of food in the United States in the post-World War II era offers endless opportunities for thinking not just about the genetically engineered tomato or the ecological repercussions of growing lettuce in California’s Imperial Valley. It also allows us to expose students to the rise of transnational capitalism, the infrastructure of arid agriculture in the U.S. West (history of engineering), the politics of migratory labor and the threat to workers’ bodies as agriculture became increasingly toxic and industrial. Ethics involved in the development of technology, use of water, disposal of hazardous waste, and regulations of labor are all present in food history. The tradeoffs (who and what were sacrificed) that resulted from growing food in a particular way likely seem “natural” to students, but in teaching environmental history, they are suddenly and undeniably a result of human choices. Thus, in teaching this seemingly narrow environmental history of food from say 1945—1985, you will have chosen a subject that will center the nonhuman while encompassing all of the things we value and honor as essential to the deepest understandings of the past.

As you critically examine your content, ask yourself the question, where would centering the nonhuman environment serve to expose my students to a more complete narrative than my singular focus on the human currently does?

If you have the academic freedom and the logistical possibilities to be really creative, having students undertake the writing of a history of a local place (a park, a water treatment facility, a building) or a particular item (corn, bananas, clothing, computers) can unveil the hidden environmental histories of items and places that seem to exist magically for many of our students. Understanding that everything has a history and everything has an environmental history can awaken in students a deeper consciousness about their own connectedness with the world around them. Urging them to also see issues of justice and access to power in these histories as well as the change over time in environmental use, regulation, and relationships will reinforce for students the usefulness of historical thinking and the importance of always considering the environment. In narrowing in on a particular topic of environmental history (of food or of energy or of water), you will be able to ask your students to dig deep with their analysis and, in so doing, you will show them the interconnected and even global implications of the complex human relationships with the nonhuman world. Race, class, gender and other lenses of analyses will be impossible to ignore or overlook in nearly every topic you could undertake in an environmental history course. And isn’t this really the intersectionality we should be striving to encourage in all of our teaching? Sometimes (maybe always?) depth is preferable to breadth.

The Portland School District is on to something. As we move toward cultivating change makers and leaders who can tackle the multi-layered challenges of a changing climate, resource depletion, protection of biodiversity, and crises of waste, it is essential that these discussions and lessons are not solely the purview of the hard sciences. The humanities, and particularly history education, should be at the table, guiding students to think about causation, effect, and perspective. No field is better at asking students to learn skills of analysis than history, and environmental history, in particular, can help engage students by showing them that these skills are particularly useful in their daily lives. Environmental history as a field is not perfect. As you read the suggestions in this article you may find yourself wondering “what the heck counts as nature?” or you may be thinking “where is the wilderness?!?” If these are the questions arising for you, then you are well poised to begin your foray into teaching environmental history. As the students in Portland seem to understand, no beginning will be perfect, but the environment should be front and center in our schools, our departments, and our discipline. And it’s not only possible to incorporate the field into U.S. history classes, it’s fun. And, it is urgent.


Michelle K. Berry is an environmental historian by trade and currently serves as Assistant Professor Practice in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Arizona. She taught juniors and seniors in U.S. history at an independent school in Tucson, Arizona for ten years. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she is hiking somewhere in the intermountain West.


[1]Eder Compuzano, “Students Press Portland School Board to Adopt Climate Curriculum Promised 3 Years Ago,” The Oregonian, May 14, 2019, Accessed: July 24, 2019.

[2]Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry, A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles (2018).

[3]Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1998).

[4]Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (2012), 27.

[5]William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indian, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (2003). Mart Stewart has done similarly fascinating work on the colonial South. See Stewart, What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1620–1920 (2002). The original scholar to urge this approach, Alfred Crosby, called it ecological imperialism in 1986. Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (2004).

[6]See also Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the “Improvement” of the World (2000) and in a work that shows the potential of environmental history to cross boundaries and disrupt the silos of the nation state, see Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (2007). Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (2001); Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (2013); Judy Pasternak, Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos (2011). This topic can lend itself well to project-based learning as well if one asks students to think about and design policy and practices of “safe” waste disposal.

[7]Robert Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: The Battle over America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (2005) provides an excellent overview with a good focus on the technological and engineering aspects of the controversy. You can find primary sources in a variety of places. In particular, see The Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives, Accessed: July 24, 2019.

[8]William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991); Rebecca S. Graff, "Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds' Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture," International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 16 (no. 4, 2012): 696-716, Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the American Frontier,” at University of Virginia, Accessed: July 30, 2019.

[9]David Stradling, Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers, and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951 (Baltimore, 1999). In many of these topics one can utilize multi-media to make the stories come alive. See for example Thomas Edison’s early video, “White Wings on Review,” The Library of Congress, Accessed: July 24, 2019.  James Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth and Power in the American South (2011); Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (2007); Howard Markel, Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the Epidemics of 1892 (1999).