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

By William Beinart; Peter Coates | Go to book overview

Preface

Green issues are pushing their way to the forefront of public interest and government policy throughout the developed and developing world. Many of these problems are conceived to be sudden new manifestations of human destructive capacity as we rush hellbent toward the end of the second millennium. Yet processes of environmental change are deeply rooted in the past. Perceptions of crisis, as well as attempts to confront them, are equally central, if neglected features of human history. An historical perspective on contemporary ecological dilemmas and responses is currently one of the most fascinating and relevant fields within the humanities and social sciences.

The emerging environmental history is especially accommodating to a comparative approach that can cut through political, geographical and disciplinary fences that enclose and isolate the interrelated raw materials of historical study. An exploration of the ecological impact of human economies and cultures is particularly rewarding in the worlds into which Europeans have swept over the past 500 years. This book is one of the first to test the transnational potential of an environmental approach to history within a comparative framework, provided in this instance by the United States and South Africa.

Environment and History has truly been a joint venture, nurtured by informal encounters that often tossed up uncanny similarities between our far-flung zones of expertise. Convergences of experience between the regions still resonate at the close of the project. Each chapter was thoroughly discussed before we both separately wrote drafts of three. The final result was the outcome of joint sessions in front of the blue screen. (The book was composed in a room with a view and we were able, as befits environmental historians, to refresh our spirits by watching the seasons at work on a birch and apple tree. ) We can honestly say that most paragraphs—even sentences—bear the imprint of the styles and ideas of both of us. If the American examples

-viii-

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