Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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The Uses of Environmental History: John R. McNeill

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by the Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


 “As Useful as We Want to Be”

By John R. McNeill

Environmental or ecological historians do not “need to become more useful and practical” in anything. They should feel free to be useless as regards global problems if they wish. If their motives for engaging in environmental history are nothing loftier than curiosity, that is no sin.  The great majority of historical work, like the great majority of work in general, makes little to no contribution to addressing global problems. Just because environmental historians work with the environment, and the environment is the locus of some global problems, does not create any special obligation for environmental historians. Historians of slavery do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing human trafficking, just as labor historians do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing mass unemployment.

Indeed, for some environmental or ecological historians, it would require considerable retooling to be able to become more useful in addressing current global problems. Those whose expertise  focuses on the depiction of nature in late medieval Spanish texts or water management in the Chola kingdom[1] probably have no better basis for addressing such global problems as climate change or biodiversity loss as the average citizen. But that should not mean that their topics are illegitimate because they are not deemed “useful.” Usefulness in the context of today’s problems should not be a requirement for historians. If it were, very little history, even environmental history, would be justifiable. Continue reading