1 J.R. McNeill, “A Brief History of the Atmosphere”, The Geographer (2011), p. 6-7
2 Stephen Mosley, “Common Ground: Intergrating Social and Environmental History”, Journal of Social History, 39:3 (Spring 2006), p.915.
3 Mosley, “Common Ground, “p. 915
4 Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde “The Problem of Environmental History: A Re-reading of the field”‘ Environmental History 12 (2007) p. 110.
5 Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde, “The Problem of Environmental History…” p. 109.
6 Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde, “The Problem of Environmental History…” p.124
7 Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde, “The Problem of Environmental History…” p.109.
8 Tim Cooper, “Recycling Modernity: Waste and Environmental History”, History Compass, 8:9 (September 2010) p. 1115.
9 Mosley, “Common Ground,” p. 916.
10 Mosley, “Common Ground,” p. 919.
11 Mosley, “Common Ground,” p. 919.
12 Mosley, “Common Ground,” p.916.
13 Mosley, “Common Ground,” p. 918.
To conclude, the main fault with environmental history is that it is critiqued for not being of traditional historical practice. This is due to its approach to research, predominantly a scientific study. With various studies on the effects of pollution on the atmosphere, a scientific approach is the most likely candidate for environmental history and a more interpretive view would perhaps devalue the scientific standard which we expect in environmental research today. Thus, combining science and the interpretive method would limit the amount of information gained on the effects of such issues, as despite it being a global issue and widely recognised, people are educated differently on the issues surrounding our environment. Also, regardless of local attachments to certain issues such as the Thirlmere case in the Lake District in the 19th century, bigger and more pressing issues strain environmental history on its representativeness such as climate change and the increase in the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Thus, we face another pressing problem of subjectivity. Throughout historical study and other fields beyond it, the need to be objective has caused debate among scholars who wish to express an emotional input within their writing. Specifically, for environmental history, it could indeed be questioned whether this aspect is needed to enhance the study to attract more interest and generate discourse on various topic areas, as this could result in a wider range of interpretive insights into what the environment really means to the broader human race. Overall, it is often discussed that environmental history is an ‘important growth area in historical studies, although it has struggled to influence the mainstream agenda’13 and perhaps to reinforce its historical element, scholars should approach further research as a way of communicating deeper with the human opinion and attitudes towards the environment, as well as maintaining scientific discovery to sustain its success at being an interdisciplinary field.
Despite emerging as fields of study at similar times, social and environmental history may not be entirely compatible considering their individual research approaches. The former relies on the study of human experience in the past whereas the latter encompasses an array of issues on a bigger scale; a reflection of our environment’s journey to its position in global discourse today, whether on a national level or, as it is more so, internationally. Thus, combining the two fields must cause a certain intellectual block in historical research as there is only a certain amount of historical inquiry which fits the two areas, such as human opinion towards the environment in the past and how it affected ordinary life; this does not however entirely translate into future experiences, which are a lot more complex considering the political pressure we now as nations face on the protection of the environment.
Within historical debate, many works have been produced outlining the specific usefulness of social history to environmentalism. Indeed, as humans acknowledge their responsibility to causing environmental issues through industrialisation and excessive use of non-renewable energy, environmental history becomes more of a cultural phenomenon, lessening its natural impact. Thus, could social history be useful in explaining the cultural aspect of environmental history? Mosley suggests so as ‘how human action and environmental change are intertwined’9 and we see nature’s role in many ‘historical processes’ enabling us to see the world in a specific way. Mosley also outlines benefits of integrating the two fields, such as ’emphasis on long-term processes rather than short-term events’10 and case-studies concerning certain areas to study vital issues from the ‘bottom-up’. According to Mosley, this reflects the influence of social history on environmental history, as a ‘notion of exploring history from below’ 11 to represent the people, as opposed to the control of history from above, through high-rank political spheres. Thus, many social historians, specifically over the last decade, have stressed the significance of social history in environmentalism. Environmental history has ‘applied the basic social history tools of class, gender, race, and ethnic analyses—as well as sociological and anthropological methods of investigation’12 to delve deeper into recognising the key relations between humans and nature. Therefore, social history’s compatibility with the historical study of the environment seems a relation to enhancing the field considering its problematic youthful reputation and more importantly, its incapability of using a ‘traditional historical method’ of study and research.
Environmental history can also be judged on its usefulness and compatibility with other subjects. As discussed above, there are many disparities between environmental methodology and alternative historical studies. Sverker and Warde state that environmental history consists of a wide range of ideas which enables other fields to place themselves inside. They heavily stress the contribution to this field by science and politics and the ‘historical study of nationalism, one of the mainstream fields of history’ 6. Environmental policies, in many countries, have become ‘science-based’ as they have similar environmental goals to achieve. We now live in a globalised world and everything is much more inter-connected. Thus, we experience the same environmental culture, as the world has become dependent on the behaviour of others towards the environment; climate change has become an overriding environmental issue due to the capitalist routine that transnational corporations have maintained, undermining the environment and placing financial gain as the main priority; this has resulted in a movement towards huge marketisation, resulting in the exploitation of cheap labour in developing countries abroad. Therefore, environmental history is international, as some solutions to reducing pollution have instead been a case of displacement – moving industries abroad does not only worsen the problem but increases the likelihood of other solutions being unsuccessful as the creation of more pollution aggravates it further. As many accounts of environmental history suggest, the industrial revolution which began in the 19th century has raised awareness of the urban environment, focusing on the ‘sanitary conditions, pollution, and consumerism’7 of today’s (mainly western) world. Therefore, its connection with previous regimes of environmental care enables us to uncover not only histories of the environment but various histories about nations, political landscapes affecting these nations and the broader outline of the world, across both long-time periods and international perspectives. Mosley suggests that new ways of study are useful in building that specific field as it boosts knowledge and values the interdisciplinary element of historical investigation. Despite environmental history being a young field, it could be argued that it has made better progress in outlining current and relevant environmental issues than any other field. Cooper, in his 2010 journal article on the differences between ‘waste’ and ‘dirt’, outlines the importance of historical materialism in raising awareness towards the ‘struggles for environmental justice’8 on environmental history’s behalf. Nevertheless, the extent to which we can identify certain compatibilities between environmental history and fields such as gender history depend on its capabilities of altering its research techniques to make it more universally applicable; despite living in an ever-enhancing technological world, certain fields do not use an extensive amount of scientific research compared to the amount environmental history does.
Firstly, we need to assume the common characteristics that encompass environmental history as a field of study. Its methods and practices are often assumed to be sourced through quantitative data and scientific investigation, such as the study of ice cores in northern glaciers, which enable scientists and their readers to gather information about previous temperatures through the analysis of carbon dioxide-filled air bubbles over the past 10, 000 years. Therefore, the ultimate scale in which environmental history places its methods of practise could be considered far greater than which regular historical study is pursued. Internationally, environmental awareness has become a movement of the protection of nature and the ecosystem around us; thus, globally, we are consciously aware of our interdependency to protect our environment from increasing climate change and the enormous risk it places on our planet. Through globalisation, we are connected through various systems, such as the hydrological cycle, which has come to be both a natural and cultural phenomenon; we adapt its natural properties to meet the needs of present society, such as the infrastructural changes made in underground sewage systems – which has ultimately affected our hygiene awareness through scientific developments. Our atmosphere is also considered having ‘both a natural history and a human history’1, as a tool for human survival and on the other hand, as being increasingly polluted due to human political and economic practises, specifically through the growth in industry. These environmental issues pose huge pressures on global politics as there are ‘growing demands of consumer societies in both developed and developing nations’2 which place an ‘unsustainable burden on natural resources such as fossil fuels’3. As well as the global scale of environmental history, it also spans across a long-time period, as it is a progressive study of how the environment has come to be, its relationship with people and how this has changed. This is a significant component of environmental history, as it clearly shows the disparity between its unique study and how other historians approach historical practice. For example, many historians usually study specific historical events or investigate thematically; there are numerous studies on the two World Wars and Nazi Germany, creating the assumption that history is pursued specifically on one topic. Thus, through the process of globalisation, environmental issues have become a global issue with many organisations set up to protect the environment around us, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the major environmental issue affecting global politics today. Critics of environmental history, such as Sörlin and Warde in their 2007 Environmental History journal article, suggest that the field is yet to fully develop, as it plays weak in both English, Welsh and American history, despite the latter being its main home ground and where most influential history on the environment has been written and taught. They suggest that this may be due to the ‘fragmentation and specialisation in both environmental history and historical practice in general’4 and pose an argument for the emergence of ‘historical geography’ which despite not being studied in many countries, holds growing significance in France, though where environmental history does not sustain prevalence. Therefore, the methodologies and the scale of which environmental history pursues its research can often limit other historians, as imposing transnational study into various histories can propose issues with representation of these areas; representing locality can also be misleading, as they could contribute to global processes and concern but may not be mentioned. Despite some histories having similar methodologies, such as gender history’s attempts at understanding the experiences of both men and women across a historical period, environmental history is an undeniable challenge to historical writing that poses methodological and practical difficulties to historians who have developed in their field but are often misled by the alternative approach which environmental history takes. In fact, various studies have discussed the complexity of environmental inquiry as being overly broad; perhaps this contributes to the confusion, as Sörlin and Warde state that ‘in much of continental Europe, environmental history has enjoyed a more limited impact’5 and ironically, tends to focus on certain aspects but overall disinclines alternative areas of environmental interest which are significant in this field of study and importantly, to the growing relationship between people and nature.
The field of environmental history has complex premises which often enable it to confuse or complicate other fields of study around it. Without a definitive meaning, we can only assume that this field aims to show the changing relationship between people and nature and how this contributes to the making of nature’s history. This also includes the role of nature in human life. Despite some arguing that it is a subfield of history, environmental history raises issues on the extent to which we can separate it from ‘traditional historical practice’ as they both focus on different themes. In this essay, I will discuss the challenges of environmental history on other historians and how this may distract or alter their study. Also, considering the complexity of the topic, I will pose debated issues on what the legitimate practises are for historians who are willing to pursue this field separately or in combination with their usual topic area. Other fields of study will also be discussed in relation to their usefulness to environmental history, such as social history and the often-disputed empirical argument.