- Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader ed. by John R. McNeill and Alan Roe
What does it mean to write history “from below”? The rejection of a number of things surely is implied: the triumphalist teleologies of the nation, the tropes of the unfettered and frictionless movement of capital, and the emancipatory conceits of rights-bringing imperial forces. It means centering the voices and epistemologies of those who have been silenced—those of women; of racial, religious, and ethnic minorities; and of people who elide convenient placement in discrete categories of gender, race, or ability. Writing these critical histories requires strategies that are not quite self-evident; it demands, for example, the production of new archival landscapes and methodological strategies that disrupt histories meant to sustain systems of power. But how can historians situate these ethical, interpretive, and methodological concerns within the fields of environmental history and global history—that is to say, toward the production of “global environmental histories from below,” the organizing intellectual project of this volume?
This has been a mobilizing question for many of the faculty and graduate students in the history department of the University of Illinois, where scholars of empire, the environment, Africa, Asia, and the Americas have come together to situate environmental history within a larger, department-wide initiative to center global histories from below. This intellectual project has taken many forms, including graduate preliminary exam lists meant to center global environmental history, an environmental history reading group that meets regularly to draw from departments in the humanities and sciences, conferences, and even a graduate history seminar in the spring of 2015. What has emerged from these multiple intellectual endeavors is an acknowledgement of the complexity of the task at hand. In the current historiographical moment, one when both global history and environmental history are ascendant as fields of historical inquiry and as objects of theoretical and [End Page 427] methodological debate, reconciling the interpretive prerogatives of environmental history with those of global history is proving to be not quite as self-evident as calling something a “global environmental history,” with no mention of the challenges in parsing out how to argue “from below.” While both fields of inquiry share important interpretive goals—to decenter the nation-state and to interrogate historiographical orthodoxy on questions of scale and scope, for example—the work of uniting the two fields of global and environmental history takes a good amount of methodological heavy lifting and theoretical nuance.
Thankfully, however, instructors and students of global and environmental history alike have a place to think through these questions in John McNeill and Alan Roe’s Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader. At the University of Illinois, this was a touchstone of the class discussions in the Global Environmental History seminar. It was a beginning or ending point at times; it was a foil; and its essays served as useful pairings with larger monographs. It was used to evaluate the historical and historiographical possibilities of environmental history from below and how that prerogative tacks against methodological strategies and interpretive paradigms within the field.
The collection’s stated aim is “to provide a measure of orientation and introduction to the nascent field of environmental history” (xviii). It is a useful tool for wizened scholars of environmental history and “the curious public at large”; and the scope of the articles, in both form and content, attest to the variability of the intended audience. The collection does not so much stake any historiographical or methodological ground as it does give readers a rich lay of the field, which is no easy task given the diversity of subject, method, and archive that its contributors draw from. This is perhaps a product of the fact that McNeill and Roe are geographically inclusive—there are representative pieces from most parts of the world situated in their respective literatures and methods. Readers get a balance of influential thematic essays alongside articles that wrestle with important theoretical and methodological debates that define the field and cross area historiographies.