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What is environmental history?

This post was first published on envirohistory NZ

Recently I read J. Donald Hughes’ “What is Environmental History?” This is an excellent little introductory book, aimed primarily at those relatively new to environmental history – whether it be students, those specialising in other disciplines, or non-scholars who have an interest in environmental history.

Having never studied environmental history in a formal setting myself, the book provided useful context.

The book is very accessible and unthreatening to even the non-academically inclined in its content as well as its slimness – “models”, “paradigms” or “axioms” are rarely mentioned, and “post-modernism” is only mentioned once, as I recall! One point that Hughes makes (though I am sadly unable be to find the statement at this moment) is that environmental history is largely free of theory (hense the lack of “models”). This had never really occurred to me, but in part explains the field’s strong appeal to me personally – that, and its highly interdisciplinary nature (a perfect fit for a pragmatic generalist!)

The only (obvious) point I would make is that, having been published in 2006, the volume could benefit from a revision to bring the references in particular up-to-date and reflect the burgeoning activity in places such as Canada, and even, no doubt – Australasia. The other point I would make is that Hughes perhaps underemphasises the role historical geography has played in exploring many of the themes now investigated by environmental history – certainly in this part of the world, in any case.

The book begins by discussing the established definitions of environmental history, before looking at the history of the field, its current threads, and its future direction. The book has an extensive reference list for further reading on the various themes it traverses.

Hughes in part addresses the question “What is environmental history?” by describing the broad categories into which the studies of environmental historians fall). These are:

1. the influence of environmental factors on human history

2. the environmental changes caused by human actions and the many ways in which human-caused changes in the environment rebound and affect the course of change in human societies

3. the history of human thought about the environment and the ways in which patterns of human attitudes have motivated actions that affect the environment.

Having reflected on this, I think my interest most strongly lies in the last category, but of course, all these themes are interlinked.

Further reading: What is environmental history? by J. Donald Hughes (2006)

Photo top: Group of children and adults outside Rata School on Arbor Day, 1 August 1894. Taken by Edward George Child (1 August 1894). Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: 1/1-011003-G

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