One of my prelim advisors, in preparing to give me a question for my prelim essay, asked me to write a page or so on the themes that most interest me within environmental history. This is what I came up with:
Although many of the traditional tales of environmental history focus on production—of national parks, of industrial wastes, and of scientific knowledge—I find myself particularly drawn to the other side of the balance, to issues of consumption. I read production-based accounts and want to know about the people going to those national parks, and their reasons for doing so; about the consumers who create the demand for goods whose production leads to industrial waste; and about the lay audiences who take in scientific statements of expertise and interpret, modify, and apply them to their own lives.
A closer look at consumption also makes room for the study of gender in environmental history, another category that I find exciting. Because women in the early twentieth century had more power within the private, domestic sphere of the home than within the larger public stage of conservation and policy-making, thinking about women’s (and their families’) consumption practices invites us into that sphere. Further, analyzing the different (or not) ways that men and women responded to new scientific and environmental currents in dominant culture often seems to illuminate the variety of factors that contributed to the dissemination of expert opinion among lay audiences.
My intellectual interest in food also stems, at least in part, from this engagement with the linkages between production and consumption. Food, conceived both as an agricultural product and as a marker of cultural identity, provides a perfect lens through which to understand how a material good, produced from interactions between soil and human labor, becomes an intimate part of people’s daily lives and personal understandings. Some of the books I’ve read begin the work of writing food histories, but often without much attention to environmental history. There is still so much thinking to do about the agricultural, material, and ecological underpinnings of our diets and food practices.
Food also serves as the binder between the health of the physical environment and of human bodies. This connection—between environmental history and human health—is another theme that fascinates me. I’m convinced by arguments which suggest that looking at these two fields in juxtaposition can help us find a place for humans within nature. I’m also interested in the ways in which studying environmental history within the context of health can make our discipline seem more relevant and attentive to human needs than a (now increasingly-outdated) traditional view of the environment as something out there, disconnected from daily human lives.
Finally, this attention to food, human health, and consumption speaks to one of the last themes that I enjoy reading and thinking about: the relevance and application of our historical knowledge to issues of import in the present. Without losing historical nuance or the ability to study the past for its own sake, I believe (or would like to believe) that our studies can offer something to those with contemporary concerns about the environment, human health, or dietary practices. Authors I’ve been reading take up this problem variously, usually in a few lines in the epilogue or at the end of an introduction, but often in ways that feel rather shallow. If we are to see our environmental histories as having relevance in today’s world, I’d like to think more deeply about how historians create these connections and communicate across disciplinary boundaries.