Environmental History or Environmentally Minded History? New Scholars Second Meeting

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On February 16th, 2018, we had our second meeting to discuss the topic “environmental history v. environmentally minded history.” Robynne Mellor, Jessica DeWitt, Laura Larsen, Erin Spinney, and Katrin Kleemann attended the virtual meeting.

Robynne Mellor, the representative of the NiCHE New Scholars, initiated the debate by posing the question whether we are writing environmental history or environmentally minded history, i.e. history that simply pays attention to the environment but focuses on something else. This prompted us to think about how to define environmental history. There are, of course, many definitions out there, such as these:

“Environmental history […] is the history of the mutual relation between humankind and the rest of nature.”

—John R. McNeill. “Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history.” History and Theory 42 (2003): 5-43.

“What is environmental history? It is a kind of history that seeks understanding of human beings as they have lived, worked and thought in relationship to the rest of nature through the changes brought by time.”

—J. Donald Hughes. What is Environmental History? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006.

“Environmental history is always about human interaction with the natural world or, to put it in another way, it studies the interaction between culture and nature. The principal goal of environmental history is to deepen our understanding of how humans have been affected by the natural environment in the past and also how they have affected by the environment and with what results.”

—Jan Oosthoek. “What is Environmental History?” Environmental History Resources, January 3, 2005.

For our purposes in this context, let’s define environmental history as the study of interactions between the natural world and society—in the broadest sense. In contrast, environmentally minded history could be described as this: If you think of history as a canvas, and the subject of the painting is the history we write, then the environment is merely a few brushstrokes.

Environmental history, multidisciplinary by nature (no pun intended), becomes increasingly interdisciplinary. Scholars with various backgrounds working together to write environmental history certainly are the big strength of environmental history compared to other fields of historiography. Environmental history can study objects that have previously been studied at a time when the environment either played a minor role or no role at all. So to look at these subject matters again from the perspective of environmental history, is to look at it with fresh eyes.

Many environmental historians, over the course of their careers, become experts in different fields and disciplines. Some environmental histories include biology, others include chemistry, or geology for instance. Can there be too much or too little interdisciplinarity in your work? Should your work still count as environmental history if you use too much science or none at all? Would environmental history without a scientific aspect be environmentally minded science? We agreed that either should count as environmental history, as long as you study interactions between the environment and society.

Interdisciplinarity comes with quite a few challenges, some of which we identified here:

  • Language: How do we communicate in a way that people outside of our discipline can understand us? We are trained to write in the jargon of our discipline, however, this makes it difficult to communicate with people from the natural sciences. To truly work interdisciplinarily, it is important to define terminology, as it might mean something different in another discipline, and perhaps the writing should rather be aimed at a general audience, to ensure understanding.


  • Where to publish: Natural scientists publish almost exclusively in scientific journals, and don’t tend to refer to books; a journal’s impact factor is important for their careers, unfortunately journals in the field of environmental history don’t seem to rank very high on their impact factor lists (yet). For historians publishing a monograph is still the gold standard.


  • Working collaboratively: Working collaboratively is common practice in the natural sciences, whereas for historians single-authored pieces are much more important for their career.


  • Publication pace: In the natural sciences it is much more accepted to publish preliminary results, whereas historians will most likely fine-tune their publication to perfection before submitting it. If you publish one paper in a journal per year as an environmental historian, this is fantastic, not so much though if you are a natural scientist. Findings from the natural sciences published in scientific journals also tend to outdate quicker than historian’s findings—making it difficult for an environmental historian to keep up to date with the current scientific consensus.


So there are quite a few hurdles to overcome to work truly interdisciplinarily. However, working in collaboration with people from other disciplines, including the natural sciences, appear to be the way to broaden our horizon and to inspire new research and new findings in our own field.

Another question that we debated was how we write about the environment. Can there be too much or too little environment in your work? In this regard, it was posited whether an environmental history needs people in it. Perhaps we should all examine our writing with the “The People Test” proposed by Alan MacEachern in this article, to see whether we mention named human actors.

How inclusive should environmental history be? Should environmentally minded history be part of environmental history? Environmental history as a discipline aims to analyze interactions, how the environment influences the decisions of human actors and how human actors impact the environment. At the end of our discussion we came to the conclusion that a wide umbrella understanding of environmental history is the approach that the field can benefit from the most.


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Katrin Kleemann is a doctoral candidate at the Rachel Carson Center / LMU Munich in Germany, she studies environmental history and geology. Her doctoral project investigates the Icelandic Laki fissure eruption of 1783 and its impacts on the northern hemisphere. She holds a master’s degree in early modern history and a bachelor’s degree in history and cultural anthropology. Katrin receives a fellowship from the Andrea von Braun Foundation, which supports interdisciplinary research. She also is the social media editor for the Climate History Network and HistoricalClimatology.com.


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