- LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0144
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0144
Environmental history, the study of how human societies and the natural world shape each other over time, developed fairly recently as a distinct field of historical inquiry. It emerged in the 1960s at about the same time as the modern academic study of African history, and the two fields influenced each other from the beginning. African historical studies though brought a slightly different approach to the field of environmental history. Beginning with Phillip Curtin’s work on the epidemiology of the slave trade, Africanist historians focused on how environmental conditions shaped human actions as much as on how human societies changed environments. African environmental history has tended to counter narratives brought forward from the colonial era. Throughout Africa, colonial powers both claimed that African societies harmed their environments because of lack of knowledge and skill and threatened precious landscapes and their animal occupants. In contrast, works on African environmental history draw on a variety of techniques to uncover how environment and society shaped each other. Rather than presenting Africa as an untouched Eden, such studies stretch back to the origins of agriculture and animal husbandry to demonstrate that the landscapes of Africa were both anthropogenic and resilient. Environmental history in Africa exhibits several central themes. First, it tends to focus on rural areas and agrarian change. While many African societies underwent rapid urbanization by the beginning of the 21st century, throughout the 20th century much of Africa remained sparsely populated and most Africans lived in rural agricultural or pastoral societies. African environmental history studies the lived-in environment, not natural history. A major theme of African environmental history has been the conflict over wildlife and forest conservation. Numerous studies have shown that colonial and post-colonial conservation efforts have deprived African communities of access to resources and land they had long controlled. Likewise, many studies have focused on the issues of soil conservation and agricultural intensification. For all its maturity now as a field, there remain important issues that have not been adequately addressed in the literature. First, the environmental history of urbanization in Africa has only just begun to receive attention. Second, as Africa industrializes, the issue of pollution has hardly been addressed. Finally, the effects of anthropogenic climate change need to be put into the context of the long-term ways that human societies have shaped African environments.
Several prominent environmental historians have produced overviews of the field as it matured. Beinart 2000 provides a historiographic essay while McCann 1999 uses cases studies to highlight important issues in the field. Maddox 2006 attempts a synthesis stretching back to the emergence of modern humans in Africa. Beinart and McGregor 2003 presents a representative set of case studies. The comparative history Beinart and Coates 1995 highlights the similarities between the United States and South Africa. Tilley 2011 examines the production of scientific knowledge about Africa during the colonial era. Isaacman’s essay (Isaacman 1990) links protest movements to the relationships between power, community, and environment.
Beinart, William. “African History and Environmental History.” African Affairs 99 (2000): 269–302.
A review of the field by one of its leading scholars; Beinart finds that African environmental history has emphasized the capacity of human action to shape the environment and the ways in which Africans have developed unique explanations for their lives in the biological world.
Beinart, William, and Peter Coates. Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995.
This comparative study focuses on the similarities in the establishment of settler societies and their emergence as industrial ones by the 20th century. While immigrants did not demographically overwhelm indigenous populations in South Africa as they did in the United States, many similarities exist in views of nature and eventually conservation between the two societies.
Beinart, William, and JoAnn McGregor, eds. Social History and African Environments. Oxford: James Currey, 2003.
This collection serves as a primer for environmental history in Africa. Essays by some of the most important historians in the field reveal the range and depth of the subject. The introduction serves as an excellent survey of the field.
Isaacman, Allen F. “Peasants and Rural Social Protest in Africa.” African Studies Review 33.2 (1990): 1–120.
This influential article examines agrarian change across the continent, focusing mostly on the colonial era. While the focus is primarily social, the author highlights the importance of linking rural societies to their environments.
Leach, Melissa, and Robin Mearns, eds. The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.
This path-breaking collection of essays presents a powerful counter to degradationist views of environmental change in Africa. The authors of these essays argue that much current environmental policy is wrongly based on colonial images of Africans as ineffectual managers of natural resources.
Maddox, Gregory H. Sub-Saharan African: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara: ABC/CLIO, 2006.
This work provides a survey of African environmental history, attempting to show the mutually constructive relationship between African environments and society over the long term.
McCann, James C. Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.
McCann’s overview of environmental change in Africa uses case studies to illustrate how Africans have managed their landscapes. Key themes include agricultural change, disease, population, and state agency.
Tilley, Helen. Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Tilley contests the idea of colonial science as over-determined by power relationships. She shows how much of the current focus on African adaptability had its counterpoint in British colonial research on African environments.
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- Achebe, Chinua
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Sao Tomé and Príncipe
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey