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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Antecedents
  • Classic Works
  • Geography and Environmental History
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • Animals
  • Biological Exchange
  • Cities
  • Class and Labor
  • Climate
  • Culture of Nature
  • Environmentalism
  • Fisheries
  • Food
  • Forests
  • Gender
  • Health and Disease
  • Protected Areas
  • Race
  • Rivers and Wetlands
  • Doing Environmental History

Geography Environmental History
Robert Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0140


Environmental history is the study of the relationship between society and the environment over time. This broad definition hides as much as it reveals since fields in the natural sciences such as biology and geology (or subfields of geography, such as historical geography and political ecology) also study the interactions between humans and the rest of nature. What distinguishes the approach of historians and geographers to environmental history from that of other scholars is an emphasis on historical context and how social divisions such as class, race, and gender affect people’s relationship with and use of the nonhuman world. Environmental history emerged as a field in the 1970s, although it has deep antecedents in the disciplines of history and especially geography. Although most environmental historians are from the discipline of history, geographers, with their abiding interest in society-environment relations, have played and continue to play a role in the development of environmental history as a field.

General Overviews

Environmental historians have edited a number of handbooks, compendiums, and other overviews of the field in the 21st century that enable readers to understand environmental history’s key aims, themes, and methods. Sackman 2010 focuses entirely on the United States while McNeill and Mauldin 2012 and Isenberg 2014 focus on North America as well as many other regions of the world. All of these books have chapters devoted to different facets of the field including agriculture, resource use, industrialization, and urbanization. Also, many also have chapters on the role of race, class, and gender in environmental history. McNeill 2010 provides a succinct history and overview of the field through the first decade of the 21st century while Sutter 2013 discusses major developments in American environmental history over the past twenty years especially in the areas of environmental governance, human health and the environment, agrocecology, and urban settings. Colten 2012 focuses exclusively on scholarship in environmental historical geography, a field closely allied with environmental history. Wynn, et al. 2013 is a roundtable of geographers and historians reflecting on where environmental historical geography and environmental history intersect and the major themes in both fields.

  • Colten, Craig E. “Environmental Historical Geography: A Review.” In Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, 2012.

    An exhaustive review of scholarship in environmental historical geography from the mid-20th century to the present. Discusses the rather limited work by historical geographers on environmental questions until the 1990s and the resurgence of work on this topic since then.

  • Isenberg, Andrew C., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Unlike compendiums such as Sackman 2010 or McNeill and Mauldin 2012, this handbook does not focus on particular nations. Rather, it examines the environmental history of ecological regions, such as deserts and the tropics, and key themes in the field.

  • McNeill, J. R. “The State of the Field of Environmental History.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35 (2010): 345–374.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-040609-105431

    An essential article on trends in environmental history through the first decade of the 21st century and the development of environmental history in different parts of the world. Also addresses some of the critiques of the field by non-environmental historians and other scholars.

  • McNeill, J. R., and Erin S. Mauldin, eds. A Companion to Global Environmental History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    This companion has chapters on the environmental history of different regions and eras in world history from 150,000 years ago to the present. Also addresses key topics in the field, most notably forests, fishing, evolution, technology, and industrialization.

  • Sackman, Douglas Cazaux. A Companion to American Environmental History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323610

    A compendium of articles on different topics in environmental history and major developments in the country’s environmental history at different times in the nation’s history. Each chapter is written by a leading scholar on the topic.

  • Sutter, P. S. “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History.” Journal of American History 100.1 (2013): 94–119.

    DOI: 10.1093/jahist/jat095

    Sutter’s is the lead piece in this special issue of the Journal of American History about the state of environmental history. He also discusses major trends in the field since the early 1990s.

  • Wynn, Graeme, Craig Colten, Robert M. Wilson, Martin V. Melosi, Mark Fiege, and Diana K. Davis. “Reflections on the American Environment.” Journal of Historical Geography 3 (December 2013): 152–168.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jhg.2013.09.003

    Essays by three geographers and responses by three historians on past trends and current directions in environmental historical geography. A main theme is the overlap between this sub-field and environmental history but also the relationship between environmental history and other parts of geography, such as political ecology and cultural geography.

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