Uses of Environmental History: Paul Josephson

This is the third 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 Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.

“The Need for Public Environmental History”

By Paul Josephson

It is difficult to quantify, but surely both the extent and pace of environmental change have accelerated in the last century? Historians debate the nature of change and its causes, but rarely turn to larger audiences to inform them of their findings. Among the usual explanations they offer are the rapid industrialization of all processes, including in agriculture, with significant capital inputs of chemicals and GMOs; the universality and extent of large-scale technological systems; excessive consumption, especially in North America and Europe, but also growing consumption in China, India, and elsewhere; and power generation based on nonrenewables, especially fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas formation and global warming. Some individuals blame population growth as the major factor in environmental change, among them notably Garrett Hardin in his seminal, if misguided “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) that, together with his later works, revealed deep-seated racism.


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Photo of the Week: Francis Ludlow

Photo: Francis Ludlow
Photo: Francis Ludlow
Photo: Francis Ludlow
Photo: Francis Ludlow

These images show a piece of ancient Irish oak wood, in which the ring-widths can be counted and measured for size. Bigger size equals better growing conditions, and this piece of wood happens to span one of the most famous episodes of extreme climate globally in the past two millennia, occurring from c.536-550 AD. There is an ongoing debate about whether the event was caused by a massive volcanic eruption and/or a comet loading the Earth’s atmosphere with particles that reflected incoming light and dramatically cooled the Earth’s surface. In the image, the year 532 is marked, in which the tree grew very well. But starting shortly afterwards (and especially from 536) you can see how the rings become narrower and narrower, and even become difficult to see. This reflects the environmental downturn that was in progress globally at this time, and which has been linked to famines and mortality in written sources from Ireland to China. One report in early medieval Irish chronicles for 538 notes a “failure of bread”. That this event was noted at all at this early period of Irish history, when written records are very scarce, suggests the seriousness of the conditions experienced at the time. This image also reveals the environmental background against which the great sixth-century plague of Justinian occurred.

We thank David Brown of Queen’s University Belfast for permission to photograph this oak sample.