Stevenson College Core Coordinator, University of California-Santa Cruz
Environmental history is a well established field in Britain, but until very recently it only has been done self-consciously as landscape history or as historical geography. What distinguishes these earlier variants from what we now consider environmental history, at least from an American perspective, is a lack of an explicit critical stance. Rather than problematizing this human/nature nexus, the general aim has been more descriptive. It has also been a history that acknowledges the human impact upon nature, but has shied away from nature's influence upon humanity. Perhaps this has been in an effort to avoid charges of environmental determinism, but if so it has been done at the expense of recognizing that we, in many important ways, are products of our natural surroundings.
While the differences between historical geography or landscape history and environmental history may seem clear, it is not so clear what distinguishes historical geography from landscape history. Though closely intertwined, these two disciplines have never merged--they both study the land, they both are interdisciplinary, but they are not the same thing. Historical geographers tend to employ evidence from specific sites to develop theories about processes of change, while landscape historians regard sites (or landscapes) as sufficient objects for study in their own right.
In part, landscape history is rooted in the nostalgia of an industrialized society that has lost an identifying connection to the land. This is obvious in one of the earliest landscape histories, Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land (1951). However, W.G. Hoskins’s epic The Making of the English Landscape (1955), is viewed by many as the pioneering work of landscape history. In this text Hoskins sought to trace the "historical evolution of the landscape as we know it" and simultaneously he traced the outlines of a new interdisciplinary field. Hoskins’s influence on this field was furthered by his edited series The Making of the English Landscape, which published dozens of titles between 1955 and 1985. Working under the assumption that "everything is older than we think," Hoskins's goal was to analyze what was on the surface in the present as a product of the many layers beneath. In order to do this one needs to at least have a passing acquaintance with a variety of disciplines. According to Hopkins "One needs to be a botanist, a physical geographer, and a naturalist, as well as an historian."
Another early practitioner of landscape history was M.W. Beresford. Beresford's studies, The Lost Villages of England (1954), and New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales, and Gascony (1967), among others, draw upon medieval records, the observations of contemporary travelers and diarists, and evidence from aerial photographers to develop a complex and compelling account of village foundations and desertions and their environmental context. Beresford's work is more rooted in ecology than Hoskins’s, and is a variant of landscape history that pays more attention to the two-way relationship between the land and human societies. This acknowledgment allowed him to explore in some detail the complexity of village origin and evolution.
More recent works in landscape history include The Tory View of Landscape (1994), by Nigal Everett, and the recently revised Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (1995), and The History of the Countryside (1987) by Oliver Rackham. More a cultural than an environmental history, Everett's book reflects the fragmentation of recent scholarship on the landscape, and the broadening of its purview. For Everett landscape is politics--it is used as a symbol and a moral statement by competing ideologies. This study examines 18th and 19th century Toryism and how it was related to national politics and the landscape. He argues that the Tory view was in opposition to the emerging and ascendant ideology of liberalism. "Intervention in the landscape was understood as making explicit and readable statements about the political history, the political constitution, the political future of England, and about the relations that should exist between its citizens." In this view those who abandoned the landscape to the market were also abandoning the order of civil society to fragmentation. This melding of ideology and landscape is very open to interpretation and Everett's thesis, as well as his use of the term "Tory," has been challenged by reviewers (for instance, see David Watkin's review in Albion 27, no. 2 [Summer 1995]: 323-24).
Oliver Rackham's work is much more grounded in ecological science than Everett's culturally oriented study and in this he is much more representative of landscape history as it has been generally practiced. Rackham is an expert in woodland ecology and is regionally focused on Britain (though he does go further afield). This regional and subject oriented focus is clearly seen in titles such as Hedges and Hedgerow Trees in Britain: A Thousand Years of Agroforestry (1989) and Hayley Wood: Its History and Ecology (1975). Rackham ties the landscape to the culture that created it (in terms of the management of trees and woods, etc.), and does so by melding historical documentation with woodland ecological science. Interdisciplinary works such as this are essential in providing a basis for future environmental histories, and they also serve to instruct readers in ecological science while putting this into a national or regional context the reader can understand.
Allied to landscape history, but differing in goals, historical geography in Britain also seems to be broadening its reach and evolving into something that more closely resembles environmental history as practiced in the United States. In his review of Robin A. Butlin's Historical Geography: Through the Gates of Space and Time, Carville Earle states that Butlin's text "catches a discipline in midstride, between empirical tradition and epistemological innovation." This “epistemological innovation” is a consequence of the pursuit of an interdisciplinary course of study--and is one of the strengths and more fascinating aspects of this sub-field (and of landscape history and environmental history). The goal of historical geography has been to reconstruct past environments and landscapes, but recent scholarship has moved this kind of uncritical reconstruction into the realms of politics, society, and culture. Whereas Earle sees this as the influence of postmodernism, it can also be seen as the emergence of a vibrant variant of British environmental history.
No discussion of historical geography in Britain would be complete without H.C. Darby. His Domesday geographies of England (using the Domesday Book of 1086), and his edited collection A New Historical Geography of England (1973), among other works, have greatly enhanced the understanding of historical geography in Britain. These earlier works are closer to the early variants of landscape history in their anti-modern, anti-urban and anti-industrial bias. However, this reading of Darby’s work is not universal. He is seen by some as an advocate of the “civilized” over the wild. As pointed out by Richard Muir, many of Darby's topics have become unfashionable in an era when environmental science has shown their ecological destructiveness. Titles such as "Clearing the wood" or "Draining the marsh" or "Reclaiming the heath" can be seen as favoring the man-made over the natural. These themes suggest that less intensively exploited environments are "hostile wastelands that should be pacified for the advance of civilization."
Recent scholarship in historical geography is more environmentally sensitive and is firmly grounded in ecological science. The active debate in the last few decades about the purpose and practice of this discipline is clearly seen in a collection of interpretative essays compiled by Alan Baker and Derek Gregory. In Explorations in Historical Geography (1984), the essays relate the discipline of Historical Geography to: the Annales school of history; studies of hegemony, class and power in late Georgian and early Victorian England; class struggle in the early industrial revolution; and the agricultural revolution among other topics.
In addition to works in landscape history and historical geography there have been a number of recent studies that have latched on to the phrase "environmental history" without providing any real rationale for doing so. B.W. Clapp's An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution, claims to be "a foray into environmental history, a branch of historical writing not yet widely practiced in Britain." But Clapp is really an economic historian who is analyzing the costs of pollution through the use of compound interest. This book is indicative of the fuzziness inherent in any interdisciplinary field. According to Clapp the subject areas of environmental history include natural beauty, old buildings, access to the countryside, depletion of a country's natural resources and ways that this depletion can be lessened or prevented. What limits this study is its tendency to separate human history from the environment. There is no interchange between humans and the land, and his discussion of pollution has little to no historical or ecological context and does little to tie this issue into the wider environment that lies beyond the slag heaps.
While Clapp is an primarily an economic historian and only secondarily an environmental historian, I.G. Simmons comes at this discipline from his long career as a historical geographer. Simmons' book, Environmental History: A Concise Introduction (1993), is an ambitious work that provides us with "A History of the World in Only Five Chapters," as well as studies of "The Humanization of the Wilderness," and "Culture, Time and Environment." Works such as this one, or classics in landscape history like W.G. Hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape, contain much valuable information and are important works in and of themselves in detailing how humans have transformed the globe. As Simmons points out, "The task of this narrative is to see how human communities and natural changes together have produced today's variegations." Though interaction is mentioned, the action is mainly going in one direction. This is not to argue that this is not a valuable and useful work. It is. The question is what makes it an "environmental history" as opposed to a "landscape history" or a “historical geography?”
The first European workshop in environmental history was held in 1988. This workshop gave rise to the publication of The Silent Countdown: Essays in European Environmental History (1990), edited Peter Brimblecombe and Christian Pfister. The thematic divisions of this collection included "Urban and Industrial Impacts," which is one of the main foci of British environmental history as it has been practiced in the last two decades. The focus on impacts can also be seen as "Pollution History," and with respect to air pollution this is very well represented by the work of Peter Brimblecombe. His essay in this collection, "Air Pollution in York 1850-1900," is an excellent example of this genre. His early works in the journal Atmospheric Environment, such as "London Air Pollution" (11, 1977), and "Nineteenth Century Black Scottish Showers" (20, 1986), were pioneering works in terms of the integration of modern climactic studies with historic archival research. More significantly his book, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times (1987), has influenced many subsequent environmental historians.
However important the study of air pollution has been, the main foci for pollution histories in Britain have been upon water pollution. Research on water pollution has drawn extensively from the sanitation and public health movement associated with Edwin Chadwick in the mid to late19th century. Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain has been richly reinterpreted through the lens of modern science. As Dale Porter has pointed out, "New approaches to epidemiology, demography, and the social history of science and medicine have enriched our understanding of how different groups . . . experienced and defined disease and sanitation." Among the most important and environmentally relevant of these histories are A.S. Wohl's Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain (1983); Bill Luckin's Pollution and Control: A Social History of the Thames in the 19th Century (1986); and Lawrence Breeze's The British Experience with River Pollution, 1865-1876 (1993).
Moving beyond a narrowly defined "Pollution History" towards a more broadly conceived "Environmental History," Dale Porter's study, The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London (1998), is one of the best British Environmental Histories written to date. By viewing technology as an interface between a community and its environment Porter has found an excellent means of exploring the two-way interactions between the environment and humanity. This text takes advantage of the complex relationship between London and the Thames River, and recognizes that this is no simple contrast between nature and civilization. He goes beyond a "Pollution History" approach to show that "both the river and the metropolis have blended natural functions with organized human enterprises for over a thousand years."
The interplay between nature, and the human communities that impose themselves upon it, is central to this study. Even though this is largely a constructed environment, Porter recognizes that it "gave Londoners a new vision of themselves and their community. Their history [that of the Main Drainage and the Thames Embankment], consequently, opens a window into significant if unfamiliar aspects of Victorian society and its environment." Rather than simply listing how this embankment changed the ecology, or led to further river pollution, Porter sees it as an icon for Victorian ideas and practices regarding their society, technology and environment. This leads him to explore the complex interactions between urban and riverine; attitudes toward dirt, disease, and death; nuances of class distinctions; and an emerging public identity. As in most of the environmental histories written on Britain, Porter shows how humanity has shaped the landscape, but more importantly he makes explicit the central role that the landscape has played in shaping, influencing, and changing culture.
Perhaps the crucial difference between this book and those discussed above is the use and study of technology. This enables Porter to delineate how public works and the natural environment interact in complex ways. Porter argues that technology is a mediator between cultural values, social groups, and institutions on the one hand, and the natural environment on the other. Central to this study, and I would argue to a successful European variant of environmental history, is its treatment of the environment as a relatively autonomous source of conditions and forces that act upon society and its physical surroundings. This is key because in the very humanized European landscape we cannot escape the fact that the environment is a product of human intervention--but this does not mean that is has lost its power to adapt to our interventions or to influence us.
Somewhere on the other side of “pollution history” and Porter’s work is the work of T.C. Smout. Smout has edited some very interesting collections of essays that are fine entry points to a variety of ecological and historical topics relating to Scotland. Titles such as Scotland Since Prehistory: Natural Change and Human Impact (1993), The History of Soils and Field Systems (1994, edited with S. Foster), Scottish Woodland History (1997), and Rothiemurchus: Nature and People on a Highland Estate, 1500–2000 (1999, with R.A. Lambert, and all four published by Scottish Cultural Press), are excellent reference works and starting points for an understanding of the landscape history and ecology of Scotland. As Smout points out in his book Nature Contested: Environmental History in Scotland and Northern England since 1600 (2000), he is focused on the countryside and only incidentally involves the town. The ecologically oriented approach of this text has more in common with landscape history as practiced by Oliver Rackham, than with other varieties. However, this text also explores the conservation history, the attitudes towards and views of nature unique to this area, and it explicitly acknowledges our “own incontestable naturalness” and our “total dependence on the natural systems of the globe.” In this sense this is very much an environmental history, and perhaps even more so than generally practiced in the U.S. due to its thorough integration and understanding of ecology.
The influences of nature upon humanity, and how we conceive ideas of "nature," have also been the sources of some first-rate environmental histories in Britain. A good place to start is Gilbert White, whose The Natural History of Selborne (1778), is a key text for British naturalists (perhaps analogous to Thoreau's Walden Pond within U.S. Environmental History). Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore (1967), and Donald Worster's Nature's Economy (1977), also explore the roots of our western conceptions of nature and therefore touch upon Britain's influence in this area. Another broadly conceived and detailed account along these lines is Keith Thomas's Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (1983).
Allied with the naturalists, but more grounded in the realm of practice, have been studies of the "Outdoor Movement" and of "Nature Conservation" in Britain. One of the first, and perhaps the best, of these studies is John Sheail’s Nature in Trust: The History of Nature Conservation in Britain (1976). Sheail traces the roots of the modern conservation movement back to the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the nineteenth century, and takes us through the post-war reconstruction to the pressing initiatives of the 1970s. His 1998 publication Nature Conservation in Britain: The Formative Years is more focused on the creation of the Nature Conservancy in Britain and its influence on the burgeoning environmental movement in the second half of the twentieth century. In A Claim on the Countryside: A History of the British Outdoor Movement (1997), Harvey Taylor explores the roots of this "open-air" interest as shaped by the roughly parallel processes of industrialization and urbanization. In A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (1997, 2nd ed.), David Evans covers much of the same ground as Taylor, but then takes it past the Second World War all the way to the 1990s. Evans is not only interested in the roots of this movement; he is also concerned with why such a well-established and large movement has had such limited success.
By no means an exhaustive survey, this short essay will give its readers some context with respect to the evolving field of British environmental history, as well as point them to some of the key texts. Rooted in landscape history and historical geography, environmental history in Britain has a storied past and a wealth of knowledge to lean upon. The more complex approaches adopted over the last two decades in both of these foundation disciplines will help to cement this interdisciplinary field into British historical scholarship as a whole. Key to this is the recognition of the two-way interaction between nature and society, or as Porter casts it, between culture and the environment via our technologies. Too often this interaction is recognized, but not detailed, or is unidirectional. In a highly humanized environment acknowledgment of this dialectic is not only necessary, but it is essential to this discipline's success.
. Richard Muir, "Geography and the History of Landscape," The Geographical Journal 164. 2 (July 1998): 148.
. W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977 ed.), pp. 1, 19.
. Nigal Everett, The Tory View of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p 7.
. Carville Earle, "Historical geography in extremis? Splitting personalities on the postmodern turn," Journal of Historical Geography 21.4 (1995): 455.
. Muir, p. 149.
. B.W. Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (Longman: London, 1994), pp. xi, 106.
. I.G. Simmons, Environmental History: A Concise Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), pp. 1, 49, 124.
. Dale Porter, The Thames Embankment (University of Akron Press, 1998), p. 14.
. Porter, p. 4.
. Porter, pp. 4, 5.
. Porter, pp. 10-11.
. T.C. Smout, Nature Contested: Environmental History in Scotland and Northern England since 1600 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 2.
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