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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 284-287

Reading Environmental History: A Way Out

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam, India

Correspondence Address:
Arupjyoti Saikia
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Saikia A. Reading Environmental History: A Way Out. Conservat Soc 2007;5:284-7

How to cite this URL:
Saikia A. Reading Environmental History: A Way Out. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 Sep 26];5:284-7. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2007/5/2/284/55796

J. Donald Hughes, What is Environmental History?, Polity Press, Cambridge. 2006. 180 pp., ₤ 12.99, Softcover, ISBN-10: 0745631894, ₤ 50.00 Hardcover ISBN-10: 0745631886.

As the discipline of environmental history expands both in terms of its social responsibility and methodological clarity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the growing body of literature. It is more difficult for a beginner environmental historian to get a sense of the principles and philosophical dimensions that the discipline has been grappling with. Reading Environmental History: A Way Out is of great help for any one seeking a critical encounter with the world of environmental history. For those who are unfamiliar with Hughes' work, it should be mentioned here that he is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Denver, Colorado. His earlier books including An Environmental History of the World (2001) and The Mediterranean: An Environmental History (2005) are widely read. This book covers a wide spectrum of issues and allows readers to critically engage with the growth in the area of historical enquiry.

Hughes makes great efforts to trace the scholarly development of environmental history since the days of early historians and philosophers, the Greeks in particular. He begins by defining what this discipline caters to and its suggestive point of departure from other areas of historical scholarship. Hughes drew attention to some of these issues in one of his early books Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (1994). He also draws attention to the rich bodies of writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates and their contemporaries for their minute attention to the problems of the environment. In subsequent chapters, he traces the growth of environmental history in various intellectual milieus, and superbly summarises the growth of environmental history in the USA since the middle of the twentieth century. The critical role played by various journals in the emergence of environmental history as a distinct branch of historical research is also extensively elaborated. Journals like Environmental History and Environment and History have their own trajectories in shaping the career of environmental history. Mainstream historical journals also contributed extensively to our understanding of the environment, many of them taking up the crucial inter-relationship between agrarian and forest history.

One of the crucial strengths of the present book is its attention to the growth of various academic centres that focus exclusively on the collection and archiving of resources related to the discipline. These have been of immense help to scholars, facilitating access to various resources which would have been difficult in earlier times. Hughes also draws attention to the fact that the early growth of environmental history was met with much scepticism from mainstream historians. There is no doubt that this political nature has significantly drawn environmental historians to more immediate issues faced by both nature and human beings. Hughes also notices that the relative to the 1960s and the 1970s, the degree of advocacy associated with the doing of environmental history has substantially reduced. He argues that it was natural as environmental historians would rather try to 'guard their objectivity'. Apparently this presumed tension has not disappeared; a number of environmental activists still write the historical narrative from this political position. Hughes is sensitive to cultural practices which have contributed to the making of environmental awareness. He also turns our attention to the contribution of global environmental historians but candidly admits that Toynbee's promising Man and Nature turns out to be a typical political narrative of the Western world rather than a gripping account of environmental history.

Hughes' advice for future environmental historians is carefully crafted. He chalks out plans for possible historical sources which might offer better insight into the study of environmental history. He is convinced that familiarity with a particular region is absolutely essential in providing a good and meaningful account of environmental history. This is indeed true for other disciplines of history too. It is true that traces of ecological change remain visible in the landscape and it is always advisable to keep track of these changes while one tries to understand environmental history. He convincingly argues that the continuing importance of environmental history and its ever expanding horizons is also due to the growing environmental crisis which forces us to rethink continuously about the profession. Hughes reminds the reader that 'the new narrative of world history, if it is to be balanced and accurate, will inevitably consider the natural environment and the myriad ways it has both affected and been affected by human activities'. He also places before the reader the challenges that future environmental historians are likely to face and provides suggestions as to how to handle them. Hughes further argues that the causes championed by environmental history differ from region to region depending on the nature of human-nature conflicts. The intensity of exploitation carried out by institutions of European imperialism had become a matter of serious scholarly debates in the colonies. Ideas like the Mediterranean have come into focus in understanding the longee duree of Europe.

Environmental history can not be practiced and understood in isolation from other world events. Environmental factors, whose reach extended 'beyond single cultures and regions' even since the early times, have accelerated even more since the early modern period in an unprecedented way. Along with biological expansion, environmental issues now encompass a larger dimension than was previously imagined. Hughes also points that during this crucial phase of development many practitioners of this discipline have successfully outlined its philosophical and theoretical dimensions. Hughes suggests that areas like population growth, local versus global determination of policy, energy and resources, biodiversity, evolution and biotechnology, and oceans and seas will have a crucial impact on the future directions of environmental history. Expressing hope for future methodological paradigms of doing environmental history, Hughes clearly argues that the future environ mental historians will be surely motivated by many more urgencies. Though Hughes is inspired by and focuses on the recent developments relating to crises in the American and European contexts, I am sure that south Asian environmental historians will have other crucial issues to deal with. Examples include the construction of big dams, the management of water resources, related grassroots environmental movements, animal conservation, the role of multinational companies, and so on. Unfortunately, Hughes misses these and other complex issues relating to environmental history in other parts of the world.

South Asia has already provided many crucial perspectives on the intellectual biography of environmental history. Some of the crucial questions which became integrated with the methods of environmental history are those relating to the cultural and social ecology of communities. A number of grassroots movements have already successfully questioned various categories like forest or forest conservation which we use to understand the dependency between man and nature. Significantly, as these communities laid down a strong claim to natural resources, the political class and the Indian state have apparently expressed their willingness to share absolute rights over these resources. However, its actual realisation is still a distant dream. Moreover, south Asian environmental historians and scholars have undoubtedly benefited from their close collaboration with other social science disciplines. The understanding of wildlife is also integrated with the general milieu of environmental history. Aspects of water management, drought, flood and natural resources have become closely integrated with the recent works of environmental history. Natural calamities like the problem of floods in regions such as Bangladesh have brought out different dimensions of environmental history. While Hughes rightly says that 'environmental history refuses to cut culture from nature', it is equally true that the south Asian literary history, including rich folklore and oral traditions, will have much more to tell about its own ecological history. A number of works have attempted to bring social and environmental history together to facilitate a better understanding. Hughes, however, and more importantly, concludes his general summary with a note of optimism for the continuation of the study of environmental history. He suggests that 'perhaps the most important reason for the continuing growth of environmental history, is the assured persistence and expansion of environmental concern, deriving from the growing sense among many thoughtful commentators throughout the earth that increasing human impact upon the living systems of the planet is bringing us no closer to utopia, but instead to a crisis of survival'.

Still, by making an understandable departure from conventional Eurocentric understanding of the emergence of a historical methodology of environmental history, Hughes draws extensively from other parts of globe. The author's personal collection of photographs taken across various parts of the world is itself a clear testimony of his insight into the relationships between people and nature. It is evident that enough attention was paid to the colonial period as an agency of bringing change into the colonial world. Environmental history has also changed our understanding of European engagement with Indian society, particularly the peasant world. The book shares a good amount of resources about the south Asian experience and tries to place this in the context of wider environmental debates. Hughes rightly emphasises that south Asia has its due share of credit in bringing environmental history to the forefront of historical pursuit. In south Asia, other disciplines of social sciences and humanities have increasingly come up with rigorous work on aspects of environmental history. While the history of forests and wildlife still remains a major thrust area of historical enquiry, there has been a comfortable departure in terms of our understanding of environmental and ecological questions. Occasionally, various scientific bodies and environmental activists have expressed interest in engaging with the issues raised by environmental historians. A number of recent works try to address these emerging questions. Hughes also points out that even in South East Asia the question of peasant livelihoods has become a major concern of environmental history. Hughes has not forgotten to remind his readers about the special nature of religious devotion of south Asian people to nature. However, although the book addresses twentyfirst century research, some valuable additions are missing. A welcome addition would have been an account of inter-relationships between folklore and environmental history. At the same time, this work is clearly a departure from the conventional study of environment and environmental history.

Well selected photographs, many of them taken by the author himself over the last 40 years on various aspects of environment, provide a panoramic idea of Hughes's long-term involvement with the subject. Additionally, Hughes must also be complimented for a carefully selected bibliography that will surely come in handy for the reader. In spite of being based in the United States and also a part of the European academic milieu, Hughes has diligently written What is Environmental History. This book is undoubtedly a wonderful account of the predicament of our environment for any one interested in environmental history and a meaningful possession for beginners.


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