Nature’s Past Episode 51: Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?

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Episode 51: Has Environmental History Lost Its Way? [53:04]

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Hiking, Olympic National Park, 1945-1965. Source: General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, AR-28001001-ph001712, Washington State Archives. Original images held at the Washington State Archives, Olympia, WA.

Hiking, Olympic National Park, 1945-1965. Source: General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, AR-28001001-ph001712, Washington State Archives. Original images held at the Washington State Archives, Olympia, WA.

Late last year in December, Lisa Brady, the editor of the journal, Environmental History, posted a provocatively titled blog article, “Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?” In that article, she reviews a round table panel from the most recent annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in which Mark Hersey, a historian from Mississippi State University challenged the audience to consider whether or not environmental history has broadened too widely in its scope and drifted from its methodological roots.

Two years earlier, Liza Piper, a Canadian environmental historian from University of Alberta, wrote a similarly provocative article in History Compass in which she argues “that Canadian environmental historians, even as they foreground nature as an historical actor, nevertheless continue to focus their attention and orient their investigations around questions of how human social, cultural, economic, and political power reshaped both nature and human experience in the past.”

These arguments garnered lots of attention online as environmental historians shared the link to Brady’s article via online social networks and discussed its arguments. Others have now written response articles attempting to answer her question. The discussion has focused on the question of whether environmental history should emphasize materialism and the use of environment as an analytical lens or proceed as a “big tent” that incorporates a wide range of scholarship regardless of methodology.

On this episode of the podcast, Lisa Brady, Mark Hersey, and Liza Piper discuss this question and further explore whether or not environmental history has lost its way.

Please be sure to take a moment to review this podcast on our iTunes page.

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Lisa Brady
Mark Hersey
Liza Piper

Works Cited:

  • Andrews, Thomas. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Bolster, W. Jeffrey. The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Brady, Lisa. “Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?” Process: A Blog for American History
  • Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
  • Crosby, Alfred. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1973.
  • Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Degroot, Dagomar. “Exploring the North in a Changing Climate: The Little Ice Age and the Journals of Henry Hudson.” Journal of Northern Studies 9, no. 1 (2015): 69-92.
  • Hersey, Mark. “Slavery and the Landscape of a Dismal Empire” Ohio Valley History 13, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 77-82.
  • Kheraj, Sean. “Borders and Ideas of Nature: Intersections in the Environmental Histories of Canada and the United States” Canadian Historical Review 95, no. 4 (2014): 604-609.
  • Piper, Liza. “Knowing Nature Through History” History Compass 11/12 (2013): 1139-1149.
  • McNeill, J.R. “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History” History and Theory. 42, no. 4 (December 2003): 5-43.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.
  • Russell, Edmund. Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Walker, Brett L. “Environments of Terror: 9/11, World Trade Center Dust, and the Global Nature of New York’s Toxic Bodies” Environmental History, 20, no. 4 (October 2015): 779-795.
  • Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Worster, Donald. The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Music Credits:


Kheraj, Sean. “Episode 51: Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 27 January 2016.


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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


  1. Jess Campbell says:


    I enjoyed this podcast very much. I am interested in learning more about the “big tent” approach to environmental history. Could somebody please direct me to a source that further explains this idea? I am in the process of writing an M.A. thesis within the environmental field, but I worry that because work is not grounded in the natural environment, it is not true environmental history. I hope that by examining the built, social and psychological environments, I can still contribute to the field.

    Thank you,


  2. Sean Kheraj says:


    Thanks for listening to the podcast!

    I can’t think of a specific reference that speaks directly to your question. When we spoke of a “big tent” approach to the development of the field, we were referring to the openness of the field to a wide range of approaches to the study of environmental history. This is illustrated in the types of articles published in journals (eg. Environmental History, Environment and History) and the papers presented at the annual meetings of environmental history scholarly organizations (eg. ASEH, ESEH).

    To get a sense of how historians have defined the field of environmental history over time, I would suggest looking at some of the articles and book chapters published on this topic. Here are a few (I invite others to add more here):

    Nash, Roderick. “The State of Environmental History.” In The State of American History, edited by H. J. Bass, 249–60. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

    “Special Issue: Theories of Environmental History” Environmental Review, 11, no. 4 (Winter 1987)

    Worster, Donald. The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History. Book, Whole. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressWorster, Donald, 1988. (see appendix “Doing Environmental History”)

    Worster, Donald. “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History.” The Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1087–1106.

    Crosby, Alfred W. “The Past and Present of Environmental History.” American Historical Review 100, no. Journal Article (1995): 1177–89.

    McNeill, J. R. “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History.” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 5–43.

    Rome, Adam. “Anniversary Forum: What’s next for Environmental History?” Environmental History 10, no. 1 (2005): 30–109.

    Weiner, Douglas R. “A Death-Defying Attempt to Articulate a Coherent Definition of Environmental History.” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (2005): 404–20.

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