Declining Declensionism: Toward a Critical Hopeful Environmental History

Scroll this

Editor’s note: This is the second post in a mini-series on hope and environmental history. To read the series’s other posts, click here.

If environmental historians have neglected the subject of hope to date, part of the reason must surely lie in the field’s longstanding affinity for declensionism. Defined by Carolyn Merchant as “a narrative structure or plot that portrays environmental history as a downward spiral,” declensionism may be the closest thing that environmental history has to a grand narrative.[1] To scholarly and lay onlookers, it continues to be one of the field’s defining features.

For many among the first generation of environmental historians, declensionism was a necessary counterweight to Whiggish or progressive narratives that celebrated rising human mastery over the nonhuman world, sometimes without acknowledging the attendant costs to human and nonhuman communities. Since the early 1990s, however, a second generation of environmental historians have critiqued declensionism for its reductionism, its determinism, and its tendency to evoke depression and ennui in readers. After all, in the words of J.R. McNeill, how many times can you really tell the story of “one damn decline after another?”[2]

Stories of decline will always be with us, of course, if only because sometimes they most faithfully reflect environmental historical events and trends. But as declensionism’s grip on the field weakens, we should revisit the interpretive possibilities of what I term “ascensionist” narratives. These could form the basis for a new genre of critical hopeful environmental histories, which I hope will come to characterize the third generation of our field.[3]

Environmental historians have been curiously loath to explore the potential of rising or ascending narrative lines. Perhaps they feared being branded Whig historians. Perhaps they feared that sunny-side-up narratives would leave their readers feeling complacent under capitalism and consumerism, rather than motivated to right the wrongs that those systems had wrought, and continue to wreak upon ecosystems. Perhaps, in an age of academic and popular fidelity to ironic modes of speech, they feared that hopeful narratives would come across as naïve, or foolish. Or perhaps, with Donald Worster, they simply felt that one could write a critical history or a hopeful history, but not both.[4]

Models of critical and hopeful environmental histories do exist, however. Marcus Hall’s Earth Repair focuses on comparative histories of environmental restoration. This topic, along with rewilding, could feature prominently in a “hopeful” or “ascensionist” turn. While Hall approaches hope as a topic of historical study, Gregg Mitman and Julie Courtwright each position hope as an agent of historical change. Mitman explores what he terms Denver’s “landscapes of hope,” revealing how this emotion drew health-seekers to and around the city’s spaces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hope can compel people to stay in place, too, as Courtwright demonstrates in her article about rainmaking on the Great Plains. The hope that humans could call moisture forth from the skies persuaded farmers to continue living in and cultivating these semi-arid landscapes, a decision that has had profound environmental consequences.[5]

Critical hopeful environmental histories can help us navigate the challenges of the Anthropocene, not least by foregrounding stories of resilience and sustainability.[6] But as we contemplate how best to write hopeful histories, we should learn from the shortcomings of declensionist ones. Such narratives often failed to capture the complexity, contingency, and multidirectionality of historical human-environment interactions. Ascensionist histories must avoid this simplistic trap if they are to succeed.

We might look, then, to the unorthodox, but memorable vision of hope that Brett Walker presents at the end of Toxic Archipelago. He predicts that capitalism will bring about total environmental collapse. Yet he anticipates finding beauty amongst the ruins:

For me, the …  photograph of mercury-poisoned Uemura Tomoko and her mother bathing together in a small bathtub is absolutely sublime. Also sublime are cedars poking through the ruins of the Kodaki mine site at Ashio, where macaques cradle newborns. But also sublime is a mother orca cradling her deformed calf as they are crushed together against Japan’s shores. These moments of selfless compassion and transcendent beauty give me hope.[7]

This dark, even disturbing vision of hope gestures at the potential complexity and richness of ascensionist narratives. Perhaps, to riff off of Emily Dickinson, hope in the Anthropocene is best cast as a damaged thing with feathers. As critical, hopeful environmental historians, we must acknowledge that damage at the same time that we seek to set it aright.

Feature Photo: Hope in the Anthropocene: a damaged thing with feathers? Photo: David Davies, Flickr


[1] Carolyn Merchant, “Declensionist,” in The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 206; Brian Donaghue, “Environmental Stewardship and Decline in Old New England,” Journal of the Early Republic 24, no. 2 (2004): 235.

[2] J.R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 35.

[3] Here I draw inspiration from Mark Carey’s articulation of a “critical climate history.” See Carey, “Science, Models, and Historians: Toward a Critical Climate History,” Environmental History 19, no. 2 (2014): 354-64.

[4] Ian Tyrrell and Donald Worster, “Environmental History: The Contribution of Donald Worster,” Australasian Journal of American Studies 13, no. 1 (1994): 59.

[5] Marcus Hall, Earth Repair: A Transatlantic History of Environmental Restoration (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005); Gregg Mitman, “Landscapes of Hope: Mining the Frontiers of Health in Denver and Beyond, 1870-1965,” Osiris, 2nd ser., vol. 19 (2004): 93-111; Julie Courtwright, “On the Edge of the Possible: Artificial Rainmaking and the Extension of Hope on the Great Plains,” Agricultural History 89, no. 4 (2015): 536-58.

[6] Julia Adeney Thomas, “Using Japan to Think Globally: The Natural Subject of History and Its Hopes,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian Jared Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas and Brett L. Walker (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 296.

[7] Brett L. Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 224.

The following two tabs change content below.
Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.