Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Uses of Environmental History: Sandra Swart

This is the final post in the uses of environmental history series. 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.


“Feral Historians?”

By Sandra Swart

The greatest strength we have as historians—our secret superpower—is the ability to take an apparently immutable existing status quo and show that “it was not always so.” We can look at the present and expose the seemingly “natural order” for just how “unnatural” (how anthropogenically constructed) it really is. For example, gender historians have exploded the static, apparently unchanging, and ostensibly biological dualism between men and women—thereby opening up new ways of understanding the social order. After all, a key value of learning about the past is to defamiliarize the present. To simply know that “it was not always so” is amazingly potent. It can empower humans to challenge the existing order that we are otherwise taught to believe is “natural,” “biological,” “incontrovertible.” If it has changed before, it can be changed further.

Yet if this ability to complicate the seemingly natural is our superpower, it is also our kryptonite. Many historians have been effectively self-silenced in today’s debate over critical environmental issues simply because we do not think or communicate in soundbites. We’re trained to understand nuance, uncover complexity, and eschew partisanship. These are some of our fundamental values as a discipline and I am not suggesting we jettison them—but I do think we leave too much of our research to be interpreted by interlocutors and politicians. Instead, we need to insert ourselves into those public debates. The role of professional historians in the making of public policy is a contested terrain. We need to extend our home ranges and escape the safely domesticated university, where we feel at home and where there’s always a warm fire and a bowl of milk. We must run feral in the wilder public spaces. Continue reading

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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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