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

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Journals
  • Climate Change
  • Mountains
  • Deserts
  • Demography
  • Minerals and Mining
  • Gender
  • Urbanization and Environment
  • Memoirs and Narrative Sources

African Studies Environmental History
Gregory H. Maddox
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • 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.

General Works

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.

    DOI: 10.1093/afraf/99.395.269

    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.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203295786

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/524470

    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.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226803487.001.0001

    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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