December 17, 2017

President’s Address 2005

President’s Talk, delivered at ASEH conference, 2005

Citation: Douglas R. Weiner, “A death-defying attempt to articulate a coherent definition of environmental history,” Environmental History 10.3 (July 2005).


Douglas R. Weiner

A death-defying attempt to articulate a coherent definition of environmental history

IN A RECENT article in the Journal of Historical Geography, J. M. Powell began with a well-meaning attempt at humor: “Question. Why is environmental history like Belgium? Answer. Because it was entirely the product of a resident collective imagination.”[1] There is no denying that this is true. I would only add that it is also the product of a resident collective toleration of a good deal of intellectual uncertainty, diversity, and even incoherence.

Most recently, this uncertainty was reflected in the short essays on the essence and future directions of the field that constituted the heart of the January 2005 issue of Environmental History. Harriet Ritvo characterized the field as “an unevenly spreading blob,” while others questioned the utility of the very term “environment.” [2]

Human ecologists—when there still were such academic beings—long nourished the hope that close study could reveal correlations between types of environments and the kind of adaptations that humans make to them.[3] Fifty years ago, in June, 1955, Princeton University hosted the international symposium “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” Setting the tone were the disciplinary approaches of historical geography, cultural anthropology, and human ecology, exemplified by the title of Lewis Mumford’s talk, “The Natural History of Urbanization.” Experts still believed then that humans could be understood largely as biological subjects whose behavior could be explained by importing models from zoology, ecology, and other fields. Scholars still held out hope then that science could identify healthy natural norms and that such knowledge would aid us in identifying and checking modern, self-destructive, human-engineered “pathologies.”[4]

Whether they were primitive geographical determinists like the earlier Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Semple or more sophisticated researchers like Julian Steward, the picture these scholars drew was predicated on stable, essentialized understandings of nature and culture.

Since the appearance of John Cole and Eric Wolf’s 1974 study comparing the lifeways and household organization of neighboring Italian and German villages in the Trentino, no one can seriously adopt a strong environmental determinist position.[5] Nature’s role, it turned out, is much more complicated and subtle, defying attempts to establish one-to-one correspondences with social and cultural forms.

Nor are we much clearer about how particular societies have affected their environments. As Richard White has suggested, we can make believable statements about some effects by local actors on environments of local scale, but beyond that we get into a domain better addressed by chaos theory. [6]

President’s Address continued online in issue 10.3