Monday, February 23, 2009

You're the Historian: Chewing the apple through the middle...

In response to the really insightful and provocative questions that Badger Bear posted in the comments of my first post, I decided to devote a post to what I see as being the "core ideas" of environmental history, and why I think they are difficult for the educated public to digest. (Although, in fact, I think philosophers are perhaps more capable of digesting these ideas then others of the educated public, since the ideas are actually quite philosophical in nature [and philosophical about nature. Ha!])

So some of the main questions that I see underpinning the study of environmental history are as follows:
  • Does order exist in nature?
  • If that order does exist, can it be understood through science?
  • What is "natural" or "cultural" in the landscape around us? How much "nature" exists outside of human manipulation?
  • Where do we derive moral authority if not from a "nature" that is outside of human control? Is there something "out there" in nature worth preserving or protecting?
  • If the idea of Clementsian ecology--that is, an equilibrium state in natural environments--has been undermined by the scientific discoveries of the last 70 years, then what do we use as a baseline for measurement of land health?
  • Did Native Americans in the pre-contact period manage the landscape intensively? How much "wilderness" existed before British colonists came to America?
  • How can a commitment to wilderness preservation as the ultimate goal of environmentalism undermine and erode our relationships with other natural and cultural environments, and with human communities?
  • How much does the physical environment determine the course of human history and culture?
  • How has capitalism shaped our relationship with the land?
These questions are admittedly very broad. But they do underlie much of the foundational work in my discipline. (For a good introduction to the positions of some leading environmental historians on these issues see Worster, Donald, Alfred Crosby, Richard White, et al., “A Roundtable: Environmental History.” Journal of American History 76 (1990), pp. 1087-1147.)

Not all environmental historians engage with all these issues in all of their writings, of course, but at least some of them are at the core of most of the work we do. The problem with translating this work--and the importance of it--to our friends and families is that most people take the answers to many of these questions for granted, even if they don't think about them too hard. For example, most people outside my discipline (or at least most people I spend a lot of time talking to, which, admittedly, isn't really a representative group) believe in a wilderness "out there" that exists separately from human intervention. Believing in this wilderness is what lets us fawn over the Sierra Club calendar, lets us condemn polluters and destroyers of the earth, lets us revel in weekend hikes in the mountains...but which also lets us ignore the problems of environmental racism, lets us privilege problems of Arctic refuges over the problems in our own neighborhoods, lets us imagine that our own daily lives have little effect on the state of "the environment" so long as we recycle our plastic water bottles and donate yearly to conservation organizations. (Bill Cronon discussed these issues far more eloquently than I could in his famous/notorious essay, The Trouble with Wilderness.)

Alright, I guess I've maybe only chewed the apple through the skin for now--not quite reaching the core--but I think I'll continue with more thoughts soon.

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