Environmental History is a science that studies all the life and activities of human societies in the past, and focuses on the interactions they had with their environment. Environment history does not really have a “founding father”, as can be the case for a particular discipline of human science. It is a cross-cutting approach practiced by geographers, ecologists and other researchers interested in the evolution of terrestrial environments.
For a long time, research, influenced by an economic and social approach, focused on the history of social groups (workers, the bourgeoisie, peasants, etc.), without really studying the environmental consequences of the evolution of productive activities, such as the industrialization of the 19th century. A few attempts to write a story “without people”, i.e. natural phenomena for themselves, such as climate change, have been talked about but have not been well received. As a consequence, it is only in the 50s of the last Century that scientific research started showing real interest in environmental studies.
Another factor we may add is represented by complementary approaches to understand the past of societies in relation to the environment. Thus, developments in archaeobotany, the study of pollens and traces of charcoal, and environment analysis techniques in general have made it possible to fill gaps in written documentation and to constitute important milestones for the proto-historic, ancient and even medieval periods. For a more recent period, the contribution of aerial photography analyses and the use of geographical information systems is an asset for studying the environmental impacts of major developments in the second half of the 20th century.
People and the environment
The major fields of environment history first intersected the main types of environments, traditionally studied by geography. The first environment to have been the subject of a specific research group was that of forestsand wetlands. For example, the French forest history group created in the early 1980s immediately brought together historians, geographers, silviculturists and managers. The approaches have been very different, from the history of wood use – used by metallurgy until the 19th century – to that of media representations or the management of catastrophic episodes, of which the 1999 storm is one of the most recent manifestations on French territory.
The urban phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century, such as urban sprawl and peri-urbanization, is also the subject of a historical study that takes into account their consequences on the environment in the entire world. One of the clearer examples of that might be the Indian city of Delhi which occupied 13 times more space in 1990 than in 1900.
The urban phenomenon is in fact the subject of a paradox which goes back centuries, from Rousseau to the Age of Enlightenment to essayists in the 1970s. From the 1960s onwards, trade unionists began to develop the notion of a “living environment”, reducing the gap between the factory and its environment, which had been established since the beginning of industrialisation in order not to hinder entrepreneurial growth. In other words, what happens inside the company, where dangerous products are potentially handled, is no longer disconnected from the neighbourhood, where the employees’ families and friends live.
Scientists at the Natural History Museum, such as Roger Heim, one of the founders in 1948 of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), warned against the “degradation of nature” as early as the 1950s.
Animals have been the subject of an ancient attempt at “zoo-history” by the medieval specialist Robert Delort, who had encountered in his research the economic and material role they played in the life of societies – through the fur trade, for example.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, after much archaeozoological work on the bone remains found during excavations, other approaches such as Harriet Ritvo’s have focused on the significant change in the relationship between human beings and animals, particularly in the industrial age.
The areas and conditions in which animals are treated have been a primary focus of research, particularly around zoos that were born in major capitals during the industrial age. Moreover, more recently, the objective of producing “animal biographies” has begun to attract the attention of historians and publishers.
A bit of summing up
- The environment is a political and social concern that has developed since the 1970s, often using a projection into the future to ward off certain threats or restore certain ecosystems that are victims of human lifestyles.
- Since the invention of agriculture and then of the urban life, the relations between societies and the environment have a rich history, which is increasingly known because of the attraction of new generations of historians to this field of research.
- The political, cultural and social dimensions of the desire to protect the environment since the 19th century are well known and have revealed that industrialisation and urbanisation have never been accepted with open arms.