Reflections on the Life and Work of an Environmental Historian

I came across this interview of the environmental historian William Cronon by chance but it is certainly worth watching if you have an hour to spare. Cronon is one of the ‘big names’ in environmental history, the son of an historian and a ‘creation’ of the University of Wisconsin, Madison which is the institution where he is based today as the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies. His academic and personal interests span several disciplines which is partly why I admire him as an historian. His work has drawn and continues to draw controversy – ‘The Trouble with Wilderness‘ springs to mind – but this is one of the reasons behind his success. He is a strong proponent of the role of history as a means of storytelling and translating the past as a ‘foreign country’ to inform future actions.

In this interview conducted by Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California Berkeley there is a lot of time dedicated to the theme of story telling and its importance both for Cronon but also for the world.

Cronon touches on the values of a liberal arts education, the ways historians approach the world, future challenges and the role of environmental history set within this framework.

Cronon believes in telling complex stories that have some form of hope embedded within the framework. Good history should not lead to despair but offer a form of positivity and inform choices for future people and future environments. In history we look at the world we have today and question how the world gets to be the way it is? The present is made through the choices of past beings (both humans and other organisms). Cronon’s key questions for us are:

What choices should we make today? What stories would we like people in the future to tell about us? How do we imagine the future and how do we get there?

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