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What is Environmental History?

In this article, Daisy Culleton explores the world of Environmental History: explaining what it is and the important purpose it serves.

For those wondering, ‘What on earth is Environmental History’, fear not – I’m here to answer that precise question. This article will seek to explain Environmental History to you, looking at how the academic discipline came to be and what it encompasses. What’s more, as I navigate you through the diverse world of Environmental History, we will also explore how it can help us create a brighter, healthier, and happier world for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

So, what is Environmental History and when did it come about? 


Well, Environmental History is a relatively new discipline, stemming from the environmental current that swept through America during the 1960s and 1970s. Thanks to the likes of publications such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the environmental destruction caused by America’s use of pesticides, a new awareness of humanity’s impact on nature was realised. This growing awareness of environmental issues was exactly what was needed for Environmental History to develop as an idea. The environmental movement ultimately fostered a climate within which a fresh new historical approach to environmentalism could not only rise to the surface but flourish and find acceptance. Theoretically speaking, it cultivated the fertile soil, in which Environmental History could successfully plant its roots.

A photo showing an aeroplane spraying pesticides on crops. Image Credits: Eric Brehm on Unsplash.


The official birth date of Environmental History is commonly recognised as 1972, when historian and author of Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash first utilised the expression in an article, for the Pacific Historical Review, that explored the impact humanity has had on the environment throughout history. Since, then, many historians have worked to establish and define Environmental History as a certified field of study. Writing in 1988 Donald Worster specified that Environmental History is studying the interaction between human cultures and the environment in the past. Donald Hughes expanded on Worster’s work in 2006, stating that it is a history that seeks an understanding of human beings as they have lived, worked and thought in relationship to the rest of nature through the changes brought by time. Therefore, to put it simply, Environmental History focuses on the interactions humans have – and will have – with nature.


To achieve what Worster and Hughes describe, historians, scientists, sociologists, and other types of scholars must come together. For example, to examine a natural disaster that has happened in the past, an environmental historian may wish to consult a scientist who is an expert on the subject matter. Its interdisciplinary nature is one of the many features that make it so unique, as few disciplines involve this level of collaboration.


Since Nash first coined the term, over fifty years ago, Environmental History has developed into a full-fledged academic discipline. As a direct consequence of its expansion, sub-genres have arisen within it, for example, Environmental History is generally grouped into three different approaches: Material, Political and lastly, Cultural & Intellectual.

- Material Environmental History: looks at landscapes, analysing the physical changes that have taken place across history.

- Political Environmental History: is concerned with looking at how political attitudes towards the environment have changed over time. Pierre Charbonnier’s book, Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas, is a prime example of this strand of Environmental History.

- Cultural & Intellectual Environmental History: examines how people have perceived nature over time and how the values they have attributed to it have evolved. Joy Porter’s book, Native American Environmentalism: Land, Spirit, and the Idea of Wilderness, is my favourite example of cultural and intellectual Environmental History. Throughout Porter examines the beliefs and ideas that Native American communities have ascribed to the environment throughout history.

An example of environmental politics. Image Credits: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

So, what can we learn from Environmental History?  


A lot of valuable information can be obtained from the earth’s-eye view of the past that Environmental History equips us with.


To some extent, Environmental History offers humankind a do-over. I am by no means suggesting that studying Environmental History, provides us with the opportunity to erase all the damage we have inflicted on the environment, but it does offer us the chance to learn from our mistakes. By investigating the environmental challenges that past societies have faced and the environmental consequences they have endured as a result of their behaviour, we acquire the knowledge needed to avoid history repeating itself.


Studying Environmental History also provides us with context for our current environmental issues. As the environmental historian builds a timeline of humanity’s ever-changing relationship with nature, they are able to truly understand why some of our most pressing environmental problems, such as climate change, are taking place. The environmental historian can pinpoint where and when humanity went wrong. This type of knowledge is necessary for making informed choices about today’s environment.  


Finally, Environmental History also offers those who study it the chance to connect with the environment in a whole new way. As you uncover nature’s past, you are drawn closer and closer to it.


About the author: Daisy Culleton is an American Studies and History graduate from the University of Nottingham. She has a keen interest in both Art and Environmental History. She also publishes, VNTG, a substack newsletter that explores sustainable fashion.

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