After recently completing primary source research about urban renewal in Boston, I needed to step away from the trees and take a view of the forest. In grad school it seemed easy to read books with innovative theories and think, “I’ll use this as a research approach and writing technique.” After getting immersed in the sources, I found them taking me for a ride, insisting on being told a certain way. “This is good” I said, but at the same time, techniques, questions, and ideas I planned on incorporating into my own work got stripped away to focus on what my historical actors directed me to write. After concluding the semester, I wanted to re-engage with big-picture themes of global environmental history. I turned to Joachim Radkau’s Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment. His work is a powerful synthesis of time, space, and technique, a source of inspiration in terms of knowledge and complexity.
I see better now how to situate the purpose and importance of my work. From Radkau I discerned a horizontal and vertical axis of thinking and purpose in global environmental history. Across the horizontal axis are disciplines and sub-disciplines environmental historians can access to develop their narrative. This involves looking to ecology and anthropology on the science side and other branches of history such as social, cultural, economic, and political on the humanities side. On the vertical axis is scale, descending in scope from global to neighborhood-based. All points along this axis serve required functions, or put another way, none is more important than the other because global understanding can only be constructed by examining complexity in local situations. It seemed as though Radkau suggests a palate of different options environmental historians can select from in order to work successfully with various subjects and points of scale. This helped me reflect on my own historical intentions.
On one hand I’m working to understand Boston as an urban system and an ecosystem. Systems analysis involves looking at urban areas as fluid and dynamic, a methodology leading urban environmental historians employed with great success to examine cities. Works by Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and Harold Platt stand out as exemplars. Generally these works examine cities as different regions that develop specific functions: production, commercial, and residential zones. They interact and develop according to the natural resources the city requires for life and growth. Development of central arteries, bridges, streetcar systems, and railroads create boundaries that develop environmental, social, and political consequences. In this way, the city as a system is closely connected to social systems.
If a city is a system, urban ecology helps answer how urban areas function. It reminds us in simple terms that cities are environments because ecology is “the relationship between living organisms and their environment and the processes that shape both.” There are many levels to urban ecosystems: the city itself, its relationship with suburbs and smaller regions such as rural areas, ponds, parks, neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, roads, and infrastructure. Each functions as its own ecological unit that interacts with other parts of the system. This insight leads to a method of inquiry that is both coherent and complex because it allows for examination of interactions among many different types and sizes of ecologies shaping cities. Beyond this, ecologist Eugene Odum’s explanation of the city as a “techno-ecosystem” deepens understanding. Odum points out that an ecology’s essential function is to draw in resources, distribute them, and remove waste. As we know, this is not humanity’s strong suit. In this way, human-influenced ecologies seem more important to study rather than less, as some environmental historians have argued in the past. The distribution of resources and waste are the central issues facing cities; understanding the human action that has created these situations allows for a deconstruction of these problems.
At the same time, my version of the environmental approach engages with political, cultural, social, and economic systems. I hope to show how control over environmental conditions, access to resources and services, and discourse and perception of residents as environmental agents demonstrates how class and racial oppression functions. The ability to alter urban ecology and how resources are employed and distributed creates consequences for residents. Radkau suggests using the environmental perspective to enrich methodologies and conclusions in other sub-disciplines of history. With other sub-disciplines, environmental history has a more powerful message. Beyond this, urban ecologists have called on environmental historians to reconstruct urban history so they can gain a greater understanding of their subject area.
In this way, I hope my efforts connect with broader purposes Radkau suggests historians pursue: an environmental analysis that contributes to a greater understanding of past and present societal problems. This is the clear task for global
citizens of the twenty-first century. On a global scale, how can we fit more people into less space in a sustainable and efficient way for land, resources, and people? On a regional scale, how do residents commuting from suburbs understand the ways their regional societal structure rests on a system of class and racial oppression developed by manipulation of the urban environment? How can these conversations be approached in a constructive way that might lead to a more equitable use of space and resources for residents in the urban milieu as a whole? In the US, conflagrations in cities all too often occur as a result of inherent inequalities built in, literally, to the urban environment. But here in the US, we mostly choose to turn a blind eye, favouring a “blame the victim” rhetoric rather than engaging in a deeper understanding of issues and considering ways to foster equity. Recent events in Baltimore illustrate these issues in upsetting ways. I do not write these observations with rose-coloured glasses for a utopian future, but I feel deeply that environmental historians must contribute to conversations about contemporary social issues in a meaningful way.
Environmental history, on whatever scale one chooses, is ultimately an examination of interactions between environment and humanity. Radkau believes environmental history can be too focused on a search and veneration of “nature” in its historiography. I agree. Focusing on “nature” runs further risks. There is much about the traditional environmental movement, and environmental historians’ approaches, that reinforces problems that the United States’ urban environments currently face. Environmental justice groups often refer to “the group of ten,” white, male, and upper class residents concerned with preservation of forests and watersheds, while simultaneously largely oblivious to problems in urban environment. By marginalizing African American and other minority groups’ environmental concerns through their subject choices, the environmental movement and environmental historians support structural inequalities causing social and environmental problems.
Only a small portion of humanity, and as far as I can see, people in the US, understand the enormous environmental challenges ahead for humanity. A need for a sober reflection on human-environmental interaction lies ahead. Environmental historians can act as pioneers in this challenge; let us make our contribution to figuring out pressing societal problems. Environmental history has higher purposes. Information and ideas are keys that spur people to action. If I can tell it properly, mine will serve as a small contribution to the complexity of ecology, environmental history, and social issues on a neighbourhood and city scale with implications for national and global scales.
Latest posts by Mike Brennan (see all)
- A New National Park in Maine? New England’s Second Nature and Second Culture - September 2, 2015
- Radkau, Reflections, and the Purpose of Environmental History - May 20, 2015
- A Personal Journey to Understanding Space, Race, and Environmental Justice in Boston - February 23, 2015
- Lewiston, Maine’s Little Canada: Revealing the Cultural Intentions of French-Canadian Migrants - November 26, 2014
- Post-CHESS 2014 Reflections: A Great Time and A Complex Theme - June 19, 2014