Reading up on Active Environmental History

In October 2011, the OAH  Journal, Magazine of History, devoted an entire issue to "Environmental History Revisited" (sorry for the probable paywall fail on the link). As I start thinking about how to do Active Environmental History (#ActiveEnvHist), I'm going to read articles like these. So here's a first look and some opening thoughts.


The Introductory article by Sarah S. Elkind began by thinking about Environmental History outside the academy:
In preparing to introduce this issue of the OAH Magazine of History, I asked a number of pre-collegiate teachers who include environmental history in their courses what motivated them to amend the traditional U.S. history curriculum. Some of them responded that they found environmental history particularly useful for explaining key moments in American history, from the differences between Native American and colonial European cultures, to the outcome of battles during the American Revolution, Civil War, and Indian wars. Others mentioned that discussing natural resources, climate, and landscape helped them examine regional differences in the United States. Several teachers felt that they owed it to their students to help them understand current environmental issues, from local industrial pollution to global warming. Environmental history, they said, served to put these topics into a larger context. Still others noted that environmental history appealed to students interested in legal or political issues, as well as those who have difficulty with more abstract discussions of politics and economics. Finally, they observed that environmental history helped their students develop a sense of place—locally, regionally, and nationally.
In a second article, Elkind described the results of an informal survey of fifteen middle and high school teachers whose comments she gathered via H-Environment. They reported using surveys such as John McNeill's
Something New Under the Sun and Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth, as well as monographs like William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis and Donald Worster's Dust Bowl. I suspect teachers didn't assign these books whole to their classes. I only assign a chapter of Cronon to my undergrads, because we just don't spend long enough on that historical moment in my EnvHist survey to let them get through the whole book. Elkind also mentioned Tarr and Hays's The Search for the Ultimate Sink, which I haven't read but have now downloaded on Kindle.
In an article called "Everything and the Kitchen Sink," Patty Limerick says:
For teachers willing to consider the incorporation of environmental history into their American history survey classes, the omnipresence of the kitchen sink ought to be a pretty good pedagogical aid. If you can persuade your students to stop taking the kitchen sink for granted and to think about this everyday object, the sink is a virtual discussion-section-leader when it comes to raising historical questions aplenty. How did a system come into operation that moves food into the nation's homes, and onto the counters next to the sink, from points of production that are out of sight and out of mind? How did water, originating in a stream or an aquifer or a re-use treatment plant, get transported and channeled to the faucet in that sink? How did the nation move from a circumstance in which its citizens often fell ill and sometimes died from contaminated water supplies into a circumstance in which our drinking water sustains, and so rarely threatens, our lives? Finally, how did Americans slide into such a disconnection between our activities as consumers of resources and our knowledge of the sites at which those resources are produced? The kitchen sink would be ready to mobilize in support of a hundred lesson plans—except for one big problem. It is very, very boring. Asking students who are already bored by history to look with interest at their sinks is going to produce boredom compounded, boredom squared.
Limerick suggests that Environmental History's "advantage comes into play" when teachers incorporate devices like poet Ofelia Zepeda's poem "Kitchen Sink." This solution doesn't really appeal to me -- at least not as the only solution to the problem of interesting students in the issues Limerick outlined in her own description of the kitchen sink. Granted, I lean much more to the "what happened?" side of EnvHist than the culture side. But really, if environmental historians can think of no other way to make investigating those questions interesting and relevant to high school students, then to paraphrase Limerick's own words in a
different context, we haven't fully understood our subject.
I'll have more to say about the other articles in this journal soon. Same Bat time, same Bat channel, as they used to say.