I. Four Interpretations of Environmental History

II. Comparison: All four historians call for the study of environmental history as an interaction between and among the human and nonhuman components of the natural world. Worster defines three basic concepts--ecology, production, and ideas--necessary for doing environmental history and focuses on the transition from subsistence to the capitalist agroecosytem. Cronon criticizes these catagories as being too narrow and materialistic; they should be seen as cultural constructions and narrative interpretations; they also require a race, class, gender, and power analysis. Crosby focuses on biological and colonial invasions from outside the New World ecosystem. While introducing biological actors such as pathogens, weeds, and varmints, his approach could be interpreted as biological determinism and as failing to recognize the role of market extractions in transforming local ecosystems. Merchant amplifies Worster's concepts of ecology (defined as including both human and non-human beings), production (as subsistence-oriented or market-oriented), and ideology (expanded as individual or group consciousness and as including all the senses) and incorporates Cronon's call for social reproduction by making reproduction and gender integral components of environmental history. She draws on Crosby's ecological imperialism in defining the colonial ecological revolution as "the incorporation of a European ecological complex of animals, plants, pathogens, and people." Crosby and Merchant, along with Worster, might be viewed by Cronon as imposing both narrative trajectory and environmental prophecy on environmental history.

Discussion Questions

1. Donald Worster argues that environmental history proceeds on three levels: the study of nature itself, human modes of production, and patterns of human perception, ideology, and value. (p. 5) What does he mean by each of these "levels?" What conceptual and practical problems might arise in attempts to study each level?

2. What does William Cronon mean by ecological prophecies? What does he mean by fitting "a complex series of historical changes into a single narrative trajectory that organize[s] both past history and future prophecy?" (p. 13) In what ways is it useful to see history as narrative? What are some problems with this approach?

3. What does Alfred Crosby mean by "ecological imperialism," and the "European portmanteau of often mutually supportive plants, animals, and microlife"? Why does he believe this "portmanteau biota" gave Europeans an advantage in colonizing New World lands? What problems or limitations do you see in Crosby's approach?

4. Why does Merchant add the category of reproduction to the categories proposed by Donald Worster? What does she mean by it? How does it interact with production? Do you agree or disagree with the need for this concept?

5. In your view does environmental history have a moral or political agenda to promote? If so, what is it? If not, how can it avoid such an agenda?

6. What is meant by the following terms as applied to environmental history and which authors in this chapter use or assume them? Social construction; materialism; holistic history; a systems approach; feminism; biological and/or environmental determinism; ecological imperialism; grand (or master) narrative; ecological prophecy.