Scholarly interest in environmental movements grew in resonance with the rise of environmentalism around 1970. Roderick Nash’s aforementioned Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967) reflects the guiding intention: the book sought to describe a legacy that activists were building upon at the time. Against this background, the book took a broad and emphatic look at environmentalist traditions, with more emphasis on ideas than on organizations. Nash’s monograph struck a nerve and became a bestseller, though the environmentalists’ stance towards their own history was more ambiguous than that of other social movements. Many environmentalists saw history as a distraction from the exigencies of the moment.
The broad synthesis became a distinct genre of environmental movement historiography, and they were and remain all the more remarkable because they were largely based on primary sources, if only for lack of alternatives: previous scholarship was often close to non-existent. The books often blended the national histories of environmentalism with general environmental histories of the respective countries. Books of this type exist for countries as diverse as Israel: Alon Tal, Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) and Russia: Douglas R. Weiner, A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachëv (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) For large countries such as Great Britain, several syntheses are available: Brian William Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution (London: Longman, 1994); David Evans, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London: Routledge, 1997); John Sheail, An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). In a reading list that focuses on English-language publications, it bears recognition that these books were written primarily for a domestic audience. For example, German readers could buy the first overview books on the history of German environmentalism in the 1980s: Rolf Peter Sieferle, Fortschrittsfeinde? Opposition gegen Technik und Industrie von der Romantik bis zur Gegenwart (Munich: Beck, 1984); Ulrich Linse, Ökopax und Anarchie: Eine Geschichte der ökologischen Bewegungen in Deutschland (Munich: dtv, 1986), years before the first English-language synthesis became available: Raymond H. Dominick, The Environmental Movement in Germany: Prophets and Pioneers, 1871–1971 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). Authors typically displayed a more or less pronounced sympathy towards their subjects. Anti-ecological synthesis were rare and usually less than impressive; perhaps the best-known example is Anna Bramwell, The Fading of the Greens: The Decline of Environmental Politics in the West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).
The United States was the most prolific producer of these syntheses: Stephen R. Fox, John Muir and his Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981); Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States since 1945 (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998); Victor B. Scheffer, The Shaping of Environmentalism in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); John McCormick, Reclaiming Paradise: The Global Environmental Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993; revised edition 2003), Hal K. Rothman, Saving the Planet: The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000); Thomas Raymond Wellock, Preserving the Nation: The Conservation and Environmental Movements, 1870–2000 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2007). However, the genre grew out of fashion among scholars more recently, and that is not just due to the fact that teleological tales of the irresistible rise of environmentalism have come to ring hollow in the twenty-first century. The master narrative has come under fire for being too narrow. Within the United States, Robert D. Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994) put the environmental activism of non-white groups into the spotlight. For the Global South, Martinez-Alier’s ‘environmentalism of the poor’ had a similar effect: Joan Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002). An online Environmental Justice Atlas provides an idea of the global diversity of environmental campaigns (http://ejatlas.org).
As the understanding of environmentalism has broadened, it became more difficult to write synthetic monographs. Chad Montrie’s A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States (London: Continuum, 2011) delivered a rather unsatisfactory solution by drawing attention to heretofore neglected groups but failing to connect their stories with existing narratives. Joachim Radkau’s voluminous The Age of Ecology (Cambridge: Polity, 2014) seeks to outline contours of a global history of environmentalism but it ends as a diffuse patchwork of stories with a strong German accent. Michael Bess combined social movement history with a cultural history of post-war France in his The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960–2000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). The present author pursued a different approach by analysing environmentalism as a set of different yet interrelated fields in the sense of Bourdieu: Frank Uekötter, The Greenest Nation? A New History of German Environmentalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
Recent research tends to focus on specific aspects of environmentalism. Some of the most exciting publications explore the context of the Cold War: Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); John R. McNeill and Corinna Unger (eds), Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); the impact of religion: Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), the population explosion trope: Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), Matthew James Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008); Christopher C. Sellers, Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); the link between environmentalism and consumption: Thomas Jundt, Greening the Red, White, and Blue: The Bomb, Big Business, and Consumer Resistance in Postwar America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and the ambiguities of activism: Kim Fortun, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). These publications have also established links to other scholarly fields and thus challenged the intellectual isolation of research on environmentalism that had provoked some critical self-reflection, see Adam Rome, ‘“Give Earth a Chance”: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties’, Journal of American History 90 (2003), pp. 525–554. However, it is noteworthy that most of the aforementioned publications discuss American environmentalism, which has received by far the greatest amount of scholarly attention. While American leadership in environmental affairs has long dissipated, American scholars still retain a leading role in environmental history writing.
Several decades of research have produced a significant body of publications of highly variable quality, as ambitious scholarly efforts stand next to naive stories of activism. If one were to summarize the state of research, one might speak of a broad trend from a clear master narrative to a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, with most of the pieces being only vaguely known, if at all. For all the growth in scholarship, the gaps in our knowledge about environmental movements are still legion. Compared with other fields of social movement history, research in environmental history is still lacking a certain maturity, not least because numerous scholars have focussed on telling their own stories without engaging with broader questions about environmentalism and social movements. It remains to be seen whether scholars see all this as irritant or as a tremendous opportunity for future research.