Environmental History Anyone?

My previous blog post was about my love of Environmental History.

In researching that blog post, I found that I’m not alone in my fascination. There’s a whole Forest History Society and Environmental History Journal! The Forest History Society even has a really cool book about the history of North American Forests.

While I was in the process of (procrastinating) editing my post, I came across this article on Twitter.

Of the 212 early-career scientists surveyed in the Golden State, 80.2% said their research could benefit from more training in natural history – training that is increasingly scarce. The number of formal natural-history courses taken influenced whether a respondent felt adequately exposed to natural history knowledge. And just 16.5% of those respondents felt “confident” they could teach a course in natural history.

I have a Bachelors in Biology, and this quote really spoke to me. I don’t feel that I was adequately trained in natural history, and I have found myself up late reading up on material I am already expected to understand and teach. I am often quite ignorant about the life history of terrestrial organisms (Especially plants). I think that that’s a problem, though I am working to rectify it, largely through self education.

Now that I have switched to Environmental Science and Policy for my Masters, I find that my lack of Environmental History knowledge is an even bigger challenge. Natural History and Environmental History are definitely linked, as note in this blog post (I highly recommend reading the whole thing).

Sometimes our ignorance of natural history has caused us to directly act in ways that result in costly, difficult-to-undo mistakes. In the Pacific Northwest, 20th century water managers removed large logs and stumps from rivers to improve navigability and to “assist salmon migration”. It was only after hundreds of streams were so cleared that officials realized that salmon actually *need* such large woody debris during their migration. Now we must spend millions to undo our damaging handiwork, sometimes going so far as to airlift logs into streams.

Our (lack of) understanding of Natural History led us to alter the landscape. Scientists need to know the  Environmental History to understand how these rivers have changed, and how to restore them to their previous state.

What’s the Difference?

If you’re confused about the difference between “natural” history and “environmental” history, don’t worry, I was too! Natural History is an understanding of the natural world, often based on observation. It’s the big picture stuff: Evolution, environmental changes, biodiversity, life cycles.

Environmental History is specifically focused on human’s impact on the natural world, and often includes cultural perspectives on nature as well. You definitely need a strong understanding of Natural History to understand Environmental History.

Cool, I Guess?

Hermitage Scotland
This wild looking Scottish forest was actually designed for a Duke and is full of American Douglass Firs. Because of its cultural significance, the Hermitage is a protected forest in Scotland.

I have never taken a class on Environmental History at all. This is a massive cause for concern, because I would like to participate in conservation work.

Conservation work is often complicated by Environmental History.

When we talk about “restoring nature”, those doing the restoration run into this question: Restore to when? Do we restore to pre-colonial America, or just pre-industrial? Do we reintroduce extinct species? What historical baseline can we even achieve? Should we even “restore”, or should we develop a new model of living with the land? It’s a very complicated (but fascinating!) issue.

For example, there has been ample debate about the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland and Britain.

In order to make accurate decisions regarding environmental restoration, we need to have a strong understanding of the Environmental History of the area. Not to mention a strong cultural understanding as well.

These are things often left out of a scientific education. I myself would never have any knowledge of environmental history, except that I also have a love of history in general. As an avid reader, I frequently pick up books about history, and I am interested in the intersection between the environment and historical events.

But even with that use of my free time, I had no idea that there was an entire journal and many websites dedicated to Environmental History. I frankly don’t think I should have been allowed to graduate with a degree in Biology without ever reading a single article on the topic. I even took an Environmental Ethics course for fun and didn’t learn the term “Environmental History”, though I was introduced to some of the basic concepts.

It seems that education in general has a worrying trend of weakening our understanding of history. At this stage in my life, I’m not sure how to combat that, but in the mean time I will shout from the rooftops how great Environmental History is, and I will be sure to at least introduce students to the topic.