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The Turning Points of Environmental History

The Turning Points of Environmental History

Edited by Frank Uekoetter
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  • Book Info
    The Turning Points of Environmental History
    Book Description:

    From the time when humans first learned to harness fire, cultivate crops, and domesticate livestock, they have altered their environment as a means of survival. In the modern era, however, natural resources have been devoured and defiled in the wake of a consumerism that goes beyond mere subsistence. In this volume, an international group of environmental historians documents the significant ways in which humans have impacted their surroundings throughout history.John McNeill introduces the collection with an overarching account of the history of human environmental impact. Other contributors explore the use and abuse of the earth's land in the development of agriculture, commercial forestry, and in the battle against desertification in arid and semi-arid regions. Cities, which first appeared some 5,500 years ago, have posed their own unique environmental challenges, including dilemmas of solid waste disposal, sewerage, disease, pollution, and sustainable food and water supplies.The rise of nation-states brought environmental legislation, which often meant "selling off" natural resources through eminent domain. Perhaps the most damaging environmental event in history resulted from a "perfect storm" of effects: cheap fossil fuels (especially petroleum) and the rapid rise of personal incomes during the 1950s brought an exponential increase in energy consumption and unforseen levels of greenhouse gasses to the earth's atmosphere. By the 1970s, the deterioration of air, land, and water due to industrialization, population growth, and consumerism led to the birth of the environmental and ecological movements.Overall, the volume points to the ability and responsibility of humans to reverse the course of detrimental trends and to achieve environmental sustainability for existing and future populations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7762-9
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. 1 Thinking Big: The Broad Outlines of a Burgeoning Field
    (pp. 1-12)

    It has become conventional wisdom among scholars that environmental history has grown up. From a marginalized field caught between counterculture activism and professional rigor, it has developed into an established part of the scholarly community that no self-respecting history department would ignore. Environmental history meetings routinely attract audiences in the hundreds, the number of books and journal articles on the topic has expanded enormously, and the field has matured in methodological terms as well. Whereas declensionist narratives were still a powerful current only two decades ago, declensionism now features as a subject entry in Carolyn Merchant’sColumbia Guide to American...

  2. 2 The First Hundred Thousand Years
    (pp. 13-28)
    J. R. McNEILL

    I rush in where prudent angels fear to tread, to the realm of long-term global-scale history. As a rule, historians leave this treacherous terrain to others, to historical sociologists in particular. Historians have their reasons for this caution, preferring the surer ground of smaller-scale history that can be supported by written documentation. One way to reduce the impracticalities of long-term global-scale history is to privilege one variety of human experience. I confine my scope here to environmental history, and to a few turning points within it. Of all the possible candidates for the title of “turning point” in the long...

  3. 3 Agriculture
    (pp. 29-43)

    Nearly every important change in agriculture has been caused by (or caused itself) an important change in the environment. Agriculture and nature are so inextricably bound that a perturbation in one means a shifting in the other. There are some dramatic examples of this: for example, three-field rotation during the medieval period, the British enclosures, the Caribbean sugar industry, the introduction of sheep into Mexico, and the American Dust Bowl. Drastic changes like these, as well as more diffused ones—such as farmers shifting from diversified farming to monocropping—have had notable consequences. Since about 1850, many of these changes...

  4. 4 Forest History
    (pp. 44-54)

    From the battlements of the former castle near Hambach, Germany, a one-hour walk from Neustadt, there is a wonderful view over the Rhine Valley—about twenty kilometers north, forty kilometers east, and up to eighty kilometers south. If the weather is clear, the cities of Ludwigshafen-Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Karlsruhe are visible; the low mountain range of Odenwald and the northern part of the Black Forest can be seen too. Perhaps this is the reason a castle was constructed on this wooded hill in front of the mountains some nine hundred years ago. The scenery makes it an attractive place for...

  5. 5 The Nation-State
    (pp. 55-71)

    At first glance, analyzing turning points in the environmental history of the nation-state might appear to be a departure from a central goal of the field: to overturn politics as the basis of historical inquiry. During the founding years of environmental history in the 1970s, esteemed environmental historian Donald Worster has noted, “historians lost some of their confidence that the past had been so thoroughly controlled or summed up by a few great men acting in positions of national power.”¹ They began to excavate the “hidden layers” of class, gender, and race as the true agents of history until they...

  6. 6 Urban Environmental History
    (pp. 72-89)

    Urban environmental history is a new subfield that evolved out of the linking of urban history and environmental history.¹ In its simplest form, it concerns the character of the urban environment and the environmental phenomena occurring in cities. Cities historically have grown and expanded over time, developing expansive metropolitan areas and intensive relationships with their hinterlands. Some cities have also experienced substantial decline, especially during the past few decades. Both growth and decline have had sweeping environmental effects. The city’s ecological footprint extends not only into its contiguous hinterland but can also leap hundreds and even thousands of miles through...

  7. 7 The “1950s Syndrome” and the Transition from a Slow-Going to a Rapid Loss of Global Sustainability
    (pp. 90-118)

    During the international geophysical year of 1957–1958, the geophysicist Hans Suess and the oceanographer Roger Revelle, who was the mentor of Al Gore, discovered that the CO₂ content of the atmosphere had risen since it had first been measured in the mid-1890s by Svante Arrhenius. The two scientists framed their finding this way: “Thus, human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past, nor could it be reproduced in the future. Within a few centuries we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic...

  8. 8 Modern Environmentalism
    (pp. 119-131)

    Divisions into periods are meant to give history a structure and at the same time to fix a certain interpretation of this history. This is all the more true with respect to contemporary history and especially to very recent developments. The history of the past century has seemingly been structured by more important events and “turning points” than former centuries; the past decades seem to have had more significant outcomes than former decades, and so on. On the one hand, recent developments have indeed more direct impact on our time, so that we need a closer look to explain the...

  9. 9 The Knowledge Society
    (pp. 132-145)

    “Knowledge is power.” Few quotations have attracted more attention, and stirred more controversy, than the famous dictum attributed to Francis Bacon. As so often, the quotation is not an original one, as theNovum Organum, the treatise that provides the clearest expression of Bacon’s revolutionary philosophy, does not contain a corresponding sentence. However, the general thrust of Bacon’s remarks was powerful enough: his philosophy marked a departure from traditional Renaissance notions of knowledge, depicting the quest for knowledge as a path toward the betterment of society. Bacon’s philosophy was essentially a blueprint for scientific research: with observation and experimentation, mandatory...

  10. 10 Desertification
    (pp. 146-162)

    Desertification is among the most misunderstood—and the most neglected—of the world’s global environmental challenges. Images of irrepressible waves of sands overwhelming civilization are not entirely fictitious. Indeed, the spectacle can be witnessed every day from the Sahara to China; frequently, natural phenomena can lead to desertification.¹ For the most part, however, desertification refers to the much less dramatic but far more pernicious steady decrease in land productivity that takes place in drylands. It is important to emphasize another misconception. Although they may contain productive oases or river valleys, true deserts (arid and hyperarid lands) are typicallynotthe...