Environmental History

By Lowenthal, David | History Today, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Environmental History

Lowenthal, David, History Today

From Genesis to Apocalypse

David Lowenthal introduces our new series on History and the Environment by surveying the growth of the field, and of human interaction with the world we inhabit.

BRITISH WEATHER IS AN overheated topic. The Prince of Wales attributed last November's floods, like BSE, to `mankind's arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of Nature'. In blaming mankind he was praised by some for accord with the Book of Common Prayer, and rebuked by others as unscientific, ignoring human impotence against nature's might. But scientists also differed: some held such weather extremes to be normal recurrences, others the result of global warming caused by human agency.

Environmental history underlies these issues. How much and how fast has the climate changed? How far are such changes man-induced? Is nature in balance? Are humans helpless to stem -- or bound to alter -- natural processes? Has humanity on the whole improved or damaged the Earth? In what sense do environmental misuse and reform matter? Today's environmental concerns trigger these essentially historical questions. Save for the study of oppressed minorities, no aspect of history is currently so resurgent as that of the environment.

Past historians habitually disjoined nature from history. As recently as 1984, Donald Worster found `little history in the study of nature, and little nature in the study of history'. History -- the annals of civilisation -- derived from memories and written records. By contrast, knowledge of nature -- Earth and Cosmos -- emerged from material residues, theoretical logic, and verifying experiment. History was a humanistic enterprise, environment a scientific one. Analogies abounded, `the book of nature' was a common cliche, and historical `science' was recurrently trendy. But most scholars stressed the disparate temporal horizons, subject matter, and sources of the two realms and slighted their parallels. Nature was mundane and mindless, history the sublime theatre of human will.

To be sure, historians never forgot that men and women required terrestrial abodes for food and shelter, even for sanctuary and spirit. And the reciprocal influences of locale and life perennially intrigue chroniclers. At least since Herodotus, historians have invoked landscape and terrain, climate and soils to explain why peoples and nations differ. In the Western world, human dominion over nature was decreed by the deity and lent added impetus by Enlightenment science. While environmental determinists termed nature mankind's master, zealots of progress saw nature as mankind's servant.

How did Western savants read the book of nature? Through early modern times, it reflected sacred scripture, its future and its end as clearly foretold as its past had been ordained since Creation. To Enlightenment scholars, nature became a divine cosmic clock, whose regular, cyclic mechanism science would plumb. To eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biologists, evolution generated ever more perfected forms. Seventy years before Darwin, organic metaphors served the philosopher Johann von Herder (1744-1803) as a developmental model of human history. Nations and peoples were born, came to fruition, declined, and perished as collective living beings.

By then geology and biology had shown that nature itself had a history, now to be traced not by sacred texts but, like human annals, by empirical inquiry. The French naturalist the Comte de Buffon's Natural History (1749-78) and James Hutton's Theory of the Earth (1785) revealed the antiquity of the globe and made developmental change the guiding principle for chronicling nature. Epochs of Nature, Buffon's final volume, likened natural to cultural history. Just as historians of humanity deciphered medals and inscriptions `to fix the date of events in the moral order', so chroniclers of nature `excavated the archives of the world, drawing old monuments from the entrails of the Earth', to synthesise indices of physical change.

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