How Might Environmental History Find Its Way Into Our U.S. Survey Courses?

republic-of-natureI am not an environmental historian, but I do teach a United States History to 1865 survey course.  Ellen Stroud‘s post at Process has me thinking about how I might incorporate more environmental history into my course.

I try to bring some environmental history into my discussion of European and Indian encounters, and a little bit more into my lecture on the Lousiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark, but that is about it.  I need to read more and think more.

Here is a taste of Stroud’s post:

Environmental history need not be particularly green; I don’t think of it as being defined by environmental topics or framed by environmental politics, but rather as a particular way of looking at the past. When the environment only surfaces in an occasional lecture—on the Columbian Exchange, or the Dust Bowl, or Love Canal—it can to feel peripheral to the task at hand. Paying attention to moments when nature matters in less dramatic or obvious ways, however, can highlight connections, dependencies, and structures of inequality central to understanding the past.

Attention to three related themes suggests multiple ways to include environmental history in almost any lecture. The themes are not novel, nor are they unique to environmental history, though they are central to that field: attention to place, consideration of resources, and tracking technological change. All three themes can help students more viscerally understand not just what happened in the past, but also how it felt: What did it smell like? How exhausting was it? What kind of noise did it make?

Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature and Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth are helpful books to have on the shelf, offering environmental takes on topics ranging from the Louisiana Purchase to school desegragation to Disney. Fiege’s chapter on Brown v. Board, is a particularly helpful example of the ways an environmental lens can be used to understand more about a topic seemingly far removed from nature.  In the chapter, subtitled “An Environmental History of the Color Line,” Fiege asks about technology: What were the roles of railroads in creating Topeka’s segregated landscapes? What new factors did buses and cars introduce? And he asks about resources: What things, what goods, what supplies for schools did white Kansans have access to that black Kansans did not?

But the most compelling questions Fiege asks are about place: what was Linda Brown’s morning walk to the bus stop like? How would the young girl’s experience of Topeka and the school day morning have differed had she been allowed to attend the school much closer to her home? And how, if they did, did school children’s experiences of place in Topeka change after the Supereme Court decision came down? Fiege’s environmental lens does not transform Linda Brown’s story into one focused on environmental politics or fundamentally shaped by nature; human choices remain at the center of the story, as they must. But Fiege’s attention to Linda Brown’s physical world helps us understanding not only how much colder one winter walk to school was than another, but also more about the pervasiveness and persistence of discrimination and segregation in Topeka long after the Supreme Court decision was made.

Read the entire post here.