Environmental History

What’s in a name?

(W. Shakespeare)

When you start out as a new PhD student, you quickly learn that your degree programme becomes an integral part of your label, the summation of your identity, to those you are introduced to.

When you introduce yourself specifically as a PhD student of “Environmental History” you are often met with responses of intrigue.  By this I do not mean to say that other subjects of study are less worthy of interest, I mean it to say that “Environmental History” is a subject ill-defined to most, and hence has a tendency to perplex, and, when mentioned by name alone, kindles a sort of momentary, mystical charm over the unsuspecting listener.

To back up – I am a PhD student of Environmental History (are you feeling momentarily charmed?).  And, since I’ve been introducing  and identifying myself by this ill-defined term quite a lot of late, I’ve had to think a lot more about what this subject actually is, why I am drawn to it, and how best to explain both to others.

So, let’s start at the roots.

Environment – ‘Environ’ means ‘to surround, encircle, encompass’ + ‘ment’ which means ‘the result or product of an action.’  Taken together, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as ‘the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographic area, especially as affected by human activity.’

The environment can be seen as something separate from man, a distinct category, even as a commodity or resource (economic, aesthetic, recreational) designed to serve the needs of man.  Environment can also take on a ecological character, as something man cannot ever be severed from, is interwoven with.

Today, Environment is also a loaded term – a name which carries with it controversy, political weight, and various hues of emotional connotation.  Terms and phrases like  ‘environmental change,’ ‘environmentalist’, ‘environmentalism’ carry images of very specific narratives depending on who you are speaking with.   All of those carried meanings are not false, but they are also not always true.

History – is unpacked as the ‘relation of incidents,’ ‘story; chronicle,’ and ‘a learning or knowing by inquiry.’

Environmental History – Taken together, “Environmental History” is defined as “the interaction between nature and culture”, and is “positioned between an ‘objective’ scientific history and a ‘moral history’ which is all cultural construction” (Simmons, 2001).  The American Society for Environmental History describes the discipline as one which “increases the understanding of the important role played by the environment throughout human history” while my advisor has defined it as “the study of human interaction with the natural world through time.”  In this way, the ‘environment’ is seen both as an actor of history (the catalyst imposing the change) and also as the recipient of history (as the space for history to be acted out).

The University of St Andrews is one of the few universities which offers advanced degrees in Environmental History, and is also in the nation (Scotland) where the term ‘environment’ was coined.  Scottish philosopher, writer, historian Thomas Carlyle coined the term in 1848 as the translation of a German term which was referring to a Scottish subject (Jessop, 2012).  A man of interdisciplinary interests coined an interdisciplinary term…And (permit me one final nerdy musing in a Tolkien-level of linguistic affection) it feels fitting that I should be studying the history of the subject in the same nation the term was birthed.

In the way of further definitions – although enfolded under the larger discipline of “History,” Environmental History is interdisciplinary at heart.  It includes philosophy, natural sciences, geography, ecology, economics, anthropology, religious studies, and literature…just to name a few.  This interdisciplinary nature is part of what drew me personally to the topic.

I am eclectic (or, more elegantly, ‘interdisciplinary’).  My past academic credentials (and leisurely academic interests) have centered principally upon history, but my recent career interests and general extracurricular passions have been largely centered on the outdoors, I’m fond of reading Divine metaphors in nature, and beyond that I have a dangerously affection for books (especially those centered around the outdoors, wilderness, or nature).  The combination of all these major heart strings is what led me to Environmental History.

While I cannot speak for everyone who pursues a degree in “Environmental History”, for me the draw to Environmental History (and not Environmental Studies, not Environmental Science…) is entangled in my curiosity of the story of the outdoors.   When I have been outside  – most especially in natural, wild environments – I have been continuously curious about the chronicle of that land – in its grand perspective and in its minute (often missed) details.  I want to know what the landscape used to look like, how much it has changed over the years, why it has or has not changed, who traversed the landscape, what meanings it has contained for human culture, etc.  I want to interview that land, investigate the nature, have a long conversation with the landscape.  To me, the environment carries with it so many narratives, so many histories to be told…but, as something inanimate, it is voiceless.

The very exciting thing about being an Environmental Historian is that you get to provide the voiceless a voice.

You will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.

(J. Dickey)



Jessop, Ralph. “Coinage Of The Term Environment: A Word Without Authority And Carlyle’s Displacement Of The Mechanical Metaphor.” Literature Compass 9.11 (2012): 708.

Simmons, I.G. An Environmental History of Great Britain: From 10,000 years ago to the Present, Edinburgh University Press Ltd., 2001.



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