Environmental History

by Ben Alford

Environmental History is a relatively new branch of history, which looks at the interaction between mankind and the non-human world over time. Whilst in its infancy in the UK, in North American universities, environmental history is flourishing, with a sizeable number of specialists in both American and Canadian institutions, and growing cohorts of specialists in Australia and New Zealand.


It is a branch of history which is difficult to define; environmental history means something slightly different to different academics. John McNeill, a leading environmental history in the United States who has published the influential book, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World describes it as he history of the mutual relations between humankind and the rest of nature’. Donald Worster, considered a founder of environmental history and one of its leading lights, says ‘it deals with all the interactions people have had with nature in past times’ .
Environmental history is rather ‘broad church’ – what is meant by this term is environmental history is quite interdisciplinary. As well as touching on other branches of history, such as the history of science and technology, history of medicine, social history etc, it is also close to historical geography, anthropology, some aspects of literature to name a few. In fact, whilst historical geography and environmental history are separate disciplines, there are occasions when they are interchangeable and it is difficult to tell one from the other.


John McNeill describes this branch of history as being divided into three themes – material environmental history, which involves rural and urban history, including agriculture, grasslands ecology, ideas about “wilderness” as well as pollution, sanitation, technology; cultural/intellectual environmental history, which explores how ideas about the environment affect culture and how these have changed over time; and political environmental history, which concerns how state, law and politics affect the natural world. J. Donald Hughes, who has written What is Environmental History? Describes the three divisions as – the influence of the environment on human history (natural disasters, disease, weather, climate, wildfires etc); the influence of mankind on the natural world (pollution, agriculture, climate change etc); and the history of human thought about the environment (through religion, philosophies, political ideologies, popular culture etc).

Why Study Environmental History?

As environmental issues become more important in politics and in the general crux of school education, environmental history can provide historical examples to current issues. It is a growth area within history and can be applied to all regions of the world, in addition to geographic features as well – histories of rivers, mountains, forests, and natural disasters all fall under this branch of history, as well as animal histories, which study the interactions between mankind and the animal kingdom.

Further Reading & Information

If you use Twitter, the hashtag: #envhist is used by environmental historians.
The website “Environmental History Resources” provides an introduction into this branch of history, and includes podcasts with environmental historians:

The Wikipedia page for environmental history also serves as a good introduction and provides a bibliography:
Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society:
“Environment and Society” Portal (encyclopaedia of environmental-humanities related topics):
Several environmental historians’ blogs can be found here:
A useful online resource is “EH-HoSTM Info – Resources for Environmental History & the History of Science, Technology & Medicine”:

See also:

J. Donald Hughes, What is Environmental History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).
John McNeill, ‘Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History’, History and Theory, 42:4 (2003), pp. 5-43.
John McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World (London: Penguin, 2001).
Donald Worster (ed.), The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Written by:
Mark Wilson



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