Do we need to reinvigorate Environmental History?

‘‘Many people believe that the humanities are retreating, that they are irrelevant, and students—especially in the emerging world—are encouraged to study subjects that are considered to be more useful for the labour market. The task of the humanities, according to Wilfrid McClay, is to be distinctive from the natural and social sciences, by grasping ‘human things in human terms… to understand the human condition from the inside… we need the humanities in order to understand more fully what it means to be human’ (McClay 2008).’’

The brief statement above is taken from Jane Carruthers’s article ‘Environmental History for an Emerging World’ (Conservation and Society, 2013), the subject matter from which this blog post is a response to. For those who want to read the article before reading my own thoughts below it can be found by clicking here.

For the purposes of this post I am placing environmental history amongst the humanities although I would argue that the thought processes and methodologies that lie behind the study of environmental history go far beyond the boundaries of the humanities, interlinking with the social and natural sciences and other disciplines. As Carruthers asserts, environmental history is an integration of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, providing the opportunity for a detached survey of a whole host of historical subject matters. However, no longer a ‘new’ discipline but one with some now deep roots, it is quite right that we should question the legitimacy of its role in academic study. Now, I am a mere undergraduate and someone who, whilst having a background in ‘the life outdoors’, is very new to the study of environmental history. However, my present relative detachment, as a semi-outsider, enables me to confirm the immense potential value that the discipline can have both in historical study, interdisciplinary study and human outlook more generally.

Carruthers looks to environmental and social resilience, sustainability and injustice as the major issues that environmental history speaks to and about. I would widen these to include social and ecological degradation and alteration, enviro-political thinking and outlook towards citizenship and values as well as enabling a distinctly detached view regarding how our views towards food production, commodity exploitation and energy production, among many other major contemporary debates, have changed over time.

If history is meant to be a discipline that encourages a broadsheet neutrality, offering analysis and evaluation, ‘creating understanding through analysis and narrative, critiquing evidence and avoiding over-generalisation and inappropriate comparison…generating understanding and context’ (Carruthers, 17), then this is something I think environmental history can look to branch away from, perhaps moving more-so towards a social science disciplinary manner. This is because environmental issues are so much at the forefront of social, economic and philosophical questions today that it is difficult for narrative writing not to be underlined with some form of directly opinionated approach, whether that be governed by ethics, policy, politics, philosophy, knowledge or experience background.

As Carruthers reminds us we live in the ‘Age of the Anthropocene’ (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000) and although I have alluded to the idea that environmental historians may do well to step outside of the strict discipline of history at times, environmental history is and will remain a humanity, a study that lays emphasis on the human elements of living on planet earth, albeit one that should study the human elements of life as ‘human-animals’ as a part of the wider biotic community, not as ‘human-beings’ separated from the rest of nature. As long as the discipline remains responsive to society and dynamic and fluid enough methodologically to remain relevant it will have a healthy future, with a seat with a distinct identity. However, in summary this very short post makes the suggestion that this should be an autonomous seat, as a humanity and an historical sub-discipline but one that sits alongside the natural and social sciences in its own right, aiding our understanding of our world.

Crutzen, P.J., and E.F. Stoermer. 2000. The “Anthropocene”. Global Change Newsletter 41: 17–18.

McClay, W.M. 2008. The Burden of the Humanities. Wilson Quarterly 32(3): 37–38

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