Environmental History and the U.S. Survey Course

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As April to turns to May and the Earth’s day, week, and month recede, I am thinking about the environment’s place on our campuses the rest of the year. Activists on a number of campuses have been pushing for broader engagement with environmental issues in college curricula, to train our students to engage more fully with the looming challenges of climate change. In a year when so many immediate crises of justice and safety are erupting around us, focusing on the long time horizon of environmental concerns can feel self-indulgent, but as historians, long time horizons are what we do. Perhaps understanding nature’s role in the human past can help our students build a future that is more just.

In recent months I’ve been taking part in an extended online conversation with fellow environmental historians Mark Fiege, Abigail Owen, David Soll, and Kenneth Nivison, organized and moderated by Harvard graduate student Zach Nowak. Together we’ve been thinking about ways environmental history might be of use in revamping the history survey course, or in reconceptualizing the survey’s role in the curriculum. The question I am musing on here is a somewhat different one: how might instructors who are NOT environmental historians find ways to work environmental history into the U.S. survey courses they already teach?

Environmental history need not be particularly green; I don’t think of it as being defined by environmental topics or framed by environmental politics, but rather as a particular way of looking at the past. When the environment only surfaces in an occasional lecture—on the Columbian Exchange, or the Dust Bowl, or Love Canal—it can to feel peripheral to the task at hand. Paying attention to moments when nature matters in less dramatic or obvious ways, however, can highlight connections, dependencies, and structures of inequality central to understanding the past.

Attention to three related themes suggests multiple ways to include environmental history in almost any lecture. The themes are not novel, nor are they unique to environmental history, though they are central to that field: attention to place, consideration of resources, and tracking technological change. All three themes can help students more viscerally understand not just what happened in the past, but also how it felt: What did it smell like? How exhausting was it? What kind of noise did it make?

Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature and Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth are helpful books to have on the shelf, offering environmental takes on topics ranging from the Louisiana Purchase to school desegragation to Disney. Fiege’s chapter on Brown v. Board, is a particularly helpful example of the ways an environmental lens can be used to understand more about a topic seemingly far removed from nature.  In the chapter, subtitled “An Environmental History of the Color Line,” Fiege asks about technology: What were the roles of railroads in creating Topeka’s segregated landscapes? What new factors did buses and cars introduce? And he asks about resources: What things, what goods, what supplies for schools did white Kansans have access to that black Kansans did not?

But the most compelling questions Fiege asks are about place: what was Linda Brown’s morning walk to the bus stop like? How would the young girl’s experience of Topeka and the school day morning have differed had she been allowed to attend the school much closer to her home? And how, if they did, did school children’s experiences of place in Topeka change after the Supereme Court decision came down? Fiege’s environmental lens does not transform Linda Brown’s story into one focused on environmental politics or fundamentally shaped by nature; human choices remain at the center of the story, as they must. But Fiege’s attention to Linda Brown’s physical world helps us understanding not only how much colder one winter walk to school was than another, but also more about the pervasiveness and persistence of discrimination and segregation in Topeka long after the Supreme Court decision was made.

How people see and understand their landscapes, what they think of as natural (and why), and how their interactions with those places change over time are central to the way people live and experience their lives. As we try to build a more just world in the context of a rapidly changing climate, a fuller awareness of the ways nature and environments have shaped the past may help. The unexpected places in the U.S. Survey—the places that have nothing to do with national parks or Earth Day, are likely to be the richest sites to mine.

Works Cited:

  • Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle, University of Washington Press: 2012).
  • Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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