WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY?
I. Four Interpretations of Environmental History
A. Donald Worster, "Ecological History": Environmental history deals with the role and place of nature in human life. It procedes on three levels:
1. Natural history, or environments of the past. This includes climate, geology, plants, animals, insects, and microbes; rates of reproduction of organisms and reproductive success and failure. An ecosystem is a local or regional grouping of biotic and abiotic components functioning together. Ecologists have contributed concepts such as the balance of nature, the stability-diversity hypothesis, and chaos theories, some of which are undergoing revision as the science of ecology continues to develop.
2. Modes of production. These include technologies and ways of organizing production. Examples are gathering, hunting, fishing; pastoral (or herding) economies, hydraulic or irrigation economies; industrial capitalism. The material base of the economy differs in various regions such as the arctic, the tropics, and the temperate plains. From the ecosystem, humans extract resources for subsistence or the market, food being one of the most important. An agroecosystem is organized for agricultural production to feed a group of humans. The capitalist mode of production in agriculture is broader than the organization of labor. It also includes land and nature (especially capitalized nature) as marketable commodities.
3. Ideas. Ideology, perception, and values. Religion, myths, philosophy, science. The idea of "Nature" has many meanings that change over time, including human perceptions of the natural world and ideas of order and process. How has a given culture perceived the natural world? What choices do humans have? What values and ethics guide those choices?
B. William Cronon, "Ecological Prophecies": A Critique of Worster
1. The term nature is historically complex. Worster's synthetic framework is too narrow and excessively materialist. Food, for example, is not just material extracted from the environment through technologies, but is a cultural construct. It includes what people think about it and themselves, as well as the organisms actually eaten.
2. Modes of production cannot be reduced to several general types, but are actually many particular and unique cultural systems in many specific places so numerous as to render the general category "modes" meaningless. In addition to anthropologists traditional gathering-hunting, agricultural, and capitalist modes of production, Worster has described a hydraulic mode in his book Rivers of Empire and a pastoral mode (see Chapter 9, Worster, "Cowboy Ecology"). What about modes of production of the rural west versus the urban west? What about a salmon mode of production, or a plow agricultural mode of production? Worster's capitalist mode of production as described in his book Dust Bowl is actually a capitalist ethos, not a capitalist mode of production, emphasizing capitalism's ethical, moral, and ideological importance.
3. Environmental historians need an analytical toolkit to identify linkages and relationships within a changing ecological and historical situation. Nature and traditional societies should not be romanticized as unchanging. Both ecologists and historians have offered changing definitions of older concepts such as equilibrium, community, balance of nature, stability, and sustainability.
4. Holistic history encourages seeing nature and humanity as a whole; discourages seeing conflicts and differences among groups. Gender, race, and class are important in understanding divisions and subgroups within history.
5. Prophecy in environmental history is tied to narrative trajectory. What stories do environmental historians tell? Capitalism as a standpoint provides a single narrative trajectory of environmental decline that informs environmental histories of the past as well as future environmental prophecies. Focusing on the transition from traditional or susbsistence modes to the modern capitalist world builds prophecy into environmental history. (See Cronon's essay in Chapter 9, "Telling Stories about Ecology.")
6. Modes of production are insufficient. We also need modes of social reproduction. How do families, societies, religions, and ideology reproduce themselves from one generation to another? What is the role of power in social and ecological?
C. Alfred Crosby, "Ecological Imperialism": Ecological imperialism is the biology of invasions of Europeans and their "portmanteau biota"--domestic animals, plants, pathogens, varmints, and weeds into the temperate regions of the world.
1. European genes. Mongoloids (Asia); Blacks (Africa); Whites (Europe). Native Americans, Australian aborigines, New Zealand Maori's have vastly declined from pre-Columbian population levels. The demographic takeover is a European invasion of temperate U.S., Canada, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, and India. It failed in the tropics.
2. European livestock. Cattle, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, brought on boats of explorers and colonizers, became feral in new lands where no predators halted their spread. Little went back: turkeys, and guinea pigs, but not dogs, alpacas, and llamas.
3. Varmints. European rats and rabbits invaded colonial lands. Reverse not the case, except for gray squirrels and muskrats.
4. Pathogens. Diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, tuberculosis, influenza, and venereal disease became epidemic among native peoples decimating populations.
5. Weeds. Spread on disturbed soils, expecially after burning. Dandelions, nettles, maywood, shepherd's purse, sow thistle, mallow, burrs. Only a few New World seeds went back to Europe (Horseweed, burnweed from N. America; galinsoga from S. America).
D. Carolyn Merchant, "Ecological Revolutions": Ecological revolutions are processes through which different societies change their relationship to nature. They arise from tensions between production and ecology, and between production and reproduction. The results are new constructions of nature, both materially in human consciousness.
1. Ecology. The interchange of energy, materials, and information among living and non-living beings in the natural environment.
2. Production. The extraction, processing, and exchange of nature's parts as resources, whether as gifts in traditional economies, as bartered goods and services in subsistence economies, or as commodities in market economies.
3. Reproduction. The biological and social processes through which humans are born, nurtured, socialized, and governed. Reproduction has two biological and two social manifestations: (1) The intergenerational reproduction of the species (both human and nonhuman), (2) the intragenerational reproduction of daily life, (3) the reproduction of social norms within the family and community, (4) the reproduction of the legal-political structures that maintain social order within the community and the state.
4. Consciousness. The way in which the world is perceived, understood, and interpreted at any given time by a society or social group. Individual consciousness is the totality of one's thoughts, feelings, and impressions, the awareness of one's acts and volitions. Group consciousness is a collective awareness by an aggregate of individuals.
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.
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.