David Lowenthal introduces our new series on History and the Environment with an overview of the subject and of human interaction with the world we inhabit.
British weather is an overheated topic. The Prince of Wales attributed last November’s floods, like BSE, to ‘mankind’s arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of Nature’. In blaming mankind he was praised by some for accord with the Book of Common Prayer, and rebuked by others as unscientific, ignoring human impotence against nature’s might. But scientists also differed: some held such weather extremes to be normal recurrences, others the result of global warming caused by human agency.
Environmental history underlies these issues. How much and how fast has the climate changed? How far are such changes man-induced? Is nature in balance? Are humans helpless to stem – or bound to alter – natural processes? Has humanity on the whole improved or damaged the Earth? In what sense do environmental misuse and reform matter? Today’s environmental concerns trigger these essentially historical questions. Save for the study of oppressed minorities, no aspect of history is currently so resurgent as that of the environment.