In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works and Online Resources
  • Landscape and Environmental History
  • Forests and Forestry
  • Soil History
  • The Future of Environmental History

Environmental Science Environmental History
Stephen Mosley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0026


Environmental history emerged as a new field of study as environmental problems began to rise up the global political agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. Its primary goal is to show how environmental change and human actions are interconnected. And the natural world, instead of being merely the backdrop against which the affairs of humans are played out, is recognized as playing an active role in historical processes. Undertaking research in this area can be challenging since environmental history, influenced from the outset by the holism of ecology, is an interdisciplinary endeavor that requires some familiarity with methods and approaches from both the humanities and environmental sciences. As well as trained historians, environmental history attracts contributors from a wide range of other disciplines, from social anthropology through to historical geography and the natural sciences (including botany, climatology, ecology, hydrology, pedology and zoology). Environmental historians, whatever their backgrounds may be, are breaking down disciplinary borders to examine the complexities of human-environment relationships over the long term. By exploring the interactions between social systems and ecological processes in the past, environmental history aims to promote better informed planning and policymaking for the future. In this essay, the emphasis will be on major themes and issues in environmental history––such as biological exchanges, cities, deforestation, pollution problems, soil erosion, rivers, seas and oceans––to demonstrate the dynamic growth and development of the field.

General Overviews

Environmental history can be written on any scale, from the macro to the micro, and often takes a very longue durée perspective. But as environmental problems tend to transcend national boundaries (climate change illustrates this point well), global-scale overviews are the best starting point for research in environmental history. Building on regional and national studies, Turner, et al. 1990 provided an ambitious and influential account of the human transformation of the earth that sparked interest in writing world environmental histories. Recently, the literature has been increasing with both broad surveys (Hughes 2009; Simmons 2008; Radkau 2008; Penna 2009; and Mosley 2010) and studies covering shorter spans of time appearing in print (McNeill 2000 and Richards 2003). However, the number of truly global studies remains relatively small in an otherwise fast-growing field.

  • Hughes, J. Donald. 2009. An environmental history of the world: Humankind’s changing role in the community of life. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    A highly readable (if idiosyncratic) account of how the natural world has shaped societies over a span of around ten thousand years, and vice versa. It contains numerous case studies, from early hunter-gathering on the Serengeti, through irrigation in Bali, to the impact of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

  • McNeill, John. 2000. Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth century. London: Allen Lane.

    Focused on events in the 20th century, the central argument in this important book is that human activities over the past one hundred years have caused unprecedented environmental change. Organized around transformations of the planet’s different spheres (the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and pedosphere), it assesses the impacts of different engines of change such as industrialization, economic growth, migration, population increase, technological innovation, and environmental politics and policies.

  • Mosley, Stephen. 2010. The environment in world history. London: Routledge.

    A slim volume, it is a clear and readable analytical survey examining the past five hundred years of global environmental change. Its chapters cover key themes in environmental history: species loss, deforestation, soil erosion, water and irrigation, and the growing “ecological footprints” of cities over time.

  • Penna, Anthony N. 2009. The human footprint: A global environmental history. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Drawing on recent scientific research in a broad range of fields, this volume takes a “deep history” approach beginning with the origins of the earth itself. Organized thematically, its chapters explore themes such as human evolution, the invention of agriculture, mass migrations, the rise of cities, world trade, industrialization, fossil fuels, and climate change. The impacts of the “human footprint” on the earth, it is argued, cannot be properly understood without taking a very longue durée perspective.

  • Radkau, Joachim. 2008. Nature and power: A global history of the environment. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    First published in German in 2002, this English translation opens up a continental European perspective on global environmental change to a wider audience. Continental Europeans––unlike the British and Americans with their colonial empires––have always had to husband their natural resources and deal with the “limits to growth.” The emphasis here is on the role of the state and institutionalized power in both changing and conserving nature.

  • Richards, John F. 2003. The unending frontier: An environmental history of the early modern world. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This is a work that provides worldwide coverage––from Japan to the West Indies––of how frontiersmen and pioneers on colonial frontiers shaped new regions of settlement from c. 1500–1800. It sets out four key processes that accelerated environmental change and degradation in frontier regions: the commercial hunting of wildlife; biological invasions associated with trade and exploration; intensifying land use to supply early global markets; and growing uncertainties about access to scarce natural resources that pushed people into new areas.

  • Simmons, I. G. 2008. Global environmental history: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748621583.001.0001

    A global-scale synthesis of human––nonhuman interactions over the last twelve thousand years, the book is organized around major technological developments. In particular the focus is on changing energy regimes, from hunter-gathering, through solar-based agricultural societies, to fossil fuel-based industrial economies.

  • Turner, B. L., II, et al., eds. 1990. The earth as transformed by human action: Global and regional changes in the biosphere over the past 300 years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A major landmark in the field, this is a comprehensive survey of changes to the biosphere over the past three hundred years. It is divided into four sections: Changes in Population and Society; Transformations of the Global Environment; Regional Studies of Transformation; and Understanding Transformations. It is still one of the best accounts of how humankind has transformed the earth, unintentionally or otherwise.

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