The intersections between historical geography and environmental history are numerous, but the two fields are certainly not synonymous. This fact struck me almost immediately as I thumbed through the program for the 2015 International Conference of Historical Geographers. The range of topics went far beyond what one might find on the program at the ASEH or ESEH meetings. Immigration history, economic history, social history, labour history, and much more are all here. Many of the papers had very little engagement with human-nature relations while many others fit neatly in the realm of environmental history.
For example, I started the conference at a panel featuring Alexi Baker’s paper on the historical geography of scientific instruments in early modern London. She mapped the location of instrument shops in the city to show the geography of an emerging scientific community. Another paper on that panel tracked the development and spread of the book as a geographic phenomenon. Anne Peale gave the last paper in the session on the role of a particular book publisher in shaping and disseminating geographical knowledge through the publication of exploration narratives. None of these papers confronted the historical relationships between people and the rest of nature, the core concern of environmental history.
On the other hand, a panel on waste, pollution, and toxicity was firmly in the field of environmental historical geography. Graham Mooney’s paper on Baltimore’s “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” a train loaded with sludge that became a point of national controversy as it travelled through the US South in search of a place to dump the unwanted waste, covered direct concerns of environmental history. Jerry Jessee showed how the waste product of nuclear bombs, radioactive fallout, shaped the emergence of an “ecosphere” concept in ecological science. And Arn Keeling discussed the “slow violence” of the Giant Mine’s leathal arsenic waste while Bob Wilson painted a lovely picture of ecological decline on Onondaga Lake.
The final keynote address showed the strengths of historical geography in the history of science. Simon Shaffer provided a wide-ranging look at the historical geography of astronomy in the British Empire in the realms of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was a wonderful demonstration of the diversity and breadth of possible research in the field of historical geography.
With the singular committment to the idea that the past can be understood through an examination of spatial relationships, historical geography is indeed a capacious tent, perhaps moreso than enviornmental history. While the two fields are closely related, this conference has underlined the importance of not utterly conflating the two. Historical geography is environmental, but it is not necessarily environmental history.
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