Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"The End of Modern History"?

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"The End of Modern History"?

Article excerpt

Historical geography, like environmental history, to which it is so closely allied intellectually (Dovers 1994; Williams 1994; Powell 1996), has the difficult task of selecting important themes and topics about past relationships between history and geography, nature and culture, society and environment. Clarence Glacken's seminal volume about these relationships from earliest times to the end of the eighteenth century shows how complex it had all become (1967). We still do not have a comprehensive and authoritative nineteenth-century - let alone twentieth-century - synthesis of either environmental ideas or the history of human impacts. The task becomes more difficult the nearer one is to the present; more is happening, more is known, and many more people have views about it (Hays 1987; McCormick 1989; Ponting 1992). Despite Donald Worster's penetrating account of environmental history and the ecological imagination in the United States in the modern era (1993), we are still a long way from a comprehensive and satisfactory historical geographical account of what elsewhere he has called a "planetary history" of "the vulnerable earth" (1988, 3).


In a conspectus of the antecedents of the contemporary era the years that straddle the transition from the end of the nineteenth century to just after the middle of the twentieth century - before the modern environmental movement began - are of special significance. All centuries probably end on a pessimistic note, as people reassess the past and look toward the next century with mixed trepidation and hope (Briggs and Snowman 1996). But compared with the hubris of the nineteenth century, the 1890s was a period of particular introspection. For Europe the space for colonization had all but gone, and the glitter and brilliance of the belle epoque seemed too brittle to last. For the United States a similar sense of close space accompanied Frederick Jackson Turner's announcement that the frontier had closed (Peffer 1951) and the Gilded Age was over. The phrase fin de siecle was coined; more than a reference to the last decade, it connoted decayed, decadence. To some it was worse: In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde wrote of "fin de globe," the end of the world as then known (1891, 19).

Yet signs of "progress" seemed to confute the pessimism and feelings of decline and decay. The development of railroads, steamships, industry, and world trade had led to a booming world economy, with western Europe and the eastern United States as its twin cores, and imperialism and "white" expansion were at their peak (Field-house 1969; Landes 1969; Meinig 1969). Of course, the great discontinuity was not the end of the century but the outbreak of World War I in 1914. When the cataclysmic events of World War II a mere twenty-one years later are added, the whole era from 1914 to 1945 became a new "Thirty Years' War" that tossed the assured world of the nineteenth century upside down. Indeed, the years after 1918 were, as Carl Sauer said, "the end of what we have been pleased to call modern history" (1937, 8).

The period from about 1900 to 1950 was one of reflection, adjustment, and evaluation. Primarily, the focus was on the limits, availability, and ownership of some of the earth's key renewable resources, particularly land, timber, soil, and water, which led to the quest for conservation. In addition, concern for ecology emerged. Ecological thinking provided a coherence and focus for fusing concerns about resources and scarcity by groping after a holistic biology that would heal the land and society's relations with it. Both of these concerns were characterized by a shift from local and regional thinking to a more global view, while earlier assumptions about the propriety and justice of the contemporary world order and the imperial role were questioned.

Worster's 1988 "brief sampling of twentieth-century titles" was just that: "a long string of writings . …

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