Putting the Past in its Place: Teaching Environmental History in the Age of the Anthropocene

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal: Innovative Modules, Teaching Portal: Main Blog | 0 comments

In this post, Karen Jones, Professor of Environmental and Cultural History at the University of Kent, provides a brief methodological introduction to the field of environmental history, together with a short reflection on teaching innovation and practice. She draws upon her own experience designing and running a new and innovative second-year undergraduate course at the University of Kent entitled ‘Cholera to Climate Change: Environment and Society in Modern Britain.’


“A historian who has decided to place history within its context, and to make sense, will have to become an environmental historian.”
 – J. Donald Hughes.

What is Environmental History?

Environmental history focuses on the study of interactions between humans and the rest of the natural world over time. As a discipline, it has a variety of antecedents: early twentieth-century scholars of the frontier in the United States, the French Annales tradition, as well as the areas of urban and agricultural history, historical geography, ecology and anthropology.  Its formal beginnings, however, came with the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s, which prompted an attention among first-generation scholars to questions of industrial transformation and environmental crisis, conservation and the roots of a modern ecological consciousness. Since then, the field has matured into a sophisticated canon that concerns itself both with the physical transformation of material ground and the imaginative constructs we build around such ideas as ‘wilderness.’  Initially strongest in the United States, the focus of geographical attention has grown to incorporate a global stage and to take in a range of salient issues including environmental racism, gender politics, human interactions with other species, resource relationships and climatological conditions, eco-cultural networks and patterns of globalization.


Activism in the classroom

In a 2018 article for History and Theory, Dipesh Chakrabarty notes that “a time has come when the geological and planetary press in on our everyday consciousness.” Concerns over a warming planet, plastic pollution, species extinction, and extreme weather events dominate today’s global headlines. In this age of the Anthropocene – an epoch marked by the extraordinary capacity of humans to transform the biotic landscape – an attention to deconstructing human-environmental relations in the past seems ever more relevant to bring into the classroom.

This aspect to environmental history opens a few useful doors in a teaching context. Firstly, and more importantly, it invokes a dialogue with contemporary issues that are prominent in the minds of many students. Issues around climate change, ‘greenwashing’ in the media or the activist politics of Extinction Rebellion are those which many feel passionately about and all have vibrant and important historical ‘tails’ to explore. Secondly, it raises among practitioners the opportunity to embed their research and teaching in what Rebecca Hayes Mellem calls “the urgency and possibilities of activist scholarship.” Facilitating a forum in which we can discuss ideas around ecological responsibility and sustainable practice seems a valuable exercise for the continued vibrancy of our profession and for our engagement with the planet.

In my experience as a university teacher, environmental history offers a number of distinct opportunities on a practical and methodological level. As noted above, environmental issues prove a useful way to ignite the ‘fire’ of student interest. All of us tend to use presentist ‘hooks’ to build engagement at the start of a class, and encouraging students to see the critical environmental issues of the early twenty-first century in a historical context is a powerful and rewarding vocation. This, I’ve found, has often made for a classroom experience that is dynamic, passionate and engaged. The fact that the field usefully intersections with other historical areas – histories of health and medicine; social values, activism and gender; ethnicity, colonialism and decolonizing initiatives – can also help make students feel ‘at home’ in a new area which few have studied before. Moreover, the prospect of adding an ‘earth’s eye’ perspective on the historical canon ably connects to discussions around how to write non-anthropocentric history and can be a productive route to explore more familiar methodological tensions around causality, agency and subjectivity. For engaged students looking for dissertations and primary research-led projects, meanwhile, there are many stones left to be turned.


Innovation and Employability

The teaching of environmental history can bring valuable aspects, too, in terms of teaching innovation and employability angles. In thinking of contemporary soundbites and debates, it is comparatively easy to devise novel assessment options that stretch beyond the standard essay format. Thinking more philosophically, it also invites a real opportunity to generate a culture of self-reflectivity among historian apprentices.

Image caption: A London Board of Health hunting after cases like cholera. The image depicts men in suits and top hats searching in buildings, hay piles and drains in the hunt for cholera.

Credit: A London Board of Health hunting after cases like a cholera. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).


How can historians make positive interventions on the salient questions that occupy our contemporary world? This is a provocation that forms the conceptual skeleton of my module ‘From Cholera to Climate Change: Environment and Society in Modern Britain,’ a course which invites second-year undergraduates to rethink the last two hundred years of British history through an environmental lens, taking in such issues as the carboniferous city, public health and city parks, nuclear and chemical contamination, and the rise of environmental movements. The module is 100% coursework assessed and, alongside a standard essay, tests employability and historical skills with a short-deadline ‘think piece’, a reflective oral presentation (i.e. on content and their approach to the question); a popular history blog and an end of term conference through which students ponder the historian’s place in this climate emergency through individual presentations and a panel discussion.



Turning to questions of sustainability (and here I want to reference the excellent blog from Toby Green and Simon Sleight on the RHS blog site), the teaching of environmental history provides an excellent space in which to think about the mechanics of practise and practice, notably how we think about consumption in the classroom. In the module I mention above, we made a commitment to work towards a ‘positively paperless’ initiative, something that generated new momentum and innovations in seminar activities from using digital forums to share material to reflecting as a group on a set of sources projected on screen. This intention brought a new flexibility to class-time and allowed us to move away from tried and tested – but sometimes overused – exercises (to paraphrase one student ‘the routine trudge through the core readings’). I am contemplating the idea of a walking seminar (well suited to the week on Kinder Scout and rights to roam) in order to fully attune to the idea of a history grounded in place.

As Donald Worster said back in his ground-breaking essay opener to The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (1989): “to appreciate those forces we must now and then get out of parliamentary chambers, out of birthing rooms and factories…get out of doors altogether, and ramble into fields, woods, and the open air. It is time we bought a good set of walking shoes, and we cannot avoid getting some mud on them.”

Introductory Readings

Karen Jones is Professor of Environmental and Cultural History at the University of Kent, where she works on landscape, ideas and species encounters across a global geography and has published extensively on environmental and US history, including Epiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West (2015) and Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane (2020). She can be followed on Twitter at @drkarenjones.



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