Public Environmental History

I came to environmental history in 2008 an atypical public history student; while the rest of my cohort were analyzing museums and films about the past, I was looking at pictures of early twentieth century winter recreation in Banff, Alberta to better understand how residents constructed identities from how they interacted with the mountain environment. Should have realized then environmental history was the place to be. Over the past three years of doctoral studies I have continually noticed that for all the inter-disciplinarily and all the cross-over with other theoretical approaches to history there is very little done by environmental historians which utilizes the practices and analytical framework of public history. This strikes me as strange because if ever there was a sub-discipline of history that could change society by leaving the ivory tower and engaging the public directly it is environmental history.
The moment when environmental history emerged as a distinct sub-discipline is the first indicator of its potential in the public sphere. The 1970s saw the emergence of modern environmentalism, as defined by an increased concern for the negative affects of human activities on the environment and increased actions by the public to mitigate the destructiveness of the modern western lifestyle. Environmental history was part of this movement just as the development of environmental studies programs and increasing education on environmental change were. Yet, environmental studies and the sciences made educating and engaging with the public an important part of their project while much of the information environmental historians produced remained within the academic sphere.
The importance of bringing environmental history to the public in the context of pressing environmental issues struck me while researching this week. As I read through microfilm reels of student newspapers looking for signs of environmentalism I noticed that when issues were discussed the sciences, economics, and ethics are often used to support taking action. What is not discussed is how we came to be in a situation where it was necessary to take action. For example, recycling at UVic begins in the mid-1970s as strictly paper recycling in reaction to logging activities. The base line is “the trees are gone so we should use less paper made from them” but there is no recognition of the long process of timber harvesting in British Columbia that created the crisis they saw developing. Nor is there any education on how to make recycling programs more effective by looking at the past or using it to illustrate the importance of recycling when programs, briefly, falter. In a contemporary context, concern over oil prices, sustainability of reserves, and pollution from burning petrochemicals could be bolstered by environmental historians stepping forward and educating the public on what happened during the last oil crisis or viable alternatives to oil that could be re-imaginged for the demands of the twenty-first century. What makes the absence of environmental historians from these debates is that contemporary issues continually inform the type of research conducted by environmental historians. By incorporating the practical lessons of public history with the example set by the media savvy sciences, environmental historians can make the past relevant in the present.
How do we go about making environmental history more public? This is a difficult task and I think it requires a shift in thinking about the field. First, more aggressive marketing of the value of discipline is needed so that discussions with the public don’t begin with the question “what exactly is environmental history?” There exist outlets that are beginning to do this – NiCHE and Active History are among them – and the sciences have set an example for how to slowly raise public literacy of an academic area of study. Environmental historians regularly use scientific data and theories in their work so it makes sense to build better bridges with the scientific community to disseminate work to the public and give it greater cultural currency. Maybe we need to re-evaluate the individual approach and work as a collective more often (strength in numbers being the guiding idea there). If you have any ideas, speak up!

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment, Environmentalism, Public History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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