Clio's New Greenhouse

By Coates, Peter | History Today, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Clio's New Greenhouse


Coates, Peter, History Today


Since the 1960s, social historians have added new wings and storeys to the Muse of History's mansion to house various neglected members of the human family and those who study them. The latest addition is a greenhouse, grafted on to accommodate the natural world and the environmental historian. For whether concerned with high politics or forgotten folk, most historical endeavour up to now has dealt exclusively with intra-human relations.

Environmental history's basic assumption, however, is that human activity takes place within a larger, more natural history and that historians would do well to include this in their purview. The objective is to reveal the various relationships over time between humans and the rest of nature, a task which entails looking at the impact of economic and political systems, ideologies and technologies on the non-human world as well as at how natural forces act as historical protagonists.

To date, the field is most highly developed in the United States, whose historians have contributed many ground-breaking studies, and where history departments increasingly maintain an environmental historian. In Britain and the rest of Europe, environmental history is still confined chiefly to the research level, pursued mainly outside history departments by interested individuals within the social and natural sciences.

Environmental history has a twin focus on the history of the environment and the history of environmentalism. Many contemporary environmental problems are conceived to be sudden new manifestations of human destructive capacity as we rush hell-bent toward the end of the second millennium. Yet processes of ecological change, as Clive Ponting's popular work, A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991), has revealed to a wide audience, are deeply embedded in the past.

Perceptions of crisis, as well as attempts to confront them, are equally central -- if overlooked -- features of human history. And environmental history is probably best-known in Britain and the United States for its attempts to trace the evolution of contemporary `green' ideas and policies by identifying earlier manifestations of concern for nature and natural resources, whether of a utilitarian, aesthetic, ecological or moral complexion.

J. Donald Hughes has traced the roots of modern Western sensibilities as far back as ancient Greece (Ecology in Ancient Civilizations; University of New Mexico Press, 1975). Richard Grove locates the antecedents of an international environmentalism preoccupied with deforestation, species extinction and climate change in the eighteenth-century policies pursued by the British and French colonial states on islands such as St. Helena and Mauritius (in Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860; Cambridge University Press, 1995).

The close connection between the history of environmentalism and the modern environmental movement is evident in multifarious studies of environmental politics, policies, conflicts and values. The work of two British radical scholars (neither of them historians), David Pepper's The Roots of Modern Environmentalism (Routledge, 1989) and Derek Wall's Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics (Routledge, 1993), reveals the activist's search for a usable past and the need to construct an intellectual pedigree for contemporary `greens' (the latter carries extracts ranging from Prince Kropotkin to Hildegard of Bingen).

The study of Yellowstone National Park, the National Trust or the great men and women of conservation need involve no more than the standard sources and tools of political institutional and biographical history. But the history of environmentalism that Pepper engages with dwells on the formation and expression of ideas about the earth and attitudes to nature in the broadest possible sense. It is easily forgotten that `environmentalism' carried a much wider meaning before it was recently appropriated by the popular ecology movement. …

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