Hope and Environmental History: An Introduction

"Carya myristiciformis (Nutmeg Hickory)," Plant Image Library, Flickr

Scroll this

Editor’s note: This is the introductory post to a mini-series on hope and environmental history. Installments will appear twice daily on The Otter~La Loutre over the next three days. To read the series’s subsequent posts, click here.

Nearly a year ago, inspired by still-earlier conversations with Tina Loo about hope and its place in environmental history, I decided to see if any colleagues wanted to discuss this subject at the 2017 meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. Chicago, where the meeting was to be held, seemed like an apposite place to hold such a conversation, given its connection to the work and thought of then-President Barack Obama, author of The Audacity of Hope (2006). It seemed well past time for environmental historians, too, to revisit William Cronon’s remarks about the need to inject some hope into our field. In his 1993 presidential address to the ASEH, Cronon named declensionism a key challenge of environmental history. “There’s something odd about an academic subject that seems to require such an antidote to despair,” he observed. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate their lessons in a more hopeful key.[1]

I wanted to know whether we had fulfilled this call in our books and lectures over the last generation, and, if so, how successful a campaign it had been. Had we fought the good fight against declensionism, and won? Or, given the ever-greater shadow cast by anthropogenic climate change, had environmental historians found it necessary to redouble their efforts – to tell more stories of hope, or different ones from those they had told 5, 10, or 20 years ago? In short, I wanted to take a cue from Wallace Stegner and begin mapping the “geography of hope” in our discipline.[2]

So, as it turned out, did others – so many, indeed, that we wound up holding two roundtables on the subject in Chicago.[3] The first, on “the pedagogy of hope,” explored specific texts, assignments, case studies, and other strategies that participants had used to inspire hopeful conversations in their environmentally-themed courses. You can read Brittany Bayless Fremion’s reflections on this session here and here.

The second roundtable, on which this mini-series centres, articulated hope’s potential value to environmental historical research. As Tina Loo indicated in the abstract for her contribution, hope is a force that drives change, both in the past and present. As people professionally interested in how and why change happens, we must take hope more seriously than we have done to date. We might further consider joining scholars in other disciplines of the social sciences and humanities in exploring hope’s potential not merely as a subject or motive force, but also as an analytical tool or framework.[4]

Drawing upon disparate case studies and approaches, participants in this roundtable began to collaboratively construct “a prospectus for research” for hope and environmental history. Each of us engaged with one or more of the following questions: what is hope? Where should we look for it in the past and present, and what, exactly, are we looking for? Why does it matter, or why is it important to look for it? In this mini-series, we share some of our provisional answers, as well as our reflections upon the connections and conversations that unfolded during the roundtable. We hope readers will chime in with their thoughts as well.


[1] William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review 17, no. 3 (1993): 1-22, especially 1-2.

[2] Wallace Stegner, “Coda: Wilderness Letter,” in The Sound of Mountain Water (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1969). Adrian Howkins has recently reflected on “geographies of despair and hope” in the Arctic and Antarctic. See Howkins, The Polar Regions: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 179-88.

[3] For Josh MacFadyen’s superb reflections on both roundtables, see the final third of this post.

[4] See, for example, Ben Anderson, “Becoming and being hopeful: toward a theory of affect,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24, no. 5 (2006): 733-52; Laura Cameron, “Resources of Hope: Wicken Fen Stories of Anthropogenic Nature,” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 31, no. 1 (2013): 105-18; Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Reconceptualising Human-Nature Relations (London: Routledge, 2016); Hirokazu Miyazaki, The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

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.