Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa

By William Beinart; Peter Coates | Go to book overview

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The nature of environmental history: the United States and South Africa compared

THE NATURE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY

Environmental history deals with the various dialogues over time between people and the rest of nature, focusing on reciprocal impacts. This fresh perspective, Clio’s new greenhouse, recognizes that humans themselves are a part of, as well as apart from, nature. As Crosby insists, ‘[m]an is a biological entity before he is a Roman Catholic or a capitalist or anything else’ (1972:xiii). Environmental history starts from a rather different assumption from most other branches of the discipline, which, whether concerned with high politics or forgotten folk, have tended to deal exclusively with intrahuman relations. In Cronon’s words it is: ‘a history which extends its boundaries beyond human institutions— economies, class and gender systems, political organizations, cultural rituals—to the natural ecosystems which provide the context for those institutions. ’ Such a history, he notes, ‘inevitably brings to center stage a cast of nonhuman characters which usually occupy the margins of historical analysis if they are present in it at all’ (1983:vii).

Though this recently generated sub-discipline is becoming a distinct field of study it has many precursors and antecedents—including historical geography, human ecology, frontier history, the ‘total history’ of the French Annales school and, less self-consciously, African history and anthropology. Environmental history has been most highly developed by Americans studying their own national experience. Initially, North American writers were mainly concerned with the despoliation of nature and the heroic rise of conservation. They were absorbed with the institutions and agencies of natural resource policy and protection, and with the great thinkers and actors such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. It is no accident that this coincided with the rise of the modern environmental movement and the emergence of environmental issues as a major public concern in the 1960s and

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