The environment in world history.
The sense that, as Frank Uekotter puts it, "matter matters" has found growing numbers of historians turning to environmental methodologies to analyze a wide range of social, economic, and political questions. The immutable physical characteristics of landscapes and resources resist some transformations and facilitate others, interacting with existing social systems, ecosystems, and ideas to produce new relationships and structures. The essays contained in this issue share an emphasis on the interdisciplinary aspects of environmental research and the need to deal with the nonhuman environment as an active participant in historical outcomes, rather than merely the stage upon which humans perform.
Environmental history lends itself to a global approach in much the same way that environmental problems tend to necessitate transnational cooperation. A historical inquiry involving local spaces, resources, or ideas about nature frequently implicates transnational phenomena, from the physical movements of nonhuman elements of the environment to the transfer of ideas and people from one landscape to another. Transboundary currents, migration patterns, and climates, not to mention the ever-increasing circulation of material resources in global markets, complicate efforts to address many aspects of the natural world on a purely national or local scale. World history, which has long embraced extra-national perspectives, provides a natural framework for thinking about environmental connections and patterns.
The insight that material flows can connect distant societies in economic, biological, and cultural webs is not, of course, a new one, and commodity histories have proliferated since the 1980s. (1) Larry Kessler's article on Hawai'ian sugarcane suggests that such an approach still has much to offer in terms of connecting often-forgotten regions to global networks. Commodity and resource histories like Kessler's also seek to tease out the interactions of human and nonhuman actors within economic, political, and environmental webs. Uekotter, however, suggests that the profound entanglement of humans and resource flows in the modern era resists efforts to treat either as independent, and defies our attempts to identify discrete causes and effects. Shifting our focus from the materials and humans involved in commodity networks to the creation and maintenance of (and obstacles to) the flows themselves offers new ways of thinking about the interrelations between environmental, political, and economic history.
Commerce is only one of many vehicles for transnational material flows. Air and water currents, animal migrations, epidemics, and many other nonhuman-driven phenomena routinely traverse political boundaries and offer exceptional opportunities for research and pedagogy. By integrating historical perspectives with evidence gleaned from the natural and social sciences, environmental historians can offer insights that traditional archival or even archaeological methodologies would miss. Tackling the ongoing debates over the megafaunal mass extinctions of the late Quaternary period, for instance, Paul Jentz demonstrates how cross-disciplinary collaboration can contribute to ongoing paleontological, climatological, and historical debates.
The breadth of knowledge necessary for such interdisciplinary work at times appears overwhelming, perhaps especially to historians already challenged by the need to master the languages and archives used in transnational or global projects. Proving that such concerns afflict even the most respected environmental historians, John McNeill describes his own experience learning to live with a severe case of "inadequate research anxiety syndrome" while writing his award-winning treatise on twentieth-century environmental change, Something New Under the Sun. His practical and cheerful advice on the subject can serve as inspiration to many of us who struggle with similar worries.
The pedagogical essays contained in this issue span a wide temporal and geographical range, from Edward Melillo's contemporary, policy-themed course to Michael McInneshin's micro-reader on the role of forest resources in early modern empires. They are similarly varied in scale, from Thomas Anderson's sweeping survey of large-scale environmental disasters to John Soluri's in-depth unit on the Potosi silver mines. This thematic diversity highlights the versatility of an environmental approach, and the extent to which seemingly divergent topics can be tied together by following the movements of material actors. Soluri's piece, for example, uses a story of local resource extraction to explore themes of global geopolitics, technology use and adaptation, demographic shifts, and social justice. All of these essays provide practical materials, as well as theoretical approaches, that can be of use to teachers of world history surveys as well as of dedicated global environmental courses.
The immediate relevance of environmental history to contemporary problems and the interdisciplinary methodologies necessary for its study encourage students to engage actively with the material and teach them to synthesize diverse and complicated ideas in ways that will serve them well outside of the classroom. Knowledge about our environmental past can inform decisions in policy and personal actions, and has become increasingly necessary as we have grown more aware of the changes brought about over the past century. Teachers and scholars of environmental history are all, to a greater or lesser extent, following Donald Worster's exhortation to "try to take part in the great public issues that animate our times: the fate of rural communities, ... the aspirations of developing countries, the future of the earth." (2) The transboundary perspective of world historical methodologies, meanwhile, teaches us to "think globally and act locally: " to compare and contrast divergent responses to the environmental challenges of the past; to explore the myriad impacts of seemingly isolated changes in the physical environment; and to look beyond the individual political case to larger patterns and processes. In both theory and practice, the dynamic field of global environmental history has much to offer.
Sarah Hamilton, University of Michigan
(1) The classic in this genre is, of course, Sidney W. Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1985). Other outstanding examples include Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Free Press, 1991); and John Soluri, Banana Cultures. Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas, 2005).
(2) Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1993), ix.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: Global Environmental History|
|Publication:||World History Bulletin|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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