- Introduction:Grassroots History: Global Environmental Histories from Below
On January 21, 2016, the front page of the website for the New York Times featured an attention-grabbing headline. “The Hottest Year on Record,” bold letters declared, “Globally, 2015 Was the Warmest Year in Recorded History.”1 Beneath the Times’ straightforward headline appeared a detailed discussion that touched on the various complexities surrounding the discussion of climate change: how scientists arrive at global averages, how broad trends have differential effects on local environments, the complex ways broad climate shifts manifest in extreme heat waves and droughts at the regional scale. Climate scientists, along with the journalists who translate their findings to a popular audience, are accustomed to explaining and exploring the complex relationship between local conditions and truly global environmental changes and processes. They are used to scaling up from local phenomena to global patterns. And they are increasingly effective at communicating a central point, which is that to understand the changing relationship between people and nonhuman nature, you need a global perspective. Sometimes the big scale is necessary.
For their part, historians have been making this point for decades. In the past generation, a dedicated branch of historical scholarship has brought together two approaches—environmental history and global, or world, history—to a produce a new arena of inquiry. In a way, the resulting conversation within the humanities does for the past what [End Page 1] climate scientists have been doing for world climate conditions in the present: explaining and exploring the complex relationship between local histories and global environmental changes and processes. To be sure, climate change might be a dramatic example, and some now use the term Anthropocene to argue that we are living in a totally new era.2 But it is not unprecedented that the human relationship with nature transcends nation-state and regional boundaries. For environmental historians, a global perspective has yielded new insights about events and processes that a regional or local perspective obscures. Whether examining commodification or capitalism, disease or scientific revolutions, colonization or conservation, a generation of environmental historians has recognized the possibilities and the fascination inherent in scaling up to global histories. And although environmental historiography mostly began with regional-scale stories about particular landscapes, predominantly in the North American West, this key insight about the global scale of many environmental phenomena has transformed the field in recent years.
The scale and mode of inquiry reflected in global environmental history clearly has its predecessors. For many decades, historical geographers in countries around the world have examined people’s activities and relations in local environments.3 In the mid-twentieth century, historians associated with the journal Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, particularly under the stewardship of Fernand Braudel, also found in the environment what Samuel Kinser has described as “geo-historical structures” of historical change.4 In North America, where the self-conscious effort to create the field of environmental history has its oldest and deepest roots, a few of the earliest and most influential environmental histories were global in scope and anticipated regular calls for the field as a whole to become more international and global in its membership and coverage.5 Many historians apparently heeded that call, with notable examples being the American Stephen Pyne’s global history of fire and the Australian Richard Grove’s history of conservation in the British empire.6 Like Pyne and Grove, other historians have scaled up to big history, searching for broad patterns on a truly vast time scale or at the level of civilizations.7 Still others have offered transnational histories of particular commodities or diseases.8 In recent years, historians have written broad syntheses, provocative global histories of important eras, and offered histories of transnational and global [End Page 2] movements.9 Now the field is even mature enough to feature its own introductory reader, several synthetic essays, and essay collections.10
At the same time, given that many of the themes of global environmental history often involve colonialism, capitalist expansion, and global integration in the early modern and modern periods, this project can be prejudiced when it comes to perspective...