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The Turning Points of Environmental History

Edited by Frank Uekoetter

Publication Year: 2010

From the time when humans first learned to harness fire, cultivate crops, and domesticate livestock, they have altered their environment as a means of survival. In the modern era, however, natural resources have been devoured and defiled in the wake of a consumerism that goes beyond mere subsistence. In this volume, an international group of environmental historians documents the significant ways in which humans have impacted their surroundings throughout history. John McNeill introduces the collection with an overarching account of the history of human environmental impact. Other contributors explore the use and abuse of the earth’s land in the development of agriculture, commercial forestry, and in the battle against desertification in arid and semi-arid regions. Cities, which first appeared some 5,500 years ago, have posed their own unique environmental challenges, including dilemmas of solid waste disposal, sewerage, disease, pollution, and sustainable food and water supplies. The rise of nation-states brought environmental legislation, which often meant “selling off” natural resources through eminent domain. Perhaps the most damaging environmental event in history resulted from a “perfect storm” of effects: cheap fossil fuels (especially petroleum) and the rapid rise of personal incomes during the 1950s brought an exponential increase in energy consumption and unforseen levels of greenhouse gasses to the earth’s atmosphere. By the 1970s, the deterioration of air, land, and water due to industrialization, population growth, and consumerism led to the birth of the environmental and ecological movements. Overall, the volume points to the ability and responsibility of humans to reverse the course of detrimental trends and to achieve environmental sustainability for existing and future populations.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: History of the Urban Environment

Front Cover

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p. vii

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p. ix

This book grew out of a workshop held in June 2005 at the Bielefeld University Center for Interdisciplinary Research. The editor would like to thank Christof Mauch and Joachim Radkau for organizing this event, as well as the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and the German Historical Institute in Washington...

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1. Thinking Big: The Broad Outlines of a Burgeoning Field

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pp. 1-12

It has become conventional wisdom among scholars that environmental history has grown up. From a marginalized field caught between counterculture activism and professional rigor, it has developed into an established part of the scholarly community that no self-respecting history department would ignore. Environmental history meetings routinely attract audiences...

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2. The First Hundred Thousand Years

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pp. 13-28

I rush in where prudent angels fear to tread, to the realm of long-term global-scale history. As a rule, historians leave this treacherous terrain to others, to historical sociologists in particular. Historians have their reasons for this caution, preferring the surer ground of smaller-scale history that can be supported by written documentation...

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3. Agriculture

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pp. 29-43

Nearly every important change in agriculture has been caused by (or caused itself) an important change in the environment. Agriculture and nature are so inextricably bound that a perturbation in one means a shifting in the other. There are some dramatic examples of this: for example, three-field rotation during the medieval period...

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4. Forest History

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pp. 44-54

From the battlements of the former castle near Hambach, Germany, a one-hour walk from Neustadt, there is a wonderful view over the Rhine Valley—about twenty kilometers north, forty kilometers east, and up to eighty kilometers south. If the weather is clear, the cities of Ludwigshafen- Mannheim, Heidelberg...

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5. The Nation-State

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pp. 55-71

At first glance, analyzing turning points in the environmental history of the nation-state might appear to be a departure from a central goal of the field: to overturn politics as the basis of historical inquiry. During the founding years of environmental history in the 1970s, esteemed environmental...

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6. Urban Environmental History

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pp. 72-89

Urban environmental history is a new subfield that evolved out of the linking of urban history and environmental history.1 In its simplest form, it concerns the character of the urban environment and the environmental phenomena occurring in cities. Cities historically have grown and expanded over time, developing expansive metropolitan...

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7. The “1950s Syndrome” and the Transition from a Slow-Going to a Rapid Loss of Global Sustainability

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pp. 90-118

During the international geophysical year of 1957–1958, the geophysicist Hans Suess and the oceanographer Roger Revelle, who was the mentor of Al Gore, discovered that the CO2 content of the atmosphere had risen since it had first been measured in the mid-1890s by Svante Arrhenius. The two scientists framed...

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8. Modern Environmentalism

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pp. 119-131

Divisions into periods are meant to give history a structure and at the same time to fix a certain interpretation of this history. This is all the more true with respect to contemporary history and especially to very recent developments. The history of the past century has seemingly been structured by more important events...

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9. The Knowledge Society

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pp. 132-145

“Knowledge is power.” Few quotations have attracted more attention, and stirred more controversy, than the famous dictum attributed to Francis Bacon. As so often, the quotation is not an original one, as the Novum Organum, the treatise that provides the clearest expression of Bacon’s revolutionary philosophy...

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10. Desertification

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pp. 146-161

Desertification is among the most misunderstood— and the most neglected—of the world’s global environmental challenges. Images of irrepressible waves of sands overwhelming civilization are not entirely fictitious. Indeed, the spectacle can be witnessed every day from the Sahara to China; frequently, natural phenomena can lead to...


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pp. 163-199


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pp. 201-202


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pp. 203-206

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780822977629
E-ISBN-10: 0822977621
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822961185
Print-ISBN-10: 0822961180

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: History of the Urban Environment
Series Editor Byline: Martin V. Melosi and Joel A. Tarr, Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794925547
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Turning Points of Environmental History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Human ecology -- History
  • Environmental sciences -- History.
  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on.
  • Environmentalism -- History.
  • Environmental degradation -- History.
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