- Special Topics in Calamity History
I moved to Washington, D.C., in January 1993, to take a post-college job with an environmental organization, just a week before Bill Clinton and Al Gore were inaugurated. In those days, Gore's infamous "information superhighway" was barely paved; everyone in my office had to share a single on-ramp. To access the Internet, we all typed the password "DOOM."
Starting with the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy at the beginning of the twentieth century, American environmentalists have tended to cast themselves as forestallers of imminent catastrophes. So it is not too surprising that some mainstream historians think of Green activists as generally crying wolf or channeling Chicken Little. Indeed, rumors of Nature's demise seem to have been highly exaggerated, and the history profession has little patience for alarmism and exceptionalism. Some trees may be falling, but the sky isn't. Naturally, then—if that is not too loaded a word—Green historians, too, have struggled to be taken seriously in the realm of professional history. Their arguments have only rarely and recently been incorporated into survey textbooks and other broad, synthetic works. The field of environmental history is still considered, well, green.1
A recent forum in the journal Environmental History, for which thirty practitioners speculated about where the field is headed, generally forecast sunny skies. But, if the writers almost all asserted that their sub-discipline had passed through the messiness of spring and was now entering the full flowering of summer, I couldn't help but sense their concern that conditions were starting to get a little hot. In what was to me one of the most cool and even-keeled of the essays, my friend Paul Sabin noted that, to get at "the root causes of [End Page 453] historical environmental change," we generally have to spend more time on "industrial politics and business competition" than on "fields and streams." But then we risk—as Paul himself risked, in his shrewd book about the California oil industry—producing work that fails to get labeled as environmental history, because it is too focused on law, or economics, or politics, rather than on nature or ecology.2
I would say that the majority of self-identified environmental historians are going in Paul's direction, probably thanks in large part to the success and leadership of his undergraduate mentor, William Cronon. In Nature's Metropolis (1991), Cronon fashioned a classic of environmental history that also appealed to anyone working in urban, economic, or frontier history (it also angered several people in social and labor history, but that's a different story). Then, in Uncommon Ground (1995), Cronon argued compellingly, along with several colleagues, that it was time to recognize the cultural construction of Nature and stop writing about humanity and the environment as if they were two separate categories.
Certain other colleagues, though, wanted to know if that also meant it was silly to think of environmental history as a separate category. Indeed, Uncommon Ground sparked both an avalanche of new work in the same vein and a flurry of harsh objections. Without questioning Cronon's postmodern brilliance, his critics insisted that respect for a separate, material, non-human reality was precisely the point of the field. "We speak for the trees," such critics seemed to be saying, and, in fact, the trees were falling faster than ever.
We're seemingly stuck, then, with the persistently shrill alarmism of much environmental history, which has meant that it is still misunderstood, and perhaps too easily dismissed, by historians in other sub-disciplines. Given the anxiety over whether environmental history should even be a legitimate field, it perhaps makes sense that those scholars who insist on foregrounding a separate natural realm in need of preservation...