Like many academics scattered around the globe, part of my daily routine is to read the e-mails emanating from the American Society for Environmental History. Clearly, in the United States, at least, environmental history is thriving as a sophisticated multi-disciplinary study.
This daily email diet also makes me conscious that while environmental history is alive in Australia, it is not as well nourished and is not in such good health. As a teaching area environmental history has developed slowly and while subjects which we would recognise as environmental history are being taught, and research is being undertaken, very little is located our History departments or called environmental history.
To the best of my knowledge, in only one other Australian university is there an undergraduate subject in Australian environmental history, though there are some courses that have a broader context. I am only aware of a tiny number of environmental history postgraduates in History departments.
A quick survey of the references in the reading guides for my own Australian environmental history undergraduate subject indicates that there would not be one work in ten which has been written by a person who could described as essentially an historian. The vast majority emanates from a broad range of discipline and multi-disciplinary bases.
In some respects that is one of the great strengths of environmental history - it interweaves a richness of disciplines, expertise and perspectives. That is part of its intellectual appeal and pragmatic value.
But in other respects it is a source of concern because it demonstrates the low level of attention that the environment receives from Australian historians in their writing and teaching.
The absence of specific historical studies informed by an environmental history perspective is compounded by there being insufficient attention to the environment in broader Australian historical studies. Generally, there is little more than token recognition that historically the environment was a factor in both Aboriginal and European cultures and economies.
This is surprising in a country in which the environment is such an ever-present factor. We occupy a large land in which distance and remoteness have shaped human lives. We have tried to reproduce a European culture and agriculture in the driest continent, much of which has exceptionally low fertility. As a result enormous areas of Australia are degraded or salinated, and many of our few rivers have been truncated and fouled. We have a unique flora and fauna much of which has been either extincted or driven close to it.
And yet all we have tended to see in our histories has been some factoring in of the environment as an aspect of cultural determinism, notably distance, the bush and climate, and their role in shaping personal character and national identity. To some extent this is an off-shoot of the Turner frontier thesis in the U.S.
Why have Australian historians been so tardy? Why do we not yet have the analyses like those of David Lowenthal, Alfred Crosby, Donald Worster, Roderick Nash, William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant? - to name just a few of the more obvious.
I will address that question later. First, I should not like to give the impression that in Australia there is no historical or contemporary environmental consciousness. I will give a quick outline of where matters stand, and then look for some explanations for the absence of historians.
As all of you would be aware, the emergence of environmental history, perhaps especially in European settler societies, has been part of an historiographical 'revolution' which in the last three decades has seen a considerable broadening of areas of interest in history and new approaches to how it is conceptualised.
Environmental history emerged in parallel with gender and race history. In each case a mounting sense of community concern since the 1960s resulted in a focussing of attention on the historical antecedents of a current issue, and this has generated a new area of historical study.
A desire to protect and preserve the environment was not new to post World War II, or even to this century. But clearly there has been mounting environmental consciousness since World War II, and particularly since the 1960s, because of the increasing rapidity with which humans are destroying the planet.
In this as so many other ways Australians have tended to be derivative, gradually catching on to what was being said and written overseas, particularly in North America and Britain. There, a substantial volume of literature began to appear from the late 1950s into the 1970s that drew attention to the way humans were abusing the planet, coming from such authors as Vance Packard, Paul and Ann Erlich, Rachel Carson and Gordon Ratray Taylor.
Some Australians also read the emerging literature which advocated the need for a new ethic if humans and the planet were to survive - to be ecocentric rather than anthropocentric - from such authors as John Passmore, Jeremy Swift, and David Suzuki .
These concerns stimulated a small body of 'environmental literature' in Australia. Probably by chance, 1966 was an important year as it saw the publication of three major works which drew attention to the alarming degradation of our continent. None was by an historian, and all books have graphic titles. They are:
Jock Marshall, The Great Extermination: A Guide to Anglo-Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste. Marshall was a zoologist.
Vincent Serventy, A Continent in Danger. Serventy is a naturalist
Alan Moorehead, The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific 1767-1840. Moorhead is a writer/novelist.
Another interesting contribution in the 1969 was from Eric Rolls, They All Ran Wild, The Story of Pests on the Land in Australia. Rolls was a farmer.
Jumping ahead a little, a book which has been described as having a significant impact was Charles Birch, Confronting the Future, 1975. While not gaining wide popular readership appears to have received some attention among some of political leaders and opinion makers.
These were part of a small body of literature that began to reassess the European occupation of Australia and it interaction with the natural environment. Since then, the flow has increased, and so has the proportion stemming from the academy.
In the academic sphere much of the early work that we would see as falling within the gambit of environmental history was undertaken by geographers. Of some significance were four imports, three of whom were transients - D.W. Meinig (On the Margins of the Good Earth), Michael Williams (The Making of the South Australian Landscape), and R.L. Heathcote (Back of Bourke). Incidentally, they established a valuable tradition of transients that was continued in the 1990s by Stephen Pyne with his fire history of Australia.
The other imported geographer in the 1960s was Joe Powell who has stayed and has made an invaluable contribution to the study of Australian environmental history.
I do not have time to survey the volume and nature of Australian environmental history produced since the 1970s, but it is worth noting that the names which in the late 1990s became probably best known for their writing environmental history were Tim Flannery, a mammologist, and Eric Rolls, by then a retired farmer.
But there have been historians of note including Keith Hancock to whom I will return; Geoffrey Bolton who pioneered undergraduate teaching and wrote the first general environmental history; and Tom Griffiths, who is probably the best known environmental historian in the academic arena, especially for his two books, Secrets of the Forest (1993) and Hunters and Collectors (1996).
But generally among most Australian historians there has been little interest in such matters as the impact on environment of economic activity and ecological imperialism on the environment, perhaps largely because of continuing domination of a traditional interpretation of Australian history.
The very soil suffered from the ruthlessness of the invaders. The most precious possessions of Australia are her rivers, whose even flow is protected by the forests which stand around their mountain sources and the trees which line the banks. The invaders hated trees. The early governors forbade them to clear the river banks, but these prohibitions were soon forgotten, and in the second half of the nineteenth century tree-murder by ring-barking devastated the country on a gigantic scale... The greed of the pioneers caused them to devastate hundreds of thousands of acres of forest-land which they could not hope to till or to graze effectively. To punish their folly the land brought forth for them bracken and poor scrub and other rubbish. They ruined valuable timber to make a few wretched farms, but this was not the end of their folly. Placid low-banked rivers frequently gave place to water-channels which in rainy weather whirl along useless muddy waters threatening ruin to good alluvial lands, and which in time of drought parch into hard, cracked mud...
The advent of the white man with his ready-made civilisation has violently disturbed the delicate balance of nature established for centuries in the most isolated of continents. The Englishman eats out the Aborigine. English trout displace the native black-fish from mountain streams. And, to compensate for the rapid extinction of the native bear... Australia has been presented with the rabbit... It has made new deserts...
Australia has suffered too much from the greed or ignorance of her invaders.
Keith Hancock, Australia, 1930, pp.30-31
I have often shown this passage to groups and asked them to identify its source and period. No-one yet has recognised these as the words of one of Australia's greatest historians, Sir Keith Hancock, which were published as long ago as 1930.
The passage provides an illustration of some of my remarks, and a counterpoint to others.
Historians, like the wider community, have by and large had a particular perspective of Australia, its history, and the rights and role of Europeans within it. Putting it fairly simplistically, the conventional view of Australian history was:
The British in the eighteenth century discovered an essentially open and untouched land. The relatively small number of so-called 'stone-age', nomadic inhabitants were primitives who did not effectively occupy the land. They did not cultivate it, they did not build permanent homes, they did not graze animals, they did not delineate lines of property with fences, and they did not have a clear hierarchical form of government. Therefore, to the British the land was terra nullius - open or unoccupied land - and so it was legitimate for the British to occupy the continent.
By contrast, the traditional view of post-invasion history was a Whig interpretation. It was celebratory history, providing a validation for our past, praising the struggles of the pioneers who with blood sweat and tears conquered nature in a large, alien and hostile land and developed its resources.
Through effective occupation these pioneers began to make the wilderness productive, as God wished. The brave and resourceful pioneers mastered a harsh and hostile land, and turned wasteland into wealth. Theirs was a story of free enterprise, of entrepreneurial spirit, of brave and hard working men (and sometimes their wives) creating a new nation, a new Britannia but with advanced democratic institutions and greater socio-economic equity. Even among left-leaning historians, Australian history was an heroic history of class struggle by white men in which women, Aborigines and the environment were merely part of the backdrop.
Much of the way we conceptualised our history was focussed on the evolving democratic process, the wealth created by the pastoral industry and the gold rushes, the stimulus to agriculture from the selection acts, and the development of a national identity and ethos which focussed upon the tall, lean bronzed bushman who came to epitomise the distinctive Australian.
In essence, until 1970s and even largely since, the environment has been ignored by the vast majority of Australian historians except insofar as it was seen as a platform for human activity and a source of raw materials, production and wealth.
However, as cited above, as long ago 1930 Sir Keith Hancock had 'discovered' the environment in the sense that he drew attention to some of the destructive elements of British occupation and factored aspects of the environment into his work. (After a distinguished academic career in Britain and Canberra he turned to environmental history in his retirement and in 1972 published one of the earliest and best regional studies, Discovering Monaro.)
But few others have followed his lead. While gender history and race history have gained ground in challenging the traditional view of the past - becoming what is disparagingly known as 'black armband history' because they mourn rather than praise the past - environmental history has not attracted the same attention, nor derision.
In July when I commence teaching environmental history I will probably have about twenty-five to thirty students in my subject. By contrast, and this is a quick sample, the Italian Renaissance and Hitler's Germany will each have about 100, Witches and Witchcraft 85, Slavery in U.S. 75 and Australia's Sporting Culture 40.
The numbers enrolling in my subject do not excite colleagues, and there has been some evidence of an attitude that it has been very nice trying out this trendy new subject, but as it lacks appeal let's do some real history instead.
The fact that Australian environmental history so few students must be due to several causes, but some consideration of the problem may help us to understand the situation. I think there are two parts to the explanation - the general community level of environmental awareness and concern, and the more specific problems faced by environmental history.
First the general community interest - and I would see enrolments in the subject at least partly as a reflection of poor interest in environmental issues among students. This is somewhat unexpected as the current generation have more environmental studies in their school curricula than any previous generation. But perhaps one result is that the environment is passe except for the enthusiasts.
Environmental consciousness is not generally high in Australian society, though whether it is less so than elsewhere is open to question. Arguably this is another way in which environment has been a cultural determinant in Australia. Ours is a harsh land with brown and parched paddocks and scrublands rather than the green fertile fields and forests of North America and Britain. Historically, to British immigrants such land was not highly valued economically or aesthetically. That it was fragile and easily degraded was either not recognised or was not considered important. Together with our small population, this meant that for at least a century it seemed easier to open up more land than to care for the old.
Because it was such a disappointing country in many respects, British settlers also sought to 'improve' it by introducing and acclimatising a large diversity of familiar species. Together with less intentional imports, this has left a devastating legacy of feral animal pests and weed species.
This sense of inferiority has run deep in Australian culture and historical traditions. It is a manifestation of British attitudes - their concept of 'progress' and the three C's - Christianity, Capitalism and Contempt for all that was not British or European. Except maybe for the last, such views are still deeply rooted in our culture.
The strength of such attitudes may help to explain why Australia did not produce grand conservation figures like the Americans Henry Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Gifford Pinchot. While historically there were men who wrote and campaigned for conservation, the Australian lobby consisted of a few public servants assisted by some public spirited individuals and a handful of prominent bush walkers. They are not figures of grand philosophy or public inspiration.
Environmental issues did not emerge as a significant public concern until the late 1960s and early 1970s, stimulated substantially by the drowning of Lake Pedder in Tasmania. Due partly to a number of high-profile disputes such as the attempt to dam the Franklin River (also in Tasmania) the environment became a relatively key political in 1980s and spawned a number of small Green parties which had some degree of success in the 1980s. However, with the economic downturn at the end of the 1980s it lost momentum and remained fairly weak in the 1990s.
My subject commenced in 1994 - with hindsight, this was poor timing.
So perhaps part of the explanation for the fairly emaciated state of environmental history in Australia is general community and student apathy about environmental issues.
But part of my explanation for the paucity of environmental history must look to the history profession. Like the general community, historians' minds are elsewhere thinking about other matters because the environment does not rate high on their list of priorities. While the environment has moved at least onto the periphery of consciousness as far as politics and general population are concerned, Australian historians as a group have not shown themselves to be any more attuned or sensitive to its significance historically or contemporarily than the broader population.
On one level, that may not be very surprising. But historians are educated and aware. They tend to be reasonably left-liberal politically, and have concern for notions of social equity, class equity, ethnic equity and gender equity. But the concept of inter-generational equity has not penetrated. It is simply not on their agenda
There may also be some aspects about the nature of environmental history which makes it problematic for historians. One of these is lack of confidence and the difficulty of defining exactly what environmental history is. How often have we been asked what environmental history is? I, for one, sometimes get responses of reasonably blank incomprehension when I try to explain.
There seems to be some uncertainty about what environmental history is even among its practitioners. At the Australian Historical Association conference in 1998 much of the environmental history session was spent in trying to define the study and justify it. The Journal of American History round table about environmental history in 1990 exhibited similar variance among practitioners.
Essentially, this is because within the parameters of environmental history there falls such a great diversity of types of knowledge and methodology, emanating from a diversity of discipline areas. Environmental history combines history, geography, fine arts, history and philosophy of science, besides input from zoology, botany, chemistry, ecology and many other areas.
It is so amorphous, so all-embracing in its areas of interest that very little of the past can be excluded from its scope because it is not possible to separate humans and their societies from their environment. Almost any human history has an aspect of environmental history.
Perhaps this broad, vaguely-defined, widely encompassing study has little appeal to the profession, and causes a sense of unease and need for justification among practitioners because it is not a 'pure' form of history.
Then there is the negative cloud hanging over environmental history. I have heard one historian characterise it, with a bit of a sneer, as within the whig tradition - history which pursues an emergence from dark to light, to a bright future in which environmental consciousness has saved the planet. In fact, the opposite is more true of much environmental history and, as Simon Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory - environmental history is a dismal tale.
Inescapably, one of its negatives with environmental history, and very much in Australian environmental history, is its tendency to be a mournful and pessimistic subject - it is largely about understanding black events - the degradation of environment, ruthless and thoughtless exploitation, destruction of ecosystems, extinctions or threatened extinctions. I warn my students of this, and not to become depressed about it all - but I find it hard to make environmental history a cheerful study.
Two or three years ago I gave a seminar in Britain on teaching Australian environmental history and was surprised when my audience expressed some envy at the rich variety of material I had to draw upon for my undergraduate subject. They apparently had much less, and felt there was little chance to emulate a course such as mine in Britain. I came away feeling much more confident about the state of environmental history in Australia.
Perhaps relatively we are fortunate, but there is still a long way to go, and we need many more historians to engage with the study before it can achieve its full potential.
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