Enviromental History - What it is and the Differing Approaches to Study

There are several different ways in which environmental historians approach the field of environmental history. These can be easily seen when an individual looks at the definition of what 'environmental' history is and its focus – the role and place of nature in human life. In this field's infancy, this term might have been easily assumed to only cover political pro or con environmental activity, however this particular field has no simple agenda or focus. This definition is certainly an 'open' one that allows many different ways of looking at the history and interactions of humans and the world around them. However, it appears that the majority of historians use five different approaches when working and studying history in this category. One way is to study the biological interactions between human beings and the natural world around them; this can include disease, unintentional disruptions to native and introductions of non native species, and the over-utilization of natural resources causing extinction. Another approach is to divide the world into a series of categories or 'levels' to categorize human interactions with nature; this can include animal husbandry, farming/agriculture, and other forms of production and how the interactions change the balance of human life and the rest of creation. There is an approach that looks at environmental history through the lens of political and economic transformations of power and the struggle of people to understand and balance their needs vs. the needs of nature (consumption vs conservation.) One approach tends to focus of the 'ideas' that human beings have about nature and how we perceive it in relation to ourselves; these can include art work, accounts of explorers, writers, etc... Lastly, the history of human beings and their environment can also be studied through narrative works- stories and the people who tell them. This approach can focus on man's positive or negative transformations or interactions with the earth and what information and facts can be gleaned from these experiences for more positive future interactions.

Donald Worster, one of the pioneers of the development of this particular historical field, believes that environmental history needs to proceed on three levels. These levels are the study of nature itself, the study of the human modes of production, and the study of patterns of human perception, ideology and values. Each of these levels of study require different skills and appropriate usage of other fields of study to develop a truly precise and accurate end product. The first level asks that the researcher understand how nature has functioned in the past and therefore how it functions without 'us'... or at least how it functions without our current participation. This information can be found through the work of geologists, archeologists, anthropologists, biologists, etc... and allows us a glimpse and insight into the natural world that we can attempt to study, reconstruct, and then try to understand and build a knowledge base. The second level focuses on the human modes of production and as such, focuses not only on how human beings have used forms of production to change their lives, labor practices and economics.... but also how each of these practices has changed the natural world and in turn changed the culture of human beings as well. The last level/idea is to study the ways that humans use and see nature based on human bias, perception, morals/ethics and the stories/myths that become part of how we deal with nature. How we as human perceive nature and ourselves as well as our needs and wants can have quite a drastic change in ourselves and the nature that surrounds us. An example that springs to mind is how the recent hurricane and its future arrival changed the way (at least temporarily) many humans saw the power and function of nature and it became more dangerous and a force to be feared in our minds. Those perceptions and biases will change the way we see nature and interact with it and other human beings even if the change is only temporary. Another example is how we perceive our needs based on what we perceive as natural resources- if we see our needs as high and a part of nature as resources, we can truly make the resource endangered or extinct without careful understanding, limitations/balance, and respect.

Jared Diamond distinguishes between 'proximate' and 'ultimate' factors when predicting the outcome of environmental history. Proximate factors tend to be 'factors' that are the most easily discovered and most recent to the situation of time frame being explored. In my own words, I would use the words cause and effect with the word proximate describing the causes of a situation. Ultimate factors tend to be the situations, etc... that bring us to the current or proximate factors. In my experience, most general history that is taught would be considered to be mostly consisting of proximate factors – ex: American colonists didn't like high British taxes or King George, fought war, won, and created new country. While the factor of taxes and government interference was a issue to be reckoned with and certainly did contribute to the eventual war, the ultimate causes of the war began much earlier and are less securely rooted in easy phrases. Both of the answers that can be sought through these divisional groups are technically correct and will give us a large clear portrait of the subject that were are studying. However, if we only use proximate facts we will lose much of the richness of the history itself. By continuing to ask even more questions and to delve deeper 'into the causes of the causes' as it were, we can truly develop a rich tapestry that can be utilized by all interested parties for full consensus and understanding.

William Cronon, a noted environmental historian, believes that his field is useful for so many reasons. Understanding the 'birth' of this field of history helps us understand how it began and in many ways helps us to understand many practicing historians and their work today. The list of books published over the last few decades that discuss environmental history do appear to lean towards not only understanding the past, but trying to change the future. (Isn't that really what the study of history is really about anyway.... the study of the past so that true understanding can potentially change our actions and our future...? That's one of the things I have always thought anyway.) Mr Cronon believes that all human history has a natural context and that no history can exist by itself- all aspects are interdependent on other groups, factors and influences. Taking the time to look at the human actions that have shaped our times gives up the opportunity to look at how nature and the very earth itself have influenced these us and human interaction. (The Spanish Armada and Queen Elizabeth of England come to mind) Another important reason for these studies is that neither nature nor the cultures that exist in it and mold it are benign or unchanging. Culture itself is really a very simple word that describes a very complex and may I say 'shape shifting' idea. Everyone in a culture in not the same, does not respond the same way to similar situations and has its own bias, beliefs, perceptions and reactions. Nature is not necessary unchanging and stable either -witness the earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters over the last few years for big starters - and neither are we as the human race. (The idea of making an outline and typing it on a machine that would not only help me fix my errors but save the information for a few days was barely thinkable forty years ago.) Another really good reason for the study of environmental history is to understand that as a 'significant' contributor to the history itself, we (humans/historians) develop and write knowledge about our environment and world based on our cultural perceptions and biases about our world and environment. Throughout history we can see where generations of people had different environmental 'absolutes'.... that we no longer see as ever being correct or useful. A historian must be careful to recognize that the historian himself/ herself is biased and study, research, and interpret accordingly. We can never be fully objective about our environment – we are always in it. Lastly, Mr Cronon makes the fairly obvious point that the historian or student of history is not an individual who can predict the future with any certainty or be quite sure as to what policies and decisions would be most useful in public or governmental policy, groups and communities, etc... All the knowledgeable historian can do is to make predictions about what could or may happen and try to affect change for the future based on those predictions. Much as every human being, including myself, finds ourselves making changes in our life and cultural based on who and what we are, what we do... and how the humans and the world and nature around us respond in their own dynamic dance.

There are a few things that I think are very important in the study of history and the environment. I really think that we cannot truly understand ourselves- really understand who we are, what we need, and the way we interact with others and the world without pretty good knowledge of the world around us. Understanding that all human beings do essential see the world differently based on their experiences and environment helps us to understand the large role that nature itself has in shaping us into the beautiful being that each of us is. Understanding how both nature and humanity are really interdependent groups- not entirely separate- helps us to understand how we affect the world we are in, how the world itself changes our behavior, thoughts and culture, which in turn, changes the world.

Another aspect that can be explored is the idea that breaking this particular field of study into more subgroups can potentially give us even more information and help us to remove or at least recognize some of our biases when doing the research. And most historians of all areas of study have found it important to interpret history not just through the general lens (rich, white, male), but to also look acknowledge the differences in historical interpretation when viewed by race, gender and class. Carolyn Merchant- feminist and environmental historian- believes that the interpretation of environmental history when using factors such as race, class and gender cause the historian to ask different questions and to see how environmental factors can be used to justify exploitation, injustice, and even disease and impoverishment. How the individuals in different economics circumstances deal with and change their environment can be quite different from each other and the differing cultures that have been created through environment and circumstances to different racial groups create a different portrait of the historical facts. Gender has also a large piece of the puzzle as woman’s roles and environments have and can vary widely from those of the differing gender. An example is that farming and animal husbandry used to remain mostly in the hands of women (or the poor) until the last century when large scale agribusiness came out on top and these tasks became the work or ownership statistically of the white male. Women tend to also be responsible (and held responsible) by their cultures and society for reproduction and to be responsible for the majority of 'world production' or work, while males tend to be more dominant in history as well as today for relationships of power, structural and cultural systems of governance, and other factors. (I feel I need to stress that I am not suggesting that the majority of men do not work!) By looking at history through the eyes, experiences and environment of race, class, and gender, we are able to see the same environment differently, the differing effects it has on various groups and the perceptions and biases of the historian and the studied groups themselves. The use of extra lenses to view the past only gives us more information about ourselves as individuals, communities, nature and humanity itself.

Thoughts, impressions, comments....? :)

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