Arthur F. McEvoy

University of Wisconsin, Madison School of Law

NEH Institute: People, Prairies, and Plains

Kansas State University

August 3, 1995






I'm going to conclude the workshop with a discussion of the development of environmental history as a field since the 1960s. I understand that you have Richard White's 1985 article from Pacific Historical Review on your reading list. What's interesting about that piece as a historical artifact is that I'd place its publication just before environmental historians really knew they had a coherent community and discipline. There may be a little bit I can add to it, though maybe not much.

The general point I want to make is that the field of environmental history has developed, since its earliest beginnings in the late 1950s, in tandem with the politics of environmental issues. This is probably only natural, because historians don't ask their questions in a vacuum, but find particular subjects interesting at least to some extent because the world outside the academy makes them so. Thus, environmental politics has broadened and has become more complicated since the 1950s, moving out from its early, quite narrowly focussed interest in wilderness preservation to the point now where historians are bringing environmental perspectives and ecological methodologies to such subjects as cities, public health, racial justice, and occupational safety.

I'll try to explain how it's worked over the next hour or so.


There were a couple of people who wrote about environmental issues in some kind of historical sense before professional historians got into it. I'll just mention them by way of introduction.


George Perkins Marsh provided the first overall appraisal of what was happening to the world's natural resources in the mid-19th century. He was from Vermont, a self-taught ecologist, a lawyer, a businessman, consul to Italy, and a member of Congress. During his travels to Italy and Asia Minor, he saw the historical impact of civilization on the land there. He saw the same thing happening in Vermont, his native state, with the destruction of the forests and the depletion of fish and game. In 1868 he published a book called Man and Nature, the chief point of which was that human society was ecologically transformative, that while nature had self-renewing cycles, the impact of modern civilization was so great that nature could no longer heal itself, and society was destined for trouble. He's a big hero for environmental historians today, but practically nobody paid any attention to him at the time, mostly because people didn't think you could do anything about the social forces that he saw destroying the environment. More on that in the next lecture.


Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) is famous for having invented the field of American history as we know it. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and in 1893 delivered a speech at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". He first noted that the 1890 Census had announced that there was no longer a clean line on the map separating unsettled (or "frontier") areas from settled ones. Turner claimed that American civilization was what it was because it had developed across the continent, successively pioneering and settling areas of what he called "free" land, giving little thought to the Indians or, significantly, to the social and environmental effects of extirpating their economies from the continent. With the end of the frontier, Turner concluded, also ended what he called the first stage in American history.

Turner is interesting for our purposes because he argued that the environment had had a crucial impact on American history, where most people at the time and since put greater emphasis on ideas, social forces, great individuals, or what have you. Most twentieth-century historians have pooh-poohed Turner, though they all have to read him in graduate school. He's what environmental historians call an "environmental determinist", which means that he set up the physical environment as the prime mover behind social change. Nowadays we talk in terms of interaction between environment and social forces. But Turner is always a great place to start.


Aldo Leopold, about whom you've doubtless heard already, is most famous for having written A Sand County Almanac, which was published after his death, in 1949. The book displays an acute sense of environmental change as a historical process. You might say that he's opposite Turner in that, where Turner showed the impact of the land on American history, Leopold wrote in terms of the impact of American history on the land. But Leopold was aware that the interaction worked both ways, land to people and people to land.


Academic historians began to show an interest in environmental issues in the late 50s and early 60s. Mostly, the early folks here were just like those who started work in women's history and African-American history: people who were interested in the subject in their outside-of-work lives and who wanted to bring their outside commitments into the academy. This early work stayed firmly within the realm of what at the time was mainstream, political or intellectual history. It was mostly about what literate, upper-class white guys wrote and said to each other. The political climate of the time shows up in the two overriding characteristics of the work in this period, which were:

(1) it focussed primarily on wilderness issues, and
(2) it was primarily intellectual or literary in its approach.


Organized political environmentalism was reborn in the early 1950s. The leadership came from the Sierra Club, which had been taken over and revitalized by a group of Young Turks led by Ansel Adams and David Brower. Their main emphasis was on preserving wilderness areas that were being threatened by hydroelectric and irrigation projects, primarily in the West. They drew their inspiration from John Muir who, like them, was a wilderness preservationist, oriented to the West, and whose chief political tactic was to galvanize support for legislative protection through mass media aimed at an upscale, literate audience. Where Muir published his stories in magazines, the Sierra Club used the now-familiar picture books, calendars, posters, and so on.

Just as the original Sierra Club had been made up largely of college professors and their friends, a number of academics were won over to preservationism in the '50s and '60s. This is where environmental history began.


Foremost among the early converts was Roderick Nash, who was on the history faculty at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Nash is best known for his book Wilderness and the American Mind, which first appeared in 1967. It's still in print, maybe the first work you can really call environmental history, though in structure and methodology it's very traditional, literary-style history. It makes the Turnerian point that wilderness has been very important in American culture, though it describes that relationship as a bipolar one, shifting from one of aversion at the beginning to one of attraction as the wilderness disappeared.

For my money it's a kind of period piece, useful for its thesis, yes, but also for pointing up the difficulty of capturing what Nash called "the American mind." In general it's a hard thing to get at because Americans have always been of many minds. In particular Nash's book is dated because his "American mind" so strongly resembles that of elite white, Ivy-educated men. A more recent and better book that hits the same points is Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Pogue is a literature professor and the book is thus more about ideas than about social change. Still, it's challenging and beautifully written. My adult students love this book.

Another book I have to mention from this period is Samuel Hays's Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, which appeared in 1959. It doesn't quite fit in my analysis here because to my knowledge Hays didn't have any particular commitment to environmentalism when he started the project, which was his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. The way I heard the story was that Hays was looking for a new angle on Progressive-Era politics and his adviser suggested doing conservation. The resulting book, 35 years later, is still a standard text not only on conservation but on Progressive politics as well. Still, it's mainstream, white- guys-talking-to-each other political history, using environment as a subject and not as a methodology. So it's an outlier to the field because it's not really environmental history, but it does have in common with Wilderness and the American Mind that it brought environmental topics within the ambit of professional historical research.


One historical treatment of environmental problems that appeared in the 1960s became a canonical text in environmental studies. This was an article by Lynn White, Jr., that appeared in the journal Science under the title "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis". White, who I believe is a medievalist, traced environmental problems to what he called the Judeo-Christian ethic, under which (he claimed) God gave humankind license to manipulate the material world at liberty: what really counts is the divine, the transcendent, not the mundane and material world.

White's article is a great teaching device because the argument is very clear and it resonates with nearly everybody. You see references to it in public debate all the time.

It's also useful for teaching because it's deeply flawed. It pays no attention to capitalism, for example, or modernity, and offers you no way of explaining why the last few centuries of exploitation have been so different in scale and character from everything that preceded it in the Judeo-Christian era.

Anyway, the White article fits my pattern of 60s historical scholarship on environment: like Hays and White, it relies on traditional literary methodology. The argument is idealist as opposed to material. The argument is linear, in the sense that it has one driving cause. Finally, it's ahistorical, in the sense that fundamental ideas, approaches to nature, nature itself don't change over time.


Environmental history took an important step toward becoming a field of study in its own right in the 1970s, when historians took on the science of ecology as a subject. In one sense history of science was a variant on intellectual history: it is, after all, about what historically articulate people thought and did, and it's primarily about ideas rather than about interactions between humankind and non-human nature. On the other hand, historicizing the study of nature required people to learn the science itself and thus took them outside the bounds of mainstream, literary-style history.

My main point about the history of science's contribution to the emergence of environmental history in its own right is, again, to key it to changes in the environmental politics of the time: ecology became an interesting historical subject when environmental scientists themselves became important political and historical actors in the area, in ways that they hadn't before.


The traditional way of thinking about science in relation to politics and social change, you'll remember from last time, was that scientists were political innocents: science was an objective, non-political, "scientific" inquiry into nature that was somehow distinct from politics. Scientists advised governments on what they should do, and politicians made the decisions. That model of science broke down in the 1960s.

One way in which the traditional, Progressive model of science-in-history broke down was that scientists themselves broke out of their traditional roles and became political activists themselves. Here, it was primarily people working in environmental areas that led the way. I'll give you a couple of leading examples.

First and foremost, Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962. Carson was a marine biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the 1940s, where she became familiar with DDT in its military uses for delousing refugees in Europe and in mosquito control in the South Pacific. She was never very comfortable working in government science and during the 1950s she left it to pursue nature writing full-time. Her first book was The Sea Around Us, which is a nice balance-of-nature kind of work. Her work on DDT, however, led her straight into politics whether she liked it or not. She became convinced that DDT was not simply a politically-neutral technology, but that its development and use was wrapped up in a political assemblage that included the big chemical companies, the military, the universities, and industrial agriculture. Changing the technology, she realized, meant changing all of those other things as well, which got her into political, as well as scientific-technological, questions. The vicious opposition that the book aroused in the early 60s only proved the point. Silent Spring was in many ways the founding text of modern, political, ecologically-oriented environmentalism; it broke environmental politics out of the conservation- preservation dichotomy in which it had worked since the days of Muir and Pinchot.

Another example is Barry Commoner, who published The Closing Circle in 1971. Commoner also had wartime experience with DDT and later with nuclear energy. He played a significant role in forming the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, and in 1958 helped found the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information. This organization was one of the first explicitly political organizations of scientists.

Paul Ehrlich was a Stanford biologist who published The Population Bomb in 1975; the book grew out of an address on population problems Ehrlich gave to the Sierra Club in San Francisco in 1967. For a while in the mid-1970s when people thought about environmental problems they thought first about population and this led them inevitably to link environmental problems to social and political structures; population control brought them straight into problems of social engineering.

My last example is Garrett Hardin, a geneticist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who published an article called "The Tragedy of the Commons" in Science in 1967. This article remains one of the canonical texts in environmental politics. Basically, it's a popularization of research that economists had been doing since the early 1950s on the effect of different regimes of property rights on the exploitation of natural resources. Interestingly enough, this work began using high-seas fisheries as a model: these became interesting when U.S. oceanographers working on the war effort against Japan discovered significant stocks of tuna in the South Pacific and began thinking about how access to them should be organized politically in the post-war era. Fisheries are still the paradigm case for the commons tragedy; Hardin's article was an important organizing principle for my own work on the California fishing industry.

Note how all of these scientists abandoned the traditional position of scientists and used their expertise to support explicitly political positions on environmental issues. Note particularly the contrast with Aldo Leopold, for example. Leopold came up against his differences with the Forest Service over the killing of predators and retired to the University and his farm. A Sand County Almanac is a powerful book, to be sure, but it's written for cognoscenti only -- it doesn't attempt to reach out, to organize, to inspire political action the way, say, Silent Spring did. There's a significant generational difference in the response here. This might, incidentally, be a good place to sneak in an exercise in moral judgments for your students here: what would you do in Leopold's place, having decided that exterminating predators is wrong? I've found that almost everybody has an opinion about animal rights: getting people to articulate and defend their positions might teach them a lot about what they think about their place in Nature.

These four scientists, moreover, cover the political spectrum, from Commoner the avowed Socialist moving to the right from Carson to Ehrlich and finally to Hardin, whose positions are very conservative. This set up their science itself as an object of political analysis, and it wasn't long before historians began to write about the relationship between politics, social change, and what passed as "scientific" truth about nature. A great essay for reference on these people is Donald Fleming, "The Roots of the New Conservation Movement," Perspectives in American History, 6 (1971): 7-91.

B. KUHN If my four "political" scientists from the 60s and 70s provided objective proof that the relationships between science and the environment were not merely technical but political, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn provided theoretical proof in his essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which he published in 1970. This became another canonical text, if not in political environmentalism in academic environmental studies.

Kuhn is the guy who cursed the world with the concept "paradigm". His point was that scientific activity normally takes place within a relatively narrow range of problems and based largely on a set of shared assumptions about how the world works, or "paradigms". Every once in a while, however, scientists begin to gather data that normal science doesn't explain. Enough of this piles up and normal science goes into crisis until a scientific revolution comes along to explain the anomalies and in the process gives everybody a new way of looking at the world, a whole new set of questions around which to do science. Examples would be the Copernican revolution, the Newtonian revolution, the Darwinian revolution, and so on. Notice how they're all named after guys: there's a strong emphasis on the role of individual geniuses in Kuhn's model. Anyway, after the revolution everybody settles down into doing normal science in the new mode, until enough anomalous data begin to accumulate to put the new paradigm under stress of its own.

Kuhn was a great boon to history of science and an important progenitor of what we now call environmental history because he was the first one to explain scientific development as a historical process, rather than (as traditionally) one of the steady progress of knowledge, truth steadily supplanting error under the stewardship of the guys in the white coats. Note that Kuhn's model is what we call "internal": it still all takes place inside the laboratory, though there's some interesting sociology and politics that takes place between scientists and institutions. But there's not a hint in the model that people's lives in society or their interactions with material nature might lead them to ask certain kinds of questions of the world at certain times, so that it might be worth asking, for example, what difference it made that Darwin was a mid-19th century middle-class Englishman. This is one thing that environmental historians have been pretty good at; dissertations from university graduate programs in history-of-science still fall overwhelmingly into the Kuhnian, ahem, paradigm.


So with the personal examples of Carson, Commoner, Ehrlich, and the like, showing that science and politics are intertwined with each other, and with Kuhn's paradigm to give them a start at a theoretical framework, a few people began writing about science as a historical problem in itself, as a changing medium of discourse between people and non-human nature. This was an important step in the maturation of environmental history.

You've had two of the most important pioneers visit you already, Carolyn Merchant, who published The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution in 1980 and Don Worster, whose Nature's Economy: The Roots of Ecology was published by the Sierra Club in 1977. Since many of you are from the Plains states, you might be interested in Ronald Tobey, Saving the Prairie (1981), on the history of grassland ecology, and John Perkins, Insects, Experts, and the Insecticide Crisis (1982) on the place of pesticides in the history of agronomy in the US.

Again, just as environmental issues moved some scientists to break out of the science/politics dichotomy in their own lives, they led academic writers to do history of science in a new way, relating scientific development to social change and to environmental change in a way that the traditional, internalist mode of study had not envisioned. Historians also began to talk to scientists so as to bring a better knowledge of natural systems into their own scholarship. This blurring of disciplinary boundaries was more or less compelled by the subject of ecology, which teaches first and foremost that everything is connected to everything else.


You've already heard about the relationships between gender studies and environmental history and politics from Professor Merchant, but I should just point it up here: environmental studies was one of the first areas in which historians who knew about gender issues took them out of their traditional realm -- women's history -- and applied them to subjects traditionally approached in a gender-neutral (that is to say, masculine) way. Your pioneer here was undoubtedly Carolyn Merchant, though Susan Schrepfer's book, Saving the Redwoods and Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land (1975) were also important early works.

Merchant supplied what for me was a crucial theoretical breakthrough with her book, Ecological Revolutions. I had developed this complex, three-part interactive model of economic, environmental, and cultural change, but you'll notice that it's basically an abstract model: it wasn't until Merchant showed me how reproduction fit in to the scheme that I figured out what made the whole thing go.



By 1980, I'd say, enough historians were working on environmental subjects that the field began to take on a character of its own. The American Society for Environmental History began holding its own meetings and launched its own journal in 1976, I believe. In 1984 the annual meeting featured back-to-back panels on "Theories of Environmental History," another indication of maturity and self-consciousness in the field. By the mid-1980s we began to see job listings for new faculty that mentioned "Environmental History" as a preferred specialty. So we can say that by the mid-1980s Environmental History had become a normal science in the Kuhnian sense. The Worster roundtable in The Journal of American History, 76 (1990): 1087- 1147, and William Cronon's presidential address to the Environmental History Society, published in Environmental History Review, 17 (1993): 1-22, are good discussions of the field as it stands. Compare them to the article by Richard White in Pacific Historical Review, 54 (1985): 297-335.

Now, how would I characterize the field, relating it to politics as they stand in the mid-1990s? I'd guess that I'd point to the breakdown in traditional political categories that we saw in the late 1980s, what with the end of the cold war, the breakdown in the civil rights consensus, and the mainstreaming of environmental concern. Especially with the emergence of toxic pollution and environmental justice as sources of environmental concern, environmental politics moved away from the wilderness and into issues where the interaction between people and ecology was more important than questions of preserving the integrity of natural systems. The nature-culture dichotomy broke down, in environmental politics and in environmental scholarship. Environmental historiography took on its own, peculiarly synthetic and multidisciplinary character as the issues it touched steadily ramified and as they required historians to become expert in more and more different fields in order to deal with those issues intelligently.

I'll point to three general manifestations of these changes in environmental historiography, all of them related of course: postmodernism, chaos theory, and the breakdown of traditional boundaries in scholarly inquiry.


By postmodernism I refer to a kind of pattern of talking about the world that got started in literary circles but is by no means confined to that somewhat strange arena. You recognize postmodernism when you see people make points by mixing and matching up all kinds of things that you wouldn't think should go together. You recognize it when you hear people being self-conscious that it's them telling you a story, because who's telling a story makes a difference to the content and meaning of the story itself. You recognize it when people treat language and narrative as indeterminate; language doesn't necessarily picture the world objectively anymore; rather, every statement about the world implies a particular set of political relations between people.

Borrowing from the uncertainty principle, postmodernism emphasizes communication as an interaction between writer and reader, between speaker and audience. Borrowing from relativity, it emphasizes the indeterminacy of all claims about truth in the world. With the philosopher Wittgenstein, it emphasizes that descriptions of the world rest on shared assumptions between people rather than on any "objective" reality. If you think about it, I think you'll recognize all of these tendencies in the body of material that you've worked over during this workshop.

A good introduction to postmodernism is David Lehman, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul deMan (1991). Lehman is very "anti", but the book is useful nonetheless. People get upset about postmodernism because it challenges the authority of received wisdom, in literature, in art, in history, even in science and law.

I'll point to Cronon's work as a good example of this; note his article about "Placing Nature in History" in the JAH roundtable (which article started out as his contribution to that panel at Duke in 1984), and his Presidential Address to the Environmental History Society, in which he said that environmental history can't be useful to society by way of offering solutions to social problems, but only by way of offering stories and parables that encourage people to think about those problems in different and maybe more useful ways.

Now, literary types get blamed for all of this, but they're not the problem: the problem is that changes in Western culture since the mid-20th century have been so deep and so broad-ranging that authority in the culture doesn't justify itself anymore. This is a point that Sumner made about social institutions: in stable times nobody questions their authority, but in times of change everybody asks questions about everything. It's not that Shakespeare wasn't a great writer or that he didn't express real truths about the human condition; it's just that we can't anymore accept his authority just because he was Shakespeare. We have to figure out which of his truths reach directly to the human condition and which reach it only indirectly, through his perspective as an early-modern English literate male-type person. To blame literature professors for this is to close one's eyes to real changes in the culture and merely to blame the messengers. I mean, if the lit-crit types were so dangerous why would they be college professors?


Lots and lots of people who do environmental history reach to chaos theory; it's fashionable in a lot of non-scientific disciplines now the way Darwinism was in the late nineteenth-century or relativity and the uncertainty principle were in the mid-twentieth. Chaos theory underscores that the world doesn't necessarily work in a linear fashion, with neat, mechanical, one-on-one proportional relationships between causes and effects. Ecology, where lots of things are random and uncertain and everything interacts with everything else all at once, is a fertile breeding ground for this cross-fertilization.

Now, note: I think people who are smart about what they're doing don't say, as people did when they borrowed from Darwin or Einstein or Heisenberg, "science tells us that this is the way the world works, let's try to apply this model to history." We're too postmodern for that now. Physics speaks with a lot of authority when it describes the world, but it's just one perspective, and moreover one about which many people are skeptical since we've found out about DDT and nuclear fallout.

If you look around, in fact, you'll see that people from all different disciplines, from psychology to literature to economics to medicine, are speaking in the same style that chaos theory manifests in physics: they talk about nonlinearity, about recursion, about sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and so on. All of these are manifestations that the culture is changing; that we're asking different questions of the world than we used to.


A last manifestation of this categorical breakdown that I mentioned comes from the structure of the university itself. The traditional departmentalization of the university doesn't work very well anymore to contain either the people who are doing environmental history nor the questions they ask.

In part this is due to hard times in the Academy, where people who want to get in and get tenure no longer have their paths marked out clearly for them. Some people take this to extremes, of course: I spent five years as an assistant professor and then went to law school, while my friend Chris Sellers, who's working on a study of occupational disease, was a physician first and then went to graduate school in history. Formal training in more than one discipline, of course, shows up very clearly in one's work. Again, this is partly because traditional disciplines (all but physics and economics, maybe) are less and less able to contain people who have a lot of ambition and are lucky enough to command the resources necessary to pursue it.

Even the majority of sane people with single credentials find themselves working in different parts of the University anyway. My colleague Bill Cronon, for example, has appointments in History, Geography, and Environmental Studies. I have them in Law, History, and Environmental Studies. Both of us sit on graduate committees from all over the university.

More importantly, however, this disciplinary dissolution that manifests itself most clearly in environmental history stems from the sheer fact that in order to deal meaningfully with environmental questions from a historical perspective you just have to have a more or less working knowledge of all of the fields that your question touches, which is usually a lot. If I have a graduate student who's working on buffalo, for example, or farming in Oklahoma, I insist that they tell me about how grass works, that they give papers at conferences of grasslands ecologists. During the course of my research on the fishing business, for example, I gave papers at conferences of historians, ecologists, lawyers, anthropologists, economists, and marine biologists. The experience can be painful sometimes, because it's very easy to tread on someone's sense of proprietorship over their discipline. But if you can learn the other discipline well enough not to embarrass yourself at one of its meetings, my theory is that you probably know enough to use it in your own research. More importantly, if you learn the other discipline's language and culture well enough, you make their expertise accessible to your work and your work accessible to them.

At Wisconsin we have a twice-a-month breakfast meeting of environmentally-minded people from all over the university, at which one of us each time gives a short talk about their work or about some current- affairs type issue about which their expertise gives them something to offer. This has been a wonderful experience for me, not just because I learn a lot from these people, but also for the bare fact that I'd probably never even meet them if we didn't all drag ourselves to the Student Union at 7:15 every other Tuesday. The institutional structure of the University just doesn't encourage that sort of cross-disciplinary social and intellectual exchange; and that's a pity. I would have been very unhappy if I'd had to spend the rest of my professional life talking to nobody but historians; on the other hand, I never met a marine biologist that I didn't like. Maybe it's all the sunshine and salt air they get.


I don't know anywhere in the academy where this happens more regularly and with more energy than in environmental history. The social and ecological changes that contribute to it are not peculiar either to historians or to environmentalists. But people who do both history and environment are peculiarly placed to feel those changes in their scholarly lives, which is what makes the field so interesting. The trend in environmental politics since the 1960s, following the ecological principle that once you start pulling at something in Nature you find that it's hitched to everything else in the universe (John Muir), has been to integrate more and more different concerns into a field that originally concerned itself only with areas where people were not.


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