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The Nature of Historical Research

The way the environment has been shaped and exploited is now a major field of historical study. A conference in London this month gathers leading experts in the field, writes Miles Taylor.

It is hard to avoid environmental issues these days. With the ash from Eyjafjallajökull lingering unpredictably in European airspace and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico set to run up the largest cleaning bill in history, we face daily reminders of a planet in peril. Slowly but surely governments are going green.

Although late last year the Copenhagen summit of world leaders failed to agree on measures to deal with global warming, there are signs of political advance nearer to home. In the May general election the UK Green Party won its first seat at Westminster, with Caroline Lucas snatching Brighton Pavilion from the Labour Party and the ecologist Zac Goldsmith being successful in Richmond-upon-Thames.

In Britain’s universities scientists have swung into action – sometimes with controversy – and publicly funded programmes running into billions of pounds are now researching the impact of environmental change on human health and lifestyle.

Historians have a lot to contribute to the debate on the environment. Much of the current climatic state is the legacy of many centuries of human interaction with the planet and its resources. Moreover, we are not the first generation to be forced to deal with natural and man-made ecological disasters and pollution, as well as competition over scarce utilities and minerals.

Environmental history has come a long way from its early beginnings in the American forest conservation movement of the 1950s. The American Society for Environmental History was established in 1977 and it has been American historians such as Alfred Crosby, Jared Diamond and Donald Worster who have put forward some of the most exciting explanations of how the control and exploitation of nature – germs, insects, trees – has determined key moments of world history, such as the European conquest of the Americas, or the displacement of China as a major regional economy in the 18th century.

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