Environmental History

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Maohong Bao:

"Environmental history deals with the interaction of the man and the rest of the nature over time. To understand this definition better, there are two aspects that should be emphasized. First, the man mentioned here is not only the biological creature that exists in the singular, but also a social and a collective one. In the traditional history writing, man’s sociality was emphasized, meanwhile the biological attributes were ignored. In the deeper studies of ecology, man’s biological attributes were emphasized; however, the sociality that differentiates the man from the ordinary organisms was ignored. As a matter of fact, the human being is integral part of the nature; however, the man is a unique creature who specializes in the sociality. Furthermore, the emphasis of man’s sociality could not go beyond man’s biological attributes. Second, why is the term ‘rest of the nature’ reinforced? Because it is underpinned by two theories, namely holism and organism. In holism, the man and the nature are regarded, that is different from dualism and reductionism in which the man is regarded as the opposite of the nature. Furthermore, the quality of the nature is not determined by the average quality of its different parts, but by the least, just as the volume of a bucket is determined by the shortest edge. In any organism, the nature is regarded as the integral whole, in which different parts have their own intrinsic values together with its instrumental value. Additionally, the nature has its limitation. It means that the nature would not be able to supply resources unlimitedly and has a limited capacity to absorb pollutants. Namely, if the pollutants exceed the self-purification capacity, the nature will be contaminated and furthermore, the contaminated nature will threaten the survival of the human beings. Thus, environmental history does not simply focus on the human being only, on ecology or nature, its focus is on the interaction of the human being and the rest of the nature. "



Maohong Bao:

"To speak more specifically, environmental history consists of four aspects. First, the changing process of environment. Here, it is not the natural transformation that resulted from the natural power, but the environmental change would result from the human activity. The former kind of environmental transformation was usually called the history of environment, whilst the latter type of environmental change was usually called environmental history. Second, there is the material or economic environmental history. It focuses on the interaction of the economic activity and the physical environment, especially the change of productivity and the mode of production. Third, there is the political environmental history. It focuses on the environmental consequences of political power and the political consequence of environmental changes. Fourth, there is cultural or intellectual environmental history. It focuses on how the human being perceives the environment and how this perception influences their adaptation and utilization of the environment. Although the emphases of these four aspects are different, they share some commonalities, such as the interaction between the human being and the rest of the nature, including the role of the human in the environment and vice versa, organic connection of different elements and aspects in nature, etc. "



Updating World-Systems Analysis and World History with Environmental History

Maohong Bao:

"Regarding the new world history, two scholars and their masterful books will be introduced. In their best-known book “Something new under the sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World”, John McNeill argues that the human impact on the environment in the 20th century is utterly unprecedented in the human history, but the conventional historiography of the 20th century has missed it.

His most important contribution to the world history writing is that different spheres, instead of nation-states or periods, was used to frame his world history, such as the lithosphere, the pedosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere.

This approach is unique, it showed us the unique world history. The other scholar is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In the textbook ‘The World: A Brief History’, Armesto argues that the history interweaves two stories, the environment-centered story that is about humans distancing themselves from the rest of the nature and searching for a relationship that strikes a balance between the constructive and the destructive exploitation, and the culture-centered story that is of how human cultures have become mutually influential and yet mutually differentiating.11 That means environmental history underpinned the human history. However, he announced that he was not an environmental determinist who regarded the environment as a deterministic factor in the human history, meanwhile the human initiative or agency was ignored.

Regarding the new world-system history, two scholars and their works will be shown. In the world-system history, there are two different ways of thinking. The one is Immanuel Wallerstein’s 500-year-old world system. Based on this world system history, Jason W. Moore argues that capitalism-in-nature – rather than capitalism and nature – is key to understanding the world system and our predicament in the century ahead. Furthermore, capitalism was regarded as a way of organizing nature, including the human nature. World capitalism was regarded as a ‘world-ecology’ of wealth, power, and nature. The greatest strength of capitalism’s – and the source of its problems – is its capacity to create ‘cheap natures’: labor, food, energy and raw materials.

The other is Andre Gunder Frank’s 5000 years of world systems. Based on this world system history, Sing Chew published his trilogy on the world ecological history, in which he sponsored that the world systems should be greening deeply.

Regarding the ‘Big History’, two scholars and their works will be mentioned here: David Christian and his book ‘Maps of Time; Big History: Between Nothing and Everything’ and Fred Spier and his book ‘The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today.” Big history examined the history from the Big Bang until the present using a multidisciplinary approach; it frames the human history in terms of cosmic, geological and biological history. In Big History, it is provided that if the Universe began its existence 13 years ago, then our own species, Homo Sapiens, would last only for 53 minutes; the agricultural societies would have existed for five minutes; whereas the modern industrial societies would have existed just for six seconds. Through going further backtrack, one should know that the history of the universe should be understood if you want to understand the history of humanity. From the point of view of this ground-breaking research, we will rethink anthropocentrism and destroy human’s arrogance and psychological consciousness. The most important thing is that we will find the commonality in complexity of the human history and the history of the universe.

Although this glorious book on the world history dealing with the approach of environmental history has not been published yet, this thinking had already showed some advantages, as being observed from these three schools mentioned above.

First, environmental history helps overcome entrenched anthropocentrism in the conventional history writing. Without environmental history, the world history would be, without any doubt, incomplete. Due to dealing with interaction of the human and the rest of the nature, the environmental history broadens the subject of history horizontally and shortens the human history vertically in comparison with the history of the universe.

Second, the environmental history helps correct the defects of the progressive view of history that allies with eurocentrism and orientalism to some extent. To the contrary of this progressive view of history combined with teleology, the environmental history recognizes the intrinsic value of its integral parts. Based on this value, various civilizations do not only exist reasonably, however should be also evaluated by their sustainability (adaptation to its environment), instead of their advancement (opposition to backwardness). Furthermore, the future of the world will be sustainable, rather than when the advanced replaces the backward.

Third, the environmental history helps break through the bottleneck of the world history writing based on the nation-state approach. Since Leopold von Ranke, the national history has been the dominant paradigm and the world history has, in fact, been the mosaic of history of some strong nation-states. Based on holism and organism, the environmental history could mainstream the interaction of human and the rest of the nature at different levels (niche, Eco regionalism, global environmentalism, etc.), just like John McNeill’s world environmental history.

Fourth, the environmental history helps integrate the laws of social development and environmental change. In the conventional world history, the law of social development is separated from the law of nature. In environmental history, the law of social development can only be subordinated to the law of nature. Their common point is that both go through the process of increase in complexity and enlargement of scale. Its dynamism is that human’s ability of collecting and spreading information increases, based on the law of thermodynamics of energy flow."



  • Bао Maohong Environmental History and World History. Historia provinciae – the journal of regional history, 2018, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 6–17. DOI: 10.23859/2587-8352-2018-2-1-1

More information


Maohong Bao:

  • "In 2001, the journal Pacific History Review issued a special column on “environmental history, retrospect and prospect.”
    • White R. Afterword Environmental History: Watching a Historical Field Mature; Donald J. Hughes, Global Dimensions of Environmental History; Norwood V. Disturbed Landscape / Disturbing Processes: Environmental History for the Twenty-First Century; Miller Ch. An Open Field; Hays S. Toward Integration in Environmental History. Pacific Historical Review, 2001, 70:1.

  • In 2003, Prof. John McNeill’s masterly paper ‘Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History’ was published in a special issue of the journal History and Theory.
    • John R. McNeill Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history, History and

Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, vol. 42, no.4, December 2003.

  • In 2004, the journal Environment and History published its tenth anniversary issue on the timeline of environmental history
    • ** Carruthers J. Africa: Histories, ecologies and societies; Coates P. Emerging from the Wilderness (or, from Redwoods to Bananas): Recent environmental history in the United States and the

rest of the Americas; Libby R. and Griffith T. Environmental history in Australasia; Maohong Bao Environmental history in China, Winiwarter V. (etc.) Environmental history in Europe from 1994 to 2004: Enthusiasm and Consolidation; Simmons I.G. The world scale, Environment and History, 2004, 10:4.

  • In 2005, the journal Environmental History published a special column on “What’s next for environmental


    • What’s next for environmental history?, Environmental History, 2005, 10:1.

  • Meanwhile, four scholars published three books on the timeline of environmental history in different languages, including J. Donald Hughes’s What is environmental history, Frank Uekötter’s Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, and Verena Winiwarter and Martin Knoll’s Umweltgeschichte: Eine Einfuehrung.
    • Donald Hughes J. What is environmental history? Polity Press, 2006.
    • Uekötter F. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Muenchen: R. Oldenbourg Verlag,


    • Winiwarter V., Knoll M. Umweltgeschichte: Eine Einfuehrung, Wien: Boehlau Verlag, 2007.