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Introduction: Reading and Using the Forum on the Environment in World History

Micah S. Muscolino


     Environmental history explores relationships between human societies and the rest of nature on which they depend. It is a field of inquiry that looks at the interaction between humans and the natural environment, assessing how the earth's environments have conditioned human history and how human action has affected ecological relationships. Environmental historians insist that nature is not merely a backdrop to human events. Rather, the natural world evolves in its own right, both of its own accord and due to human actions. In short, environmental historians strive to write history "as if nature existed."1

     To fully document anthropogenic (human generated) and non-anthropogenic environmental change, environmental historians have often employed local perspectives. But as environmental issues have assumed a global character since the late twentieth century, the perspective of environmental historians has expanded to the world as a whole. Because so many ecological processes have a global scope, the global of scale analysis has taken on greater importance for environmental historians. Earlier local studies have thus laid the foundation for global environmental history.

     This global perspective is a point of affinity between environmental historians and world historians. Environmental history and world history transcend accepted spatial boundaries and question the nation-state as the primary unit of historical analysis. But despite this commonality, many world historians—in their scholarship as well as in the classroom—overlook the importance of human interactions with the environment as a central theme in world history.

     Despite its significance, writing and teaching global environmental history poses practical difficulties. Since environmental historians with global aspirations have to cover the entire world since the dawn of human history (or even earlier times), none can hope to master all the relevant information. Historians must strike a balance between detailed descriptions of local environmental trends and coverage of global processes that have shaped environmental change.2

     Looking at a diverse array of world regions, the contributors to this forum on environmental history employ different strategies to negotiate between these global and local perspectives. Their articles provide a small sampling of the range of approaches that make up the field of environmental history.

     The first two essays consist of tightly focused environmental histories based on intensive archival research. Examining Bolivia's oil industry from the 1920s–1950s, Stephen Cote discusses how extraction of oil from Bolivia's eastern lowlands reshaped natural and cultural landscapes in this Andean country. The petroleum industry constructed new spaces, redirected state development priorities, defined regions, incited international conflict, and fueled revolution.

     Although Bolivia is his primary concern, Cote's article has larger implications. The case of Bolivia illustrates the transition to hydrocarbon-based energy regimes that set the modern world apart from earlier historical epochs, as well as the transition's ecological consequences. In this way, Cote's piece fits with the increasingly influential scheme defining periods of world history in terms of patterns of energy use. According to this periodization, the modern age began around 1800 with the shift from solar energy regimes to exploitation of energy stored in fossil fuels.3

     Tait Keller's contribution transports us from South America to Europe, and from the national to the regional scale of analysis. Keller's beautifully written study of the Alps during the late nineteenth and twentieth century employs what he terms a "vertical approach" that examines transnational regions – like the Alps – where global forces converge and exchanges occur. This perspective on environmental history, as Keller makes abundantly clear, challenges old paradigms of modernization based on the nation-state. Exploring transitions analogous to those investigated in Cote's essay, Keller details how the global forces of modernity that drove the emergence of Alpine tourism transformed mountain economies and landscapes.

     In contrast to the first two research articles, Sam White presents a historiographical overview of the rapidly expanding and extremely important field of Middle East environmental history. In this valuable contribution, White contends that the environmental approach to Middle Eastern history apparent in recent scholarship highlights commonalities and continuities that establish the Middle East region as a meaningful unit of historical analysis. In particular, the region's arid, highly variable climate posed recurring challenges for all Middle Eastern states, and their success depended upon control and distribution of natural resources. As White explains, environmental history opens up ways of integrating the Middle East into world history, rather than setting it apart as a site of religious and ethnic conflict. 

     The greatest spatial and temporal breadth comes in Richard Tucker's article connecting two pervasive and distinctive dimensions of the human experience – warfare and transformation of the natural environment. Tucker masterfully surveys the historiography of war and the environment, which has recently emerged as a vibrant area of inquiry among environmental historians. By demonstrating the ecological consequences of mass conflict in all their complexity, Tucker's article sketches out the framework for a comprehensive global environmental history of warfare. 

     In terms of pedagogy, all the articles in this forum on environmental history have potential classroom applications for teachers of world history.

     For example, Cote's research could be used to enliven classroom discussions on the global transition to fossil-fueled energy regimes. Teachers might have students analyze the challenge of nation-building in territories with diverse environments by identifying the issues in developing Bolivia's oil industry. Students might also compare the challenges identified in the Bolivian example to case studies of the development of oil production drawn from another countries.

     Keller's vivid history of the transnational world of the Alps provides another opportunity to consider the far-reaching ecological consequences of modernity. Students can use the case study of the Alps as a model for applying global processes of environmental transformation as a way of thinking about tourism in the modern period. Students can compare the "modernization" of the Alps with other more familiar examples of natural environments that have been altered for human consumption (e.g. local, state, or national parks). Furthermore, students could analyze the creation of national parks or nature reserves in Africa, Latin America, or Oceania, following Keller's lead in asking how use of these spaces reflected social hierarchies and prejudices.  

      White's contribution enables teachers to bring an environmental perspective to discussions of the Middle East. Students might trace major environmental changes in the Middle East on a timeline, annotating the changes with brief descriptions at each relevant point on the timeline and indicating the continuities as a separate parallel timeline.

     After reading Tucker's piece on war and the environment, students could map the effects of warfare on the environment by annotating a topographical map of the world or maps of regions discussed in the essay. Students could then write a brief summary of the major continuities and changes in the environmental effects caused by the examples of warfare identified in Tucker's article. Students should identify both destruction of ecosystems by invading armies as well as restoration of ecological diversity as human populations migrated away from areas of conflict. 

     Taken as a whole, the articles in this forum should inspire world history teachers to find new ways of bringing environmental topics into the classroom, giving their students a historical perspective on today's global environmental issues.

Micah S. Muscolino is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. His area of expertise is the environmental history of late imperial and modern China. He teaches undergraduate courses on Global Environmental History, Chinese Environmental History, and the Pacific World and can be reached at


1 J.R. McNeill, Jose Augusto Padua, and Mahesh Rangarajan, eds. Environmental History: As if Nature Existed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 For a valuable review of several important recent global environmental histories, see Robert B. Marks, "World Environmental History: Nature, Modernity, and Power," Radical History Review 107 (Spring 2010), 209–224.

3 Compelling examples of histories that follow this periodization are found in Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz, eds. The Environment and World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).


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