An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life

By J. Donald Hughes | Go to book overview

Bibliographical essay

Writing on global environmental history 1

During the first conference of the American Society for Environmental History, held at the University of California at Irvine in January 1982, Donald Worster gave a talk entitled “World Without Borders: The Internationalizing of Environmental History.” 2 In it, he called for a postnationalist synthesis in environmental history which would take account of several transitions in modern culture away from the vernacular and local to the professional and global. Human activities today are less often circumscribed by local ecosystems (although even these cross borders), and more often extend throughout the biosphere that transcends every national frontier.

Environmental historians evidently have taken Worster’s words to heart. The journal Environmental Review (now Environmental History) has published many articles that cover various regions of the globe, and a few that are planetary in scope. Other periodicals that often have opened their pages to articles on world environmental history include Annales; Capitalism, Nature, Socialism; Ecologie Politique; The Ecologist; Environment and History; Environmental Ethics; Journal of World History; and the Pacific Historical Review. The profession itself has spread virtually worldwide, including strong coteries of scholars in nations including but not necessarily limited to Australia, Austria, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

This concluding essay will offer a brief description of work in world environmental history, which is the most widely embracing approach to the subject, and the one that potentially can erase the greatest number of borders. It is also one of the earliest kinds of environmental history to appear. The importance of the relationship between humans and the natural environment has been noted by writers of history in both ancient and modern times. The first Greek historian whose works are extant, Herodotus, took as his subject the world as it was known to him, and commented on the relationship of environment to peoples and nations, for example the importance of the Nile to Egypt. 3 Later another Greek historian, Thucydides, included in the beginning of his account of the Peloponnesian War some observations on how the fertility of the soil, or lack of it, influenced migrations and wars in earlier times. 4 Other Greek thinkers such as Hippocrates and Theophrastus speculated on environmental influences not only in Greece, but in countries as distant as India. Their work can be considered global, however, only in the sense that they wrote about the relatively circumscribed world of their own time and place: Greece, the Mediterranean Sea, and the known parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Richard Grove, in a major work entitled Green Imperialism, 5 has shown that scientists, including physicians, sent out by colonial powers as early as the seventeenth century, noticed environmental changes on oceanic islands, in India and South Africa—changes

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An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Permissions xiii
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Primal Harmony 12
  • 3 - The Great Divorce of Culture and Nature 30
  • 4 - Ideas and Impacts 52
  • 5 - The Middle Ages 83
  • 6 - The Transformation of the Biosphere 109
  • 7 - Exploitation and Conservation 141
  • Notes 169
  • 8 - Modern Environmental Problems 174
  • 9 - Present and Future 206
  • 10 - A General Conclusion 238
  • Notes 241
  • Bibliographical Essay 242
  • Index 249
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