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Is environmental history too close to environmentalism to be reliable?

Updated on August 11, 2016


‘Not the sweet home that it looks’ or ‘A culture is no better than its woods’. These were the quotes found in the book about environmental history by I.G.SIMMONS. If one studies these quotes, one might reflect upon the truth behind these quotes. The home in which we are staying right now has changed a lot during the time. Even the culture has transformed from caveman times to the technological period. All these have had a major effect on the environment. It is the direct and sometimes indirect effect of environment that we are living in. In return, we too have made an impact on the environment. So a crisis has occurred in earth, in the environment that we live in. As newton suggested in his third law “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, therefore as we had harmed mother earth, we now get her reaction. To rectify the problems we need to use environmental history.

What led to Environmental History to become popular?

Environmental history is about human interaction with the natural world or, to put it in another way, it studies the interaction between culture and nature. It became popular during the 1960’s and 1970, which came from the rise of new problems like pollution, depletion of ozone layer etc. These problems had arisen due to increase in human activity, which has made an impact on the environment. To understand these problems, we must find the source of these. In this development, historians started to look into the origins of contemporary problems, drawing upon the knowledge of a whole field of scientific disciplines and specialisms that developed during the preceding century. The principal goal of environmental historians is to deepen our understanding of how we humans have made an effect on the natural environment in the past and what were the side effects. This is where we deal with real environmental issues and comes in the field of environmentalism. Donald Worster has recognized that three main issues are to addressed by environmental historians (1988: 289-308). The first cluster deals with the human intellectual realm consisting of perceptions, ethics, laws, myth, and the other mental constructions related to the natural world. Here we must understand how we made the changes in the world.

Need of Environmental Historians

One such case we can see the transformation in agriculture mention in the book “environmental history” By I.G.SIMMONS. At 10,000 B.C, the population of Homo sapiens were all hunter-gatherers. With the retreating ice age and its global effect brought the hunter-gatherers out in the open. Hunter- gatherers began to hunt many new types of animals, birds and were constantly were travelling from place to place and were able to rapidly adapt in the ecology. Population of these hunter-gatherers increased which led decrease in tradition source of food that forced them to change in the food diet , which included plants, found in the surrounding area. The development of new technology like fire, stone has led to many clean-ups in the surroundings and made many changes in their routine life. New changes in their routine life, has brought new occupation in the area like husbandry and agriculture. The hunter- men started to living together to form a settlement. Interaction between settlements has led transfer of technology like rituals; occupation has led to rise of civilization. New civilization has transformed the economy, which led to new trades, which later led to empires that are largely dependent on agriculture as income as well for survival. During this period, there were many changes in the society. Some of the changes were storage of essentials items like grain, water in large building to cope up with harsh climatic conditions like hot summer. We again see numerous transformations in the industrial period, where we can see increase in production of good in a short time and small area. This led development of machinery and reduction of much labour. By our time, we have transformed the field of agriculture to suite our needs. We now have used chemicals and started to degrade the land. This led to increase in problems like land pollution, air pollution etc. Here we can see the clear picture of three clauses as mention by Donald Worster . This model of the interaction between man and the environment depicts the concept of the separation between humans and nature.

This is why; we must study environmental history and its effects on environmentalism. It is to understand the root causes and to rectify it by using the ancient methods and little help from science and technology. This can be done only if historians, scientists and other scholars look over the boundaries of their own subject. This why, Environmental history is an interdisciplinary subject. The historian must be aware of some principles obtained from natural sciences, such as ecology, biology and forestry to understand what happened in the past. This will make him understand the past as a key to a better understanding of the present. Even the environmentalist must use the above method to understand the problems of the environment.

Relation between nature and culture

The relation between nature and culture are too often seen in Environmental history. The culture is quite dependent on nature and culture makes an impact on nature in many ways. Beinard and Coates included this ambivalent character into their definition of environmental history: "Environmental history deals with the various dialogues over time between people and the rest of nature, focussing on reciprocal impacts”. To understand these reciprocal impacts we must try to bridge the gap between culture and nature, between science and history. Environmental history is an attempt to unite the many worlds together like history with sciences. Donald Worster described the essence of environmental history as follows: “It’s essential purpose is to put nature back into historical studies, or, to explore the ways in which the biophysical world has influenced the course of human history and the ways in which people have thought about and tried to transform their surroundings”. We can see how the culture developed over the period with help of nature in the world in the past as well as present. This understanding the connection between the nature and culture leads to a whole field of new subjects. New subjects included sciences such as geography, geophysics, biology, demography, botany, and ecology. One example of relation between culture and nature is mention in the book “environmental history” By I.G.SIMMONS in chapter ‘culture time and environment ’, where the author mentions how the culture has change the natural ecosystem into a humanized one. In this book we can the question of cultural views of wild lands use and of social pattern. In many parts of world we can the concept of wilderness which brings a different culture views in there.


Environmental history brings many new “characters” closer together, forming links between human and nature. Therefore, the historians have to broaden their horizons to under environmental history. Other field member must include history like human history in to it and have to look into its historical process. This is to say that time has been a major factor in recognizing the changes in the natural world which is a product of long historical process. This includes influence of human culture to nature and made impact on development of technology too. Although humans are newcomers in the history of our planet, they have had a profound impact on the planet for at least two million years. That means that what we regard as nature is, to some extent, a product of human history.

Although this division between the human and the natural realms seems like such an artificial one, it used as a tool for the environmental historian in identifying the important questions. The sources of these questions might be able to answer many problems in the present and future.


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