The term ‘environmental history’ is a relatively recent innovation and was coined in the United States by Roderick Nash in the early 1970s. It is no coincidence that ‘environmental history’ arose in the USA in conjunction with the popularity of the environmentalist movements inspired by the 1960s counter-culture. Indeed, environmental history still has its strongest institutional base in that country, where numerous historians would self-define as environmental historians, and where the journal Environmental History is published.
The success of American environmental history was due in part to the development of important new lines of inquiry which meshed with the evolution of world history and the emergence of a post-colonial historiography. Environmental historians like Alfred Crosby, Donald Worster and William Cronon gave the new discipline an intellectual coherence by establishing as key questions the relations between human agency and the transformation of the globe’s ecology through imperialism, exploration, agricultural change, technological innovation and urban expansion. In demonstrating the possibilities in disinterring the interactions of natural and social change their work has had a lasting influence not just on environmental history but on the history of the United States as a whole.
In comparison with these achievements it is not really possible to speak of a ‘British environmental history’. Indeed, as P. Warde and S. Sörlin have recently observed,(1) environmental history has notably failed to establish itself as a recognised area of study with regard to historical studies as a whole; yet whether this failure should be seen as the problem of environmental history, either in Britain or elsewhere, is another question altogether.
The absence of a strictly-defined disciplinary presence has not prevented nature and ecology taking their place in historical investigation. There is a long established connection between English history and landscape history, for example. The social historian G. M. Trevelyan was a prominent supporter of the National Trust. Similarly, W. G. Hoskins’s Making of the English Landscape (2) affected not just the development of local history, but the development of conservationist ideas in Britain, and remains a widely used text in undergraduate courses. Such examples suggest that historical concerns with environmental questions have originated from different historical and disciplinary circumstances in Britain. Many of the questions addressed by ‘environmental history’ in the United States, for example, have in Britain been incorporated within other areas such as geography.
These tendencies have probably only been accentuated by the fact that many of the self-defined environmental historians who are working in Britain have tended to write histories that are deliberately outward looking. The British empire, not the British Isles, has been the main concern of historians such as Richard Grove, whose highly influential book Green Imperialism (3) consciously looked at the experience of environmental change on Europe’s overseas colonies and its effects on the emergence of an environmental consciousness among scientists.
William Beinart and Lotte Hughes’s excellent recent book Environment and Empire (4) maintains this focus on the imperial impact of environmental change. Peter Coates on the other hand studied environmental change and attitudes in the USA. Similarly, Paul Warde’s work on the early modern state and environmental regulation, Ecology, Economy and State Formation in Early Modern Germany,(5) takes a continental European perspective.
There has been, then, an apparent reluctance among environmental historians working in Britain to address the environmental transformation of the British Isles. In part this reflects an attraction to transnationalism in environmental history, the perfectly sound belief that processes of ecological and historical change can only be understood outside of the traditionally set boundaries of the western model of the state.
Any environmental history of Britain, of course, has to pay close attention to traditional political distinctions such as state and society, capitalism and nature. That this need not be a disadvantage can be seen in the works of those few historians who have turned their attention specifically towards environmental change in Britain. Leading the way have been historians like I. G. Simmonds whose Environmental History of Great Britain from 10,000 Years Ago to the Present (6) presents a broad outline of ecological change in Britain since the last retreat of the glaciers. John Sheail’s diverse works cover the history of the National Trust, the history of British ecology and the history of the rabbit. His Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain (7) is the best introduction to the development of nature and resource conservation policies in the UK, and can usefully be read alongside B. W. Clapp’s Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution,(8) which focuses more on the relations between economic development and the environment.
Indeed, a good deal of British ‘environmental history’ is to be found in the work of economic historians: E. A. Wrigley’s work (9) on the importance of coal in the making of what Asa Briggs terms ‘carboniferous capitalism’, or E. L. Jones’s study (10) of the relations between agricultural transformation and industrialisation. However, the interest of economic historians in environmental history has not been concerned with the establishment of a discipline of environmental history so much as with answering traditional questions about the origins of the industrialisation process.
Urban history has been the other key player in British environmental history. Pollution, especially urban pollution, has attracted particular attention, and arguably this is where the most important contributions in British environmental history are currently being made. S. Mosley’s The Chimney of the World: a History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (11) and P. Thorsheim’s Inventing Pollution: Coal Smoke and Culture in Britain Since 1800 (12) have both made significant contributions to understanding the cultural construction of pollution in urban Britain.
B. Luckin’s work crosses the margins between urban history and the histories of technology and environment, and in Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-war Britain (13) he has suggested the importance of technological networks in environmental transformations. Perhaps the most important recent contribution has been J. Winter’s Secure from Rash Assault,(14) which by questioning the wisdom that 19th-century industrialism posed a threat to the environment, has posed a bold new research agenda which deserves to be pursued.
An obvious question arising from these observations on the nature of British environmental history is, of course, whether Britain needs any such discipline. The fractious tendency of history to split into manifold sub-disciplines arguably had some logic in the second half of the 20th century when the multiplication of new modes of analysis and theoretical frameworks led to growing complexity within the profession. New schools of historical study were keen to establish distinctive political and intellectual positions.
However, in the early 21st century such a process may have reached its limits. The dominance of cultural and linguistic analysis within many disciplines suggests that future debates will be divided less along disciplinary and sub-disciplinary lines and more along lines of epistemological commitment. Social scientific approaches may well increasingly take up a position against cultural forms of analysis. In such an intellectual world the effort to define separate sub-disciplines will seem increasingly arcane, and indeed, environmental history itself might divide along materialist and cultural lines.
This need not happen, of course. If, instead of viewing environmental history in disciplinary terms, we take the environment in both its material and cultural forms to form an important object of study regardless of disciplinary perspective, there is hope for a period of historical research that will be more holistic and integrative in approach. Making the environment a key problem in historical studies may ultimately be more important than trying to carve out a new disciplinary niche within history.
Dr Timothy Cooper is lecturer in History at the University of Exeter.