Teaching the Environmental History of the Past Ten Years

"Citizens Protest Against Kinder Morgan's Oil Pipeline on Burnaby Mountain" by Mark Klotz. Source: Flickr

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One of the great joys of being an historian in a school of environmental studies (ES) is that I get to teach history to ES undergraduates, with whom I adore working. On the whole, they are bright, politically engaged, mature, sophisticated, and surprisingly good at writing. They live the material in a way that is rare among history undergraduates. Climate change, sustainable food systems, fish farms, pipelines: These are not abstract “issues” but rather deeply felt personal causes and concerns. Every class feels urgent and relevant.

That said, ES students often lack a deep understanding of history. They understand the environmental crises of the day but don’t understand the historical dynamics that brought us to the present moment. Historiography and historicism are virtually unknown.

As a form of redress, I have begun teaching a course in ES called The Environmental History of the Past Ten Years. The idea is to historicize the present by illuminating the historical conditions that make our world possible. It was inspired by a world history course that a former colleague at the University of Alberta used to teach called The History of the Past Ten Years. It always had great enrolment and seemed to attract a whole range of students otherwise ambivalent about history. It was, in a sense, a current events course, but one that used historical methods to genealogize the issues of the day.

I structure my course around five case studies: the now-approved Site C dam project on the Peace River in B.C.; the proposed expansion to Kinder Morgan’s inter-provincial Trans Mountain pipeline system between Alberta and B.C.; the Paris Climate Accord; conflicts over water resources in South America and South Asia; and soil degradation and depletion worldwide. As such, the course covers the root issues of water, development, fossil fuels, climate, and soil. Since all of these topics are current events, I begin the course by forcing my students to read one or more newspapers every day. I suggest Victoria’s Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. For many students, this is a radical act that forces them out of a carefully constructed comfort zone. I can confirm that few millennials read the news any more, and most of it filters through social media, which means one is exposed only to what one’s peer group posts, and even then it’s mostly headlines or commentary. News is decontextualized and swirls aimlessly in the social media vortex.

The class begins every meeting with music. I solicit songs from students, ahead of time, that have themes similar to those of the course. We listen to one song per day as a kind of muse. The playlist includes “Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL,” “Little Rivers Matter, Too,” and “Eyes Wide Open” by Gotye. The songs must come from the last ten years.

The theoretical foundation of the course is built upon three pillars. The first is the basic tenets of environmental history, historiography, and historicism (we read Donald Hughes). The second is the concept of environmental ‘framing’ developed by George Lakoff, which helps to understand the lens through which environmental problems are viewed. The third is an actor-centric analytical framework, which we have adapted from the work of George Hoberg on pipelines.

Every fourth class meeting or so, a pre-determined group of students leads a critical presentation on a case study. The five questions they are tasked with answering are these:

  1. Identify the problem: In what way is the issue an ‘environmental problem’?
  2. What historical conditions made the problem or issue possible?
  3. Who are the main players, institutions, organizations, or constituents involved?
  4. How does it relate to power, justice (or injustice), and equality (or inequality)?
  5. What are the implications (social, political, economic, and/or environmental)?


This method pushes the students to work backwards over several decades; to deracinate; to historicize; to view current events as outcomes of long historical processes. Site C didn’t appear out of thin air in 2010 but is, rather, the culmination of decades of hydroelectric path dependency that traces back to the Two Rivers policy developed by the province of B.C. in the 1950s. Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline must be understood as part of the longstanding development and dependency of fossil fuels, as well as the unique (and uniquely enabling) role played by the National Energy Board. Conversely, the resistance to the proposed pipeline in B.C. cannot be understood without recourse to the province’s history; to settler-indigenous relations; to the failed promises of reconciliation; to the environmental consciousness of the British Columbians.

I was proud when, this past week, my students understood the latest kerfuffle around the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (The Province of B.C., based on recent court rulings, chose to impose additional conditions on the shipping of bitumen through coastal waters, eliciting anger and threats from Alberta’s Rachel Notley, reassurances to the oil industry from Prime Minister Trudeau, and a stormy town-hall meeting in Nanaimo between Trudeau and locals.)

I encourage other instructors across Canada to develop similar courses that historicize current events, whether in ES or history departments. Using environmental history to make sense of the complexities of our world is empowering to students and presents a clear argument for the necessity of our discipline.

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Jeremy Caradonna teaches environmental studies at University of Victoria.

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