Environmental History, Conservation, and the Social Sciences

If we are honest with ourselves, environmental historians will often admit to nagging doubts about whether our vocation is a useful one. Amid increasingly obvious signs of a climate change, pipeline protests, new stories about species at risk (the latest being Africa’s giraffe populations) and the incursion of oil executives as key leaders in Trump’s Cabinet, studying environmental history can seem one step removed from the policy processes and public protests that sometimes make an actual difference to policy processes. And yet, I think a significant motivator for many environmental historians is the activist bent of the discipline. Even as we write critically about policy processes and some forms of activism, many of us remain convinced that reflecting on the myriad ways that humans engage with environmental change can inform contemporary approaches to environmental issues.

Recently, I was forced to grapple with the “utility” question in environmental history when asked to work with a large group of scholars on the question of mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. The discussion was extremely rich, resulting in a conceptual paper in the journal Conservation Biology, and a concrete program for action in the journal Biological Conservation. Environmental historians will find much to digest in these articles, including a summary of potential policy contributions from across the social sciences wing of the academy. As with many of these broad survey articles, however, my section on environmental history could only be afforded a tiny word count, leaving me wanting to say more about the connections among environmental history, the social sciences, and conservation in the policy realm.


Puffin refuge in Elliston, Newfoundland (credit: J. Sandlos)

Certainly the use of environmental history as a guide to contemporary policy is fraught with challenges. Not only are interpretations of the past often contested, but shifting social, economic, and environmental conditions often prevent the easy application of historical conservation initiatives to the present day. Nonetheless, environmental history has offered powerful narratives, or parables as William Cronon suggests, that can serve as object lessons for the conservation movement (Cronon 1992). Environmental historians have produced a veritable mountain of literature on the origins of the conservation movement in North America, Africa, South Asia, and Europe. Although early works sought to establish a pantheon of prophetic conservation heroes such as John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold (Oelschlaeger 1991, Miller 1991, Nash 1967, Reiger 1975), subsequent work has focused on issues of class and race within the movement, especially the often dire impacts of forest enclosures, protected areas, and game regulations on indigenous communities and other rural people (Guha 1989, Jacoby 2001, Loo 2006, Sandlos 2007, Spence 1999, Warren 1997). These histories offer a powerful lesson to contemporary practitioners: when conservation programs ignore the legitimate concerns of subsistence-oriented communities, often the result is long-term resentment and outright resistance, sometimes in the form of deliberate campaigns to break laws and regulations. Environmental historians have also implicitly critiqued the conceptual basis for many approaches to conservation. For example, historians have pointed to the many shortcomings of production-oriented wildlife, forest and fish conservation programs (Bavington 2010, Dunlap 1991, Langston 1995, Rajala 1999). Others have pointed out that the idea of wilderness tends to ignore the extensive pre-contact influence of Aboriginal people on North American landscapes, and may serve as unrealistic goals for preserving and/or restoring environments subject to dynamic and ongoing change. Indeed, environmental historians have been wary of adopting wholesale declensionist narratives of environmental change, pointing to historical episodes where environmental conditions have actually improved due to human interventions or where contemporary perceptions of historical environmental degradation have turned out to be inaccurate when analyzed against documentary or oral history evidence (Cronon 1996, Hall 2005, Merchant 2003, Sörlin 2011). Although some may dismiss these contributions as too general for practical conservation programs, environmental historians can play valuable roles bridging contemporary initiatives with their historical context, reminding practitioners of the complex social, political and ideological roots that continue to influence conservation science and practice today (Anker 2001, Worster 1994).


The Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, NWT (credit: J. Sandlos)

As valuable as context may be, however, conservation practitioners may have legitimate concerns about whether environmental history can offer anything more concrete to their mission. The potential obstacles to collaboration are many. They include contrasting thematic foundations (ecologists focus more exclusively on the natural system while historians tend to concentrate more on human action and agency) and methodological approaches to evidence (the hypothetico-deductive model for scientists versus a historian’s attentiveness to nuanced interpretation of sources) (Pooley 2013, Szabó 2010, Szabó and Hédel 2013). More specifically, the visceral and very public reaction among conservation scientists (and many historians) to Cronon’s critique of the wilderness idea (1996) probably did not set an encouraging collaborative tone in the 1990s (Callicott and Nelson 1998).

Nonetheless, as evidence-based disciplines with shared interests in environmental change over time, there is strong potential for active collaboration between environmental historians and conservation scientists. The historian’s acumen for archival and oral history research offers huge potential to assess environmental conditions in the past, a long view of ecological change that can provided critical data and other information for conservation initiatives (Bart 2006, Ferguson and Messier 1997, Meine 1999, Szabó 2002, Szabó and Hédel 2011). Historical records may provide evidence for baseline wildlife populations, environmental conditions, or help determine historic ranges of variability over time (Andrew and Major 2008, King, Oldham Weller, and Wynn, 1997, Madison, 2004, Rayburn and Major 2008, Schulte and Mladanoff 2001). Historians are also well trained to analyze original documents critically, providing a corrective to a tendency in some conservation science literature to cite older natural history reports as firm evidence of baseline wildlife numbers without checking the original for the sometimes sketchy ways that early naturalists arrived at these numbers (Wiersma and Sandlos, 2011, Alagona, Sandlos and Wiersma 2012). Environmental historians and historical geographers have employed new and potent digital computing tools, especially historical geographic information systems (HGIS) to track landscape and habitat change over time, a potentially invaluable analytical approach that can inform the work of landscape ecologists (Bonnell and Fortin 2014). Such landscape scale studies may also prove useful to ecological restoration initiatives, with the added bonus that many environmental historians would be adept at evaluating the role that public memory of past landscapes might play in restoration and re-wildling initiatives (Hall 2010). If conservation is at least in part an attempt to preserve and/or recover nature at some point or period in the past, environmental historians offer the ability to assess what the past looked like, what changes have occurred, and provide some window on the social and economic context that fostered these transformations.


Alagona, P.S., J. Sandlos, and Y.F. Wiersma. 2012. Past imperfect. Environmental Philosophy 9: 49-70.

Anker, P. 2001. Imperial ecology: environmental order in the British Empire, 1895-1945. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Bart, D. 2006. Integrating local ecological knowledge and manipulative experiments to find the causes of environmental change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4 (2006): 541-546.

Bavington, D. 2010. Managed annihilation: an unnatural history of the Newfoundland cod collapse. UBC Press, Vancouver, B.C.

Bonnell, J. and M. Fortin, editors. 2014. Historical GIS research in Canada. University of Calgary Press, Calgary, Alberta.

Callicott, J. B., and M.P. Nelson, editors. 1998. The great new wilderness debate. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.

Carruthers, J. 1995. The Kruger National Park: a social and political history. University of Natal Press, Scottsville, S.A.

Cronon, W. 1992. A place for stories: nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History 78: 1347-1376.

Cronon, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History 1: 7-28.

Dunlap, T.R. 1991. Saving America’s wildlife. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Guha, R. 1989. The unquiet woods: ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya. Universitu of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hall, M. 2005. Earth repair: a transatlantic history of environmental restoration. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA.

Hall, M., editor. 2010. Restoration and history: the search for a usable environmental past. Routledge, New York.

Ferguson. M.A. and F. Messier. 1997. Collection and analysis of traditional ecological knowledge about a population of arctic tundra caribou. Arctic 50: 17-28.

Jacoby, K. 2001. Crimes against nature: squatters, poachers, thieves, and the hidden history of American conservation. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

King, R.B., M.J. Oldham, W.F. Weller, D.Wynn. 1997. Historic and current amphibian and reptile distributions in the island region of Western Lake Erie. American Midland Naturalist 138: 153-173.

Langston, N. 1995. Forest dreams, forest nightmares: the paradox of old growth in the Inland West. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

Loo, T. 2006. States of nature: conserving Canada’s wildlife in the twentieth century. UBC Press, Vancouver, B.C.

Mackenzie J.M. 1997. The empire of nature: hunting, conservation and British imperialism. Manchester University Press, Manchester, U.K.

Madison, M. 2004. Conserving conservation: field notes from an animal archive. The Public Historian 26: 145-55.

Miller, C. 1991. Gifford Pinchot and the making of modern environmentalism. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Meine, C. 1999. Editorial: it’s about time: conservation biology and history. 13: 1-3.

Merchant, C. 2013. Reinventing Eden: the fate of nature in western culture. Routledge, New York.

Nash, R.F. 1967. Wilderness and the American mind, first edition. Yale University Press, New Haven, CN.

Oelschlaeger, M. 1991. The idea of wilderness: From prehistory to the age of ecology. Yale University Press, New Haven, CN.

Pooley, S. 2013. Historians are from Venus, Ecologists are from Mars. Conservation Biology 27: 1481-1483.

Rajala, R.A. 1999. Clearcutting the Pacific rain forest: production, science, and regulation. UBC Press, Vancouver, B.C.

Rayburn, A.P. and A.L. Major. 2008. Using landscape history and baseline data in the restoration of a midwestern savanna. Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science 115: 1-11.

Reiger, J.F. 1975. American sportsmen and the origins of conservation. Winchester Press, New York.

Sandlos, J. 2007. Hunters at the margin: native people and wildlife conservation in the Northwest Territories. UBC Press, Vancouver, B.C.

Schulte, L.A. and D. J. Mladenoff. 2001. The original US Public Land Survey records: their use and limitations in reconstructing presettlement vegetation. Journal of Forestry 99: 5-10.

Sörlin, S. 2011. The contemporaneity of environmental history: negotiating scholarship, useful history, and the new human condition. Journal of Contemporary History 46: 610-630.

Spence, M.D. 1999. Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Szabó, P. 2002. Medieval trees and modern ecology: how to handle written sources. Medium Aevum Quotidianum 46: 7-25.

Szabó, P. 2010. Why history matters in ecology: an interdisciplinary perspective. Environmental Conservation 37: 380-387.

Szabó, P. and R. Hédl. 2013. Grappling with interdisciplinary research: response to Pooley. Conservation Biology 27: 1484-1486.

Szabó, P. and R. Hédl. 2011. Advancing the integration of history and ecology for conservation. Conservation Biology 25: 680-687.

Warren, L.S. 1997. The hunter’s game: poachers and conservationists in twentieth-century America. Yale University Press, New Haven, CN.

Wiersma, Y.F., and J. Sandlos. 2011. Once there were so many: animals as ecological baselines. Environmental History 16: 400-407.

Worster, Donald. Nature’s economy: a history of ecological ideas. Cambridge University Press, 1994.


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John Sandlos

John Sandlos is a professor in the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland.