Environmental History As A Way Forward

Is environmental history our best hope for the future?

This question, posed by Patricia Nelson Limerick (Center for the American West) in a conversation with Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center), ignited plans for a more in-depth discussion about the future of the field. The resulting invitation-only workshop, which co-sponsored by the National History Center, the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich, and the Center for the American West, drew environmental historians from four continents to Washington D.C. last June to discuss “opportunities and needs in environmental history.”  The emerging field of environmental history is ready to contribute historical knowledge, perspective, and understanding to the diverse issues the planet faces. While environmental history field grew out of the environmentalism movement, its future subjects, collaborators, and impacts within the discipline of history, as well as within the public arena, are up for debate.

Those participants in the conference included James M. Banner, Jr. (National History Center); David Blackbourn (Harvard University); Carolyn Thompson Brown (John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress); Peter Coates (University of Bristol); Kimberly Coulter (Rachel Carson Center); Miriam Hauss Cunningham (National History Center); John Gillis (Rutgers University); Arnita Jones (American Historical Association); Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center); John McNeill (Georgetown); Martin V. Melosi (University of Houston); Marta Niepytalska (Rachel Carson Center); Stephen Pyne (Arizona State University); Mahesh Rangarajan (University of Delhi); Harriet Ritvo (MIT); Libby Robin (Australian National University); Frank Uekoetter (Rachel Carson Center); Richard Walker (University of California, Berkeley); Douglas R. Weiner (University of Arizona); Richard White (Stanford University); Frank Zelko (University of Vermont).  They set about trying to answer the  question of the future of the field, starting with taking stock of the current landscape and moving into how environmental history and research can have real-world effect.

They have gathered their thoughts and reflections on the conference for a special issue of the Rachel Carson Center’s Perspectives that is now available online.   As Kimberly Coulter writes in the introduction, “Together, the sixteen contributions offer diverse insights and concerns about the future of the field from those working in environmental history and related disciplines.”

A short film based on the conference is also available online.

(Full disclosure: Patricia Nelson Limerick and Christof Mauch are members of the board of trustees of the National History Center.)