Tag Archives: Environmental History

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.)




Workshop Held on ‘Opportunities and Needs’ in Environmental History

The National History Center and the Rachel Carson Center of the Ludwig-Maxmilians University in Munich held an invitation-only, day and half-long workshop on the “Opportunities and Needs in International Environmental History” on June 11-12, 2010.

The group of international participants represented several universities across the globe: Australia, England, India, and the United States. They discussed how historians fit into the conversation about the environment with scientists and the public, including how history can be used to understand the current debates and to better inform policy makers about the environment. Participants agreed that historians may not have the answers for the changes occurring to and within the environment, but can help formulate the questions that the public needs to ask.

A critical aspect of environmental history is the need to expand its focus to understudied eras, such as anything before the 1880s, and into other geographical areas outside of the Europe or the U.S., such as in the Middle East or Russia. A move away from the traditional areas of urban studies, such as New York or the cities in the American west, is also needed. Instead, research should focus on studying the development of other international cities, for example Cairo or Dehli. Collaboration with other disciplines, such as geography and archeology, can only benefit environmental history.

In terms of looking towards the future, many participants felt a better relationship with the scientists, industrial groups, and the public at large is crucial. Historians are experts and need to engage these communities as such as the field of environmental history moves forward.

Participants in the International Environmental History Workshop

Held at the Library of Congress, the workshop was also co-sponsored by the Center of the American West and the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. This is the first day-long workshop to be held by the National History Center that focuses on the needs and opportunities of a particular field of historical inquiry.  The Center hopes to continue to hold international workshops of this kind.

The participants included David Blackbourn (Harvard University), Peter Coates (University of Bristol), Kimberly Coulter (Rachel Carson Center), John Gillis (Rutgers University), Patricia Nelson Limerick (University of Colorado, Center of the American West), Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center), John McNeill (Georgetown University), Martin Melosi (University of Houston), Steven Pyne (Arizona State University), Mahesh Rangarajan (University of Delhi), Harriet Ritvo (M.I.T.), Libby Robin (Australian National University, Canberra), Frank Uekoetter (Rachel Carson Center), Richard Walker (University of California, Berkeley), Douglas Weiner (University of Arizona), Richard White (Stanford University), and Frank Zelko (University of Vermont).

Listening to the discussion around the table.