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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It’s been great to see this conference through your eyes, Sean. Would be it correct to say that you expected to find more congruence between the two fields than you in fact did? If so, I wonder if this was a function of your coming from a country where the two fields overlap considerably more than in Britain.
Comparing the two national contexts reveals some interesting differences in scholarly strengths and weaknesses, I think. If we imagine a triangle with the interlinked themes of geography, science, and environment arranged around the central topic of history (because we’re historians, after all), I’d say that the weakest point in Britain would be environment. In Canada, it would be science.
I’d love to see environmental historians and historical geographers in Canada engage more with insights from the history of science and STS (science and technology studies). I think this is beginning to happen, what with The Otter’s series on science and environment earlier this year, and the presence of quite a few environmental historians at that York conference on science, technology and the modern back in April. History of science is still a small, newish field in Canada. Canadian environmental historians may not always realize it, but much of their research is both relevant and valuable to historians of science in this country as well.
I think my expectations were very-much shaped by my experience with historical geography in Canada, particularly at UBC where the geography department is so closely connected to the history department. I guess I was responded to a perspective that is perhaps common among North American environmental historians who view the two fields as similar. This is only partially true, of course. As this conference showed, there is much more to historical geography than just the environment.
Your remarks about the field in Britain are very interesting and I think they are accurate. There was a strong showing of papers in the field of history of science. A lot of it reminded me of the arguments in the special series of posts you edited for The Otter recently, especially Stephen Bocking’s first piece in that series.