Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Prehistory 1
This is the story of how people first reached the Americas and what they did when they got here. We’ll discuss the regular climate cycles that produce ice ages and the changes that result. We’ll discover Beringia, where the ancestors of Native Americans lived for thousands of years. And we’ll talk about the first Americans.
Chapter 2: Recontact 24
The cultures of the Americas developed separately from their Eurasian cousins for about 12,000 years. In this chapter we’ll explore what happened when Europeans discovered the Americas.
Chapter 3: Colonial North America 38
Who came to North America? What did they expect? What did they find? What did they do?
Chapter 4: Frontier and Grid 51
In this chapter we explore the lure of the Western Frontier on colonists and early Americans, and how people began expanding westward from the initial European settlements in North America.
Chapter 5: Commons, Mills, Corporations 77
The Industrial Revolution not only changed America’s economy and spurred the growth of cities; it changed the way Americans relate to the natural environment. In this chapter we trace changes in our ideas of what the environment is for, and who it’s for.
Chapter 6: Transportation Revolution 96
The ability to move people and goods from place to place quickly and affordably changed American society radically. The economic and political changes that went along with transportation technology were equally revolutionary.
Chapter 7: Centers and Peripheries 113
In this chapter we examine the complex relationships between Eastern and Western cities, as centers of production and consumption, and the peripheral places they depended on for raw materials and consumers.
Chapter 8: Green Revolution 131
Although we may not be aware of it, the continued existence of the modern world depends on three minerals. In this chapter we’ll explore the history of fertilizer.
Chapter 9: City Life 143
Rapid growth stressed city environments, and growing cities made controversial claims on the environments outside the city limits. Some profited, and others worked to improve city life for everyone.
Chapter 10: Wilderness & Country Life 160
In this chapter we examine both the actions of nineteenth-century Americans with respect to the environment, and the ways their ideas about wilderness and life in rural America influenced those actions.
Chapter 11: Farmers & Agribusiness 176
Farmers have been central to each of the periods we have covered in previous chapters. In this chapter, we focus on the farms themselves and look at how they have changed over time and what those changes might mean.
Chapter 12: Treasures Underground 192
Natural resources have always been an important motivation for nations exploring the Americas. In this chapter we'll explore the treasures Europeans and Americans found in the western hemisphere and the ongoing search for resources.
Chapter 13: Limits to Growth? 206
Are human societies able to continue growing forever, or are there limits to the Earth's carrying capacity? A short explanation of some of the economics concepts that keep coming up in this text.
Chapter 14: Economics & Externalities 218
A short explanation of some of the economics concepts that keep coming up in this text.
Chapter 15: Food and Choice 228
We can take the knowledge we gain studying history and apply it to our present and to the future. Here’s one possibility.
I decided instead, to write my own short introduction. It's much shorter than Cronon's essay, and doesn't cover the range of ideas he introduces. Most notably, for me, it leaves out the literary references that I think make "The Trouble with Wilderness" an important essay for culture-oriented Environmental Historians, but less than ideal for my audience.
I do try to complicate the definitions of environment, nature, and history a bit for my students. But in a more introductory way, that I think will open my students up to the bigger picture without taking them too far away from my goal in the first week, which is really to cover the whole period from human origins to 1491.
Anyway, here's what I came up with. It will also become the new Introduction to my textbook (in an example of the instant-revision process I talked about recently):
Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered. Well of course the environment matters, you’re probably thinking. Most people consider themselves environmentalists to some degree and believe we should be doing more to protect the world around us. For some that sentiment comes from a sense of stewardship or the impulse to leave things better for our children than we got them. Others believe the natural world has rights every bit as important as the rights of humans. But we should remember that even people we think of as not valuing the environment actually care very deeply. After all, the environment is where the oil comes from, as well as the coal, gold, and copper that make the modern world run.
More specifically, when we say Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered, we mean as if the environment influenced events. As if the physical world helped shape what people chose to do. As if landforms, oceans, climate, and resources affected where people lived, what they did, and how they related to each other – all the choices and actions that roll up together to produce our cultures and our history.
Long ago the world seemed so big and human actions seemed so small that it was easy to ignore our effect on the world around us. Today we understand that people have a big impact on our surroundings. Scientists have recently suggested that the Anthropocene – the geological era during which humans have had a significant impact on the planet – actually began when the first farmers started plowing fields about ten thousand years ago. And we're becoming aware that our environment has played a big part in our individual lives and in the growth of our cultures. Instead of being just a neutral backdrop, the environment is now recognized as a powerful shaper of human choices. That is, history.
But what’s the environment? Wilderness only? Does it include natural landscapes that have been altered by people, like farmland and managed forests? What about city neighborhoods where you can’t see anything green? In Environmental History, the environment means everything around us. The natural world, but also the manmade world. Often it's difficult to draw a distinct line between those two. We intuitively feel that wooded suburbs are a bit more natural than the city, and the wilderness even more. But if we look closer we may find that suburban trees and fields were part of a developer's design, and even wilderness areas are special manmade places that have been deliberately protected or sometimes even rehabilitated so they resemble our idea of pristine nature.
The idea of nature, we should remember, is an idea. Throughout our lives we’ve been taught what nature means, even if we’ve never read a book about it or talked about the idea in a classroom. For many people, the idea of nature doesn’t include us. People and our cultures are often considered to be outside nature; sometimes even imagined as the enemies of nature. So it’s useful to remind ourselves that although humans are capable of behaving quite differently from the other species we share the planet with, we’re no less natural. People evolved over millions of years, changing in response to environmental challenges. These changes were physical and behavioral, and since a big part of human behavior involves thought, we ought to remember that the ways we think were shaped by the world we evolved in.
If environment and nature are surprisingly complicated words, so is history. As Americans, we spend a lot of our lives learning and retelling stories that describe who we are and who we ought to be. Often these stories come to us in the form of family traditions and the civics and social studies lessons we absorbed as children. But even when they’ve been celebrated in History books, many of these stories are not as true as we'd like to think.
There’s an old saying that history is written by the winners. Although it’s cynical, there’s some truth to the idea that people in positions of power are more likely to leave documents behind telling their stories and reflecting their points of view. Luckily, historians don’t just accept documents we find in archives without considering the source. Recently, historians have put a lot of work into finding the stories of those who weren’t powerful enough to write their own histories. Environmental Historians have gone a step farther, telling the stories of animals, plants, and other elements of the world that have no voices of their own, but have nonetheless had important impacts on our history.
Another thing we notice when we look closely is that many of our stories have changed quite a bit over time, as have our reasons for telling them. History isn't just data about the past, it's the stories we tell about the past. The stories we choose to tell and the ways we choose to tell them often have a lot to do with the concerns of the present. It’s no accident Environmental History has blossomed precisely when people are looking at the world around them and wondering, “How did we get here, and what can we do about it?”
So where does that leave us? American Environmental History, for the purposes of this course, means looking at our past with special attention to how our surroundings influenced our opportunities, our choices, and our actions. At the same time, we’ll consider how our actions have changed the environment. It’s a feedback loop that has been spinning since people first burned a pasture or built a village.
There are two basic elements of looking at a past that includes the environment. First, we’ll pay close attention to the physical world. For example, the shape of the American continents and the fact that they’re connected to each other but cut off from the rest of the world has influenced American cultures from their prehistoric beginnings to the present. Landforms and waterways, natural resources and climate have all been key factors in how our society has developed and how it continues to change. Second, we’ll remember that how we think about the environment, like how we think about the past, has changed over time, and those changes affect our current choices and actions. You don't have to dig too deeply into the headlines to find debates raging over coal mining, oil pipelines, depleted fisheries, and climate change. Beliefs about the world around us and our role in it are important elements of the competing positions taken by advocates on either side of these contentious issues.
Our goal is to deal with both events and ideas. But realistically, this is a survey of American Environmental History stretching from prehistory to the present. We're going to spend most of our time on events, especially because the environmental influences on many key events in American History are not well understood. Too often our stories of America have devoted all their attention to political debates or to the philosophies of elite leaders like the founding fathers. These tales are often told against a blank background, an invisible environment that isn't part of the story at all. The main goal of this course is to show that it's really not possible to understand our past while ignoring the environment.