Environmental History Essay

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Environmental history is a study that intrinsically deals with nature and the human being, and the previous interactions between them. In order to understand the changing environment of present and future, it is essential to know about the environmental past. The environmental issues we are confronting today reflect diverse complexities whose roots are both natural and human.

A rapidly increasing interest in the phenomenon of the global environment has developed in the last two decades, along with a belief by some that we have entered an era of environmental crisis. This has stimulated a wider array of academics, scholars, and policy makers to reevaluate their concerns with a more ecological focus.

The prime goal of environmental history is to deepen our understanding of how humans have been affected by the natural environment in the past and how they have influenced that environment and with what outcomes. It provides a landscape record for scientists who intend to understand the current ecological system by learning about the past environmental framework.

Environmental historians typically address three clusters of issues. The first is concerned with the human intellectual realm, which comprises perceptions, ethics, laws, myths, and other mental constructions related to the natural world. The second area is the socioeconomic realm, which has an implication on politics, policies, and the economy through which these notions materialize in the natural world. The third area is environmental history, which concerns understanding nature itself, that is, the natural realm.

In the case of woodland history, environmental history is concerned with the way forest ecosystems have been working in the past, and how they were changed by human actions. The influence of human actions on the natural world causes a feedback that changes our ideas, policies, and economy. Within this structure, we attempt to alter reactions we do not like and continue practices, which in our view, are successful; this model depicts the separation between humans and nature. Although this division is an artificial one, it can be a useful tool for the environmental historian in identifying some key questions, the sources that might be able to answer the questions, and the methods utilized to study these sources.

Budding Discipline

Environmental history is a rather new discipline that came into being during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a direct outcome of the growing awareness of worldwide environmental challenges such as pollution of water and air by pesticides, depletion of the ozone layer, and the theory of a greenhouse effect caused by human activities. In this development, historians started to look for the origins of the contemporary problems, drawing upon the knowledge of a whole field of scientific specialization that had been cultivated during the preceding century. In modern environmental history, ecological concepts are used to analyze past environments and geography utilized to study the ever-changing face of the earth. At the beginning of the 20th century, geographers stressed the influence of the physical environment on the progress of human society.

Two other roots of environmental history are archaeology and anthropology, of which the latter introduced ecology into the human sciences. The emergence of world history put forward interdisciplinary and continental-wide, even world-scale, studies into history. Ecology and the interdisciplinary method later became two prominent features of environmental history.

Evidence of environmental issues is reflected in manuscripts, publications, and historical archives, under labels like public health, nature conservation and preservation, smoke abatement, municipal housekeeping, occupational diseases, water pollution, and air pollution. Most environmental historians have focused on regional or national affairs.Some of these richly illustrated studies trace how the natural impulses and resources have shaped societies on a global scale. The use and subsequent abuse of landscapes frequently crosses arbitrary political-cultural boundaries and even continents and oceans.

Some of the broadly shared historical processes that sped environmental change from roughly 1500 to 1800 c.E. include intensified human land use along settlement frontiers, biological invasions, commercial hunting of wildlife, and problems of energy scarcity. These issues are reflected in the case studies of specific places and activities such as the fur trade in North America and Russia, cod fishing in the North Atlantic, and whaling in the Arctic, as well as studies showing how humans altered the material well-being of the natural world through clearing forests; draining wetlands; transporting bacteria, insects, and livestock; hunting species to extinction; and reshaping landscapes.

In equally unprecedented and dramatic ways, humans are extending their reach and their numbers as they intervene in the world’s natural environment. Despite the fact that environmental issues have become one of the most substantial parts of the global social fabric, there has been little historical aspect on environmental history until recent times.

The early period of environmental history can be divided into three distinct phases: Ancient Civilizations, Middle Ages and Renaissance, and Enlightenment.

Ancient, Middle Ages, Renaissance

In Ancient Civilizations, air pollution was common in large towns long before the Industrial Revolution. The pollution came from dust, wood smoke, tanneries, animal manure, and other things. Israeli and Hindu cities tended to have less water pollution due to strict religious codes about cleanliness. On the other hand, ancient Rome was notorious for sewage-filled streets. Furthermore, timbering stripped the forests of Babylon, Greece, Phoenicia (Lebanon), and Italy with the rise of civilization. While the wood energy crisis led Greeks to use passive solar energy by orienting their cities and houses toward the sun, Romans made some use of solar energy but imported wood for timber and fuel from as far away as the Black Sea. Both Greeks and Romans kept sacred groves of trees from being timbered.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, plague devastated Europe, but led to the beginnings of a public health system. Timbering in the forests of England, France, and Germany left large tracts totally denuded by around 1550 in England and the 1600s in Europe, forcing a switch to coal. In this period, soil conservation was not widely practiced in the Mediterranean, but cultures in China, India, and Peru understood the long-term effect of soil erosion and used terracing, crop rotation, and natural fertilizer to prevent it. Further, occupational diseases were investigated and began to be recognized as public health problems.

Enlightenment and Progressive Era

In the era of Enlightenment, reason began to be better appreciated as an antidote toward superstition. Ben Franklin’s fight against water pollution, James Lind’s fight against scurvy, and the movement to clean up slums and prisons started with an enlightenment philosophy that held individual citizens to be valuable. Nonetheless, food and resources ran out as populations exploded. Over time, new technologies created new pollution: town gas from coal dripped tar into the rivers, vulcanized rubber plants discharged noxious chemicals directly into streams, and coal smoke choked the air in big cities. In addition, chemical factories operated without thought to people downwind.

During the Industrial Revolution, living conditions in urban areas horrified reform-minded commissions in London in the 1840s and America in the 1850s and 1860s. While progress had been slow, the common interest in pure drinking water and sanitation was spurred by epidemics of typhoid and cholera. John Snow, a London physician, traced a part of the cholera epidemic to a contaminated water pump in 1855. Smog episodes also started killing residents of big cities like London. Moreover, conservation of wilderness areas began with the felling of an enormous tree, called the “Mother of the Forest” in 1851. The outrage over the act led to calls for a national park system.

In the Progressive Era, reforms were made in working conditions, slum housing, food adulteration, sanitation, drinking water, polluting industries, and more. Although U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and forester Gifford Pinchot characterized the era with ideas about conserving large tracts of land and putting other forests to “wise use,” John Muir opposed the wise use idea and fought for outright preservation of unspoiled wilderness. A number of new organizations like Women’s Club and Sierra Club helped champion natural conservation and municipal reforms as well.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the National Coast Anti-Pollution League was formed under the auspices of municipal officials from Atlantic City to Maine, who were concerned about oil and sewage pollution detracting from tourism. Led by Gifford Pinchot, the league succeeded with an international oil dumping treaty passed by Congress in 1924. Radium Girls were dying of radiation-induced cancer, and court delays seemed outrageous to crusading journalist Walter Lippmann, who worked with Alice Hamilton to bring their case to the public. A settlement at least gave them medical care and compensation for their families. Over this time, while the

Civilian Conservation Corps was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression, the chemurgy movement was a Midwestern populist phenomenon. The major demands of this movement included replacement of petroleum with farm alcohol and other industrial uses for agricultural crops.

During the 1940s and 1950s, American development of synthetic rubber was blocked and leaded gasoline technology was handed over to the Nazis during the prewar honeymoon, and Midwestern corn helped roll allies to victory over the Nazis. Synthetic rubber and chemicals from renewable resources proved vital to winning World War II. The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, published in 1948 just after his death, expressed an expanding sense of human responsibility, not only for each other but also for the earth. Further, deadly smog episodes in London in 1952 and 1956, in New York in 1953, and Los Angeles in 1954 created the perception that an air pollution crisis was underway. While in 1955, the first international air pollution conference was held, increasing carbon dioxide buildup was one surprising conclusion of Scripps Oceanographic Institute scientists working on International Geophysical Year projects 1957.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the emergence of the field of environmental history was tied with the rise of the ecological and environmental movements. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) struck a deep chord in the quickly increasing concerns about the environment. Another notable event took place in 1962: General Motors and Standard Oil (Exxon) sold off the Ethyl Corporation, the child of their partnership in leaded gasoline. The truth about leaded gasoline emerged dramatically in 1965 Senate hearings as scientist Clair Patterson testified about the obvious and apparently deliberate falsehoods in lead industry research. A burning river ended the decade as a dramatic symbol of an environment on the brink. Furthermore, oil and chemicals in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire in 1969.

Birth of the Epa

A decade of awakening and cleanup began during 1970-80 with the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and ended with the Appropriate Community Technology demonstration on the Washington Mall. Air pollution was cut back dramatically through use of catalytic converters on new cars that used only unleaded gasoline, but the predicted “pollution free car” proved to be chimerical. During this decade, water pollution was also severely decreased through a massive sewage treatment expansion program. The rivers that were once sewers now began a gradual return from the grave. In addition, toxic chemicals became more troubling. Corporations like Allied (manufacturer of Kepone in the United States) seemed to have deliberately endangered employees and the public for minor increments of profit. During the 1980s, Love Canal and other incidents also led to new regulations. While nuclear power safety was increasingly suspect after the Three Mile Island accident, energy crisis in oil supply led to reversals of some restrictions on refinery and oil pollution.

During the decade 1980-90, disasters showed the tenuous and fragile side of industrial technology. Among them included the Bhopal mass poisoning in India, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in Ukraine, and the Challenger shuttle explosion and the Exxon Valdez oil spills in the United States. Ozone depletion from fluorocarbons was ultimately taken seriously by world leaders, signified by the signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987. The legislation for cleaning up toxic waste passed Congress as well. In this decade, environmentalists gathered momentum.

Between 1971 and 1991, environmental policies began to have an increasing impact on trade. The impacts of trade on the environment had also become more widespread. This led to huge discussions and debates. For example, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) produced a report entitled Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), in which the term sustainable development was coined. The report identified poverty as one of the most important causes of environmental degradation, and argued that greater economic growth, fueled in part by increased international trade, could generate the necessary resources to combat what had become known as the “pollution of poverty.”

As a result of these developments, the proposal of the Group on Environmental Measures and International Trade (EMIT) met with a positive response. Despite some countries’ initial reluctance to have environmental issues discussed in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), they agreed to have a structured debate on the subject. In accordance with its mandate of exploring the possible implications of environmental protection policies on the operation of the General Agreement, the EMIT group focused on the effects of environmental measures (such as eco-labeling schemes) on international trade, the relations between the rules of the multilateral trading system, the trade provisions contained in the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), and the transparency of national environmental regulations with an impact on trade.

A number of important events occurred during the contemporary epoch (1990-present). The Persian Gulf War saw environmental disaster when retreating Iraqi troops set fire to hundreds of oil wells. Ken Sara-Wiwa, a journalist and environmentalist, was executed in 1995 for his outspoken opposition to oil industry practices of Shell Oil in Nigeria. In the United States, political standoff between conservative and liberal factions in Congress ended more or less in a draw. In addition, despite international protests, construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam continued on schedule. Retiring President Bill Clinton set aside 58 million acres of forest and wilderness by the end of his presidency, beating the previous conservation record set in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration.

The activation of the EMIT group was followed by further developments in the environmental forums. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio “Earth Summit,” drew attention to the role of international trade in poverty alleviation and in combating environmental degradation. Agenda 21, the program of action adopted at the conference, addressed the importance of promoting sustainable development through, among other means, international trade. The concept of sustainable development established a link between environmental protection and development at large.

In most recent years, utility deregulation led to severe price spikes, consumer resentment, and a rethinking of electric utility deregulation. Another phenomenal issue is that poisoning emanating from leaded gasoline is being acknowledged to be crucial in developing countries by the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), while a step-by-step switch to other additives ultimately gets underway.

Environmental history is a resourceful collection of inquiries into the transformation of the natural world by human actions and the aftermaths for both nature and people. In a nutshell, it is a relatively new area of inquiry, but one that has much to offer.


  1. Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (Yale University Press, 1997);
  2. William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review (v.17, 1993);
  3. J. Donald Hughes, An Environmental History of the World: Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life (Routledge, 2001);
  4. John McCormick, Reclaiming Paradise: The Global Environmental Movement (Indiana University Press, 1989);
  5. John R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Penguin Books, 2000);
  6. James O’Connor, “What is Environmental History? Why Environmental History?” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (v.8, 1997);
  7. Michael R. Redclift, Frontiers: Histories of Civil Society and Nature (MIT Press, 2006);
  8. John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (University of California Press, 2003);
  9. Mart A. Stewart, “Environmental History: Profile of a Developing Field,” History Teacher (v.31, 1998);
  10. Donald Worster, , The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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