Environmental turn in history

September 18, 2022

Environmental history is an inter-disciplinary subject, meaning that historians, scientists and other scholars must look over the boundaries of their own subject

Environmental turn in history


he havoc caused by floods makes it incumbent on Pakistan’s academia to devise a plan to inculcate proper awareness about the environmental degradation and climate change among the youth as well as the general public.

Every discipline is expected to include courses in their curricula that address the issue of environmental change. One thing is obvious: such a crucial issue cannot be left to the governments, which appear to be in a state of helter skelter, with no sense of purpose or direction. Serious students of history understand that their discipline (history) has taken an environmental turn.

But in Pakistan such a debate is markedly absent. I am writing these lines to give a preliminary introduction to environmental history with the expectation that university academics will sensitise the youth so that proper measures are taken to save Pakistan from natural calamities like floods and earthquakes.

Environmental history is the study of human interaction with the natural world over time, emphasising the role nature plays in influencing human affairs and vice versa. In climate science, a tipping point is a critical threshold that, when crossed, leads to large and often irreversible changes in the climate system.

Crossing tipping points is likely to have severe impacts on human society. The environmental history includes analysis of data on tides, winds, ocean currents, the position of continents in relation to one another and geology. It also takes into account the history of change in climate, weather and patterns of spread of diseases.

The principal goal of environmental history is to deepen our understanding of how humans have been affected by the natural environment in the past and how they have affected that environment. This is called the bilateral approach to environmental history.

Environmental history is a relatively new discipline. It came into being during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a direct consequence of the growing awareness of worldwide environmental problems, such as the pollution of water and air by pesticides, depletion of the ozone layer and the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by human activity.

We can distinguish two important 19th Century origins of environmental history: ecology and geography. In modern environmental history, ecological concepts are used to analyse past environments and geography to study the ever-changing face of the earth. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, geographers stressed the influence of the physical environment on the development of human society.

The idea of the impact of the physical environment on civilisations was first adapted by the historians of the Annales school (established in 1929 in France) to describe the long-term developments that shape human history. That school gave currency to the concept of total history, in which history was entwined with geography.

Roderick Nash was the first to coin the term ‘environmental history’ in an article about the impact of past human societies on the environment published in the Pacific Historical Review in 1972. His dissertation, Wilderness and the American Mind, done under the supervision of Merle Curti, became one of the foundational texts in the field of environmental history.

Nash’s early writings were unilateral; he studied the impact of human society on the natural environment. It is widely believed that it was largely because of the work undertaken by Donald Worster (The Wealth of Nature, Under Western Skies, Rivers of Empire), Christian Pfister (Climate and Society in Europe: The Last Thousand Years), Peter Brimblecombe (The Silent Countdown) and Clive Ponting (A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations) environmental history became mature. In other words, it became less unilateral and influenced by political motives. Currently, environmental history is an international and inter-disciplinary undertaking.

Donald Worster has recognised three clustres of issues to be addressed by environmental historians. The first deals with the human intellectual realm consisting of perceptions, ethics, laws, myth and the other mental constructs related to the natural world. Ideas about the world around us influence the way we deal with the natural environment.

Here we enter the second level of issues to be studied: the level of the socio-economic realm. Ideas have an impact on politics, policies and the economy through which they materialise in the natural world. With the impact of human actions on the natural world we enter the third level of environmental history. This level deals with understanding nature itself, the natural realm. In the case of woodland history, it is the way forest ecosystems have been working in the past and how they were changed by human actions. The impact of human actions on the natural world conjures up a situation that changes our ideas, policies, economy, etc.

Environmental history is an inter-disciplinary subject. That means that historians, scientists and other scholars must look beyond the boundaries of their own subject. The historian must be aware that he or she sometimes needs to apply some principles from the natural sciences, such as ecology, biology and forestry, to understand what happened in the past. However, this does not mean that the historian must become a scientist in the narrow sense. He is and remains a historian with the task to master and understand the past as a key to a better understanding of the present.

But to do so he or she must look over the boundaries of history and even the humanities and acquaint themselves with the nomenclature and principles of other disciplines, especially natural sciences. This does not mean that they have to become experts in these fields, but to use it as a tool to get a better understanding of historical problems.

In America, Europe, Australia and China the discipline has come of age. Even Indian historians are writing on this subject. The internationalisation and institutional recognition of environmental history continues. It is becoming increasingly part of the emerging environmental humanities. This is also visible at the attendance of the World Congress of Environmental History that is held every five years. This large international meeting is not only attracting humanists and social scientists but also scholars from other humanities subjects as well as scholars from the natural sciences.

I conclude this piece by putting down a quote by Donald Worster: “Whatever terrain the environmental historian chooses to investigate; he has to address the age-old predicament of how humankind can feed itself without degrading the primal source of life. Today as ever, that problem is the fundamental challenge in human ecology. Meeting it will require knowing the earth well — knowing its history and knowing its limits.”

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Environmental turn in history