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Environmental history

The first sub-discipline that we will introduce is Environmental History.

Why is history important in understanding contemporary environmental issues? A leading Australian scholar of environmental and natural resource policy, Stephen Dovers, offers us one important answer:

…knowing more about how we got where we are might tell us more about ourselves. Pragmatically, this may be one more perspective we can bring to bear in our quest to solve the environmental problems of the present. An environmental issue without a past is altogether as mysterious as a person without a past. [1]

The discipline of Environmental History developed in the 1960s and 1970s as a sub-discipline of History. However, early forms of Environmental History also existed in other disciplines, such as Geography. One of the prominent features of environmental history is the way in which the environment is depicted as active, rather than passive. Tom Griffiths, a prominent Australian Environmental Historian, writes that, in history writing, nature has often been a “stage and setting for the human drama.”[2] In contrast, environmental historians seek to enrol an active nature in their historical accounts. In particular, environmental historians often travel between timescales, integrating human stories with geological and evolutionary time frames and planetary processes. However, as Griffiths writes, “environmental history remains, at heart, one of the humanities, concerned with cultural, moral, economic and political questions, and founded in narrative.”[3]

As implied in the quote by Griffiths, many environmental historians also emphasise a commitment to narrative. One of the best known American environmental historians, William Cronon, states that “the special task of environmental history is to assert that stories about the past are better, all other things being equal, if they increase our attention to nature and the place of people within it.”[4]

We will examine Western environmental histories more closely in Week 2.

What do you think?

Why might history be important in understanding contemporary environmental issues?

Further Reading

For an example of environmental history, read this short essay, We Have Still Not Lived Long Enough (1819 words), by Tom Griffiths on the 2009 “Black Saturday” Australian bushfires.


  1. Stephen Dovers, “Australian Environmental History: introduction, review and principles,” in Stephen Dovers (ed.), Australian Environmental History: Essays and Cases (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994): p. 4.
  2. Tom Griffiths, “The Humanities and and an Environmentally Sustainable Australia”, Australian Humanities Review, (Issue 4, 2007).
  3. Tom Griffiths, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): p. 195.
  4. William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History (March, 1992): p. 1375.

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This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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