History | Humans, History, and the Environment
W300 | 16914 | O' Bryan

Above class open to undergraduates and Education MA's only
A portion of the above class reserved for majors

While what today we might call spot environmental problems—periodic
drought, local deforestation, modern forms of air pollution in early
industrial centers—certainly affected the cultures and politics of
societies in the past, present generations are the first to live
with a shared understanding of environmental challenges from a
planetary perspective. Moreover, the several human generations alive
today are the first to understand human activity itself as a force
capable of altering on a massive scale the most elemental conditions
of the “natural environment.” Despite contention in some quarters,
it is increasingly accepted that we all now live in a world, no
matter where we call home, in which environmental change and basic
questions of resource sustainability will fundamentally determine
the kinds of futures that human societies, not to mention the plant
and animal systems with which they share the globe, can expect to

This course looks at these new understandings of the natural systems
of our planet and the relations between them and human endeavors by
adopting the perspectives of the discipline of history. This will
be, at the same time, a course in environmental history (which looks
at the mutual interaction between humans and the environmental
systems in which they act) and world history (which is concerned
with interactions among various parts of the world and with large-
scale processes and ideas--migration, for example, or industrialism,
disease, imperialism, or trade--that cut across political
boundaries). Both of these types of history represent newer and
innovative subfields of historical study, emerging and branching out
over the past three decades or so. We will attempt to follow the
call of Donald Worster, one of the early writers of environmental
history, to see environmental history in a global context and world
history in an environmental context. As we do both, we will draw on
interesting examples from many societies, including those of East
Asia (China and Japan), South Asia (India), Europe, South America,
and the United States.

The class will be divided into six topical modules that I have
chosen based on the inherent fascination I think you will find in
each. These six topics will present you with a good sample of the
breadth of approaches now being explored by the field of
environmental history. They also provide broad chronological
coverage, representing issues that are contemporary and those that
are very old indeed (going back even before humans existed at all).
The modules include “Environmental History Before History,” which
covers the role of life in the early planetary “evolution” of
minerals and the role of environmental change in the rise of
humans; “Humans and Other Animals,” which will examine the “lost
wolves of Japan” as a lens onto human understandings and uses of
animals over time; “Environment as Urban Problem,” which focuses on
cities as forces of environmental change and promise; and
the “History of Environmentalism” as a set of ideas and political
movements--which have in part informed the very rise of the field of
environmental history.

Along the way, we will also pay attention to the ways in which the
terms we use shape the sorts of understanding of environmental
history that emerge. Just what does the phrase “environmental
history” encompass exactly and what is its relation to such
apparently similar terms as “ecological history?” What difference
does it make to speak of environmental history as world history or
global history or planetary history?

The course will make use of a wide variety of materials, including
documentary film and other visual evidence, and readings in
environmental history from a variety of global perspectives. For the
class project, students will choose a topic from one of the six
module areas of the class and analyze their environmental historical
issue using visual and written forms of reporting.