What Does Environmental History Teach?

  • J. Donald Hughes


Environmental history studies the mutual relationships of humans and nature through time. Historians and others are active in this field in many parts of the world, the literature is vast and growing, and the subject is taught in schools and universities. Its audiences include students, other scholars, policy makers, and a general public, all interested in environmental issues of great import in the modern world. But what does environmental history have to say to these audiences? What are its lessons?

First, it teaches that human history cannot be understood apart from nature. The environment is not just a backdrop for the stage of human politics, wars, and culture; it is a series of influences that interact with every human activity. Environmental processes are important in human history, and it is just as important to take account of human influences on ecosystems and natural areas.

Second, it teaches the importance of science to historians in tracing the interaction of humans and nature. Historians can only rarely be scientists, but they must be familiar with what science says about their fields of concern. Traditional historical sources must be supplemented by studies of changes in climate, ecosystems, and resources. Examples of the integration of scientific and historical evidence are adduced. The second lesson has to do with method, and lies along the continuum between history and science.

Third, it teaches that present-day environmental issues and concerns have their roots in the past, and that research to understand their precedents is valid and rewarding. The study of past effects of environmental forces on human societies, the impact of human activities on the environment, and the development of environmental attitudes and understanding, gives needed perspective to the dilemmas of the contemporary world. This dimension reveals continuity between the past and the present insofar as human-environmental relations are concerned.

Fourth, it teaches a perspective of scale. Local changes inevitably occur within the processes of the planetary environment. The oceans, the atmosphere, the magnetosphere, and cycles of elements are worldwide phenomena, and they affect events in every region and locality. Their effects may be shown most instructively in more limited case studies, but no case study, however small, may be considered in isolation. This dimension is one of scale and considers time and space not as opposites, but as coordinates of definition.

These are four lessons of environmental history; it is not suggested that they are the only ones. There are others equally far-reaching, as well as more specific lessons derived from particular studies. Most importantly, environmental history offers methods and perspectives that are crucial to the decisions now being made as human society faces choices about our response to global environmental crises. We must learn the lessons of environmental history in order to make wise decisions in the present.


Sexual Minority Human History Environmental History Historical Method Planetary Environment 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Cronon W (1993) The uses of environmental history. Environ Hist Rev 17(3):1–22, particularly 12–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Diamond J (2005) Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking, New York, pp 79–119Google Scholar
  3. Grove AT, Rackham O (2001) The nature of Mediterranean Europe: an ecological history. Yale University Press, New Haven, p 376Google Scholar
  4. Hughes JD (1994) Pan’s travail: environmental problems of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp 73, 149Google Scholar
  5. Hughes JD (2006) What is environmental history? Polity Press, Cambridge, p 43 (illustration 7), 82 (illustration 14)Google Scholar
  6. Hughes JD (2008) Three dimensions of environmental history. Environ Hist 14(3):319–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hughes JD (2010) Ancient deforestation revisited. J Hist Biol 43(3):36–51Google Scholar
  8. McNeill JR (2001) Something new under the sun. W. W. Norton and Co., New York, p 362Google Scholar
  9. Nash R (1985) Rounding out the American revolution: ethical extension and the new environmentalism. In: Tobias M (ed) Deep ecology. Avant Books, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  10. Plato, Critias 111 B-D (1929) Plato, Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles (trans: Bury RG). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 272–275Google Scholar
  11. Ponting C (1992) A green history of the world. St. Martin’s Press, New York, pp 1–7Google Scholar
  12. Snow CP (1959) The two cultures and the scientific revolution. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  13. Worster D (1988a) Appendix: doing environmental history. In: The ends of the earth: perspectives on modern environmental history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 289–308Google Scholar
  14. Worster D (1988b) The vulnerable earth: toward a planetary history. In: The ends of the earth: perspectives on modern environmental history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 3–22Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of DenverPrincetonUSA

Personalised recommendations