Breaking With Discipline: Studying Environmental History

As I tried to make sense of my comprehensive exam readings through the onset of the pandemic, I thought about why certain texts in the “canonical” American environmental history field bothered me so much. I was learning a greater breadth of certain narratives, principles, and methodologies, which was useful. But something seemed amiss. I found out that in the early 2000s, a few scholars within the official American environmental history field posed questions about the direction and scope of this work, trying to figure the same thing out. They questioned the field’s position and value both within and apart from academic historical work, pointed to its lack of (or, I would say, unconscious underlying) political and social theory, and its United States-centric focus.[1]

By surveying more environmental historical work both within and beyond the “official” field for my exams, I realized the origin of my irritation. My frustration with American environmental history stemmed from the absence of any recognition that the context and emergence of environmental history’s institutional form structured so many of its limitations. I found it difficult to articulate my discomfort on stable ground, feeling that I still needed more knowledge on the state of the field, but knowing there was a problem. My confusion and doubt about pursuing environmental history in this way made it challenging for me to take in a great deal of information on a topic that I was supposed to be specializing in, in an academy that I already found alienating. 

Since this experience, I now have the language for many of my critiques. But rather than focusing on and critiquing the kinds of environmental history scholarship canonical of the field in this short piece, I want to gesture to how my thinking shifted to see environmental history as a broad and fruitful method. Some fantastic literature and theory sharpened the stakes of environmental history for me, not as a discipline, but as an enterprise encompassing various methods in understanding past and present socio-ecological transformations, worlds, and crises. 

The distinction between discipline and enterprise is important. Environmental history as an institutional discipline within the North American academy is prone not only to limitations, but also to re-inscriptions of colonial knowledge forms, or ways of seeing the world that naturalize historical power relations. Displacing institutional and disciplinary boundaries that organize academic environmental history confronts the constraints of these understandings and gives language to more precise histories of the present.

Here are a collection of lessons that I have accumulated as I study environmental pasts: 

Lesson One: The narratives that we use to articulate histories delimit the scope of environmental analysis

Entire dominant schools of historical thought have severed narratives of progress, liberalism, and development from those of colonialism, slavery, and imperial trades. Lisa Lowe is a foremost thinker restoring how these realities were separated by narratives of freedom and progress and rearticulating them as dependent processes.[2] So what does that mean for environmental histories? I recently read an article with a reading group on Stuart Hall, the illustrious Jamaican British cultural theorist, that suggests one idea. Hall says about going to England in the 1950s, “I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth … Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom … This is the symbolization of English identity … Where does it come from? Ceylon/Sri Lanka, India.”[3] Pervasive narratives and imagery of English cultural identity as civilized and progressive were buttressed by vast, material, sugar and tea plantations, and the labour of the people in colonized lands. Environmental history is an excellent vehicle for reintegrating stories of “progress” with their incumbent processes of extraction, oppression, and social and ecological alteration.

Lesson Two: The ways we envision environmental space offers alternative approaches to analysis. 

If we already know that environmental histories are enriched by a critical engagement with “ways of seeing,” then deploying different spatial imaginaries can also counter colonial mapping and cartographies, while identifying otherwise unnoticed historical trends. One favourite example I recently read is Simeon Man’s use of “twin sites of war” in the decolonizing Pacific, to reveal and analyze Hawai’i as a militarized, colonized, and racialized space of the Vietnam War by the US military (challenging liberal maps of American statehood).[4] Imaginaries can render connections between places visible, while forgoing narratives and representations that otherwise conceal them by colonial, state, or archival boundaries.

Lesson Three: Reconsidering normative boundaries can make longer or broader histories visible

Some boundaries repeatedly arise in environmental analyses, like nature/culture and body/environment (though these too, emerge from historical and cultural contexts). Boundaries can be strategically selected as a methodological choice for interpretation. In her brilliant new historical work on the Vietnam War, Thuy Linh Tu uses “skin” as a hermeneutic to extend the scope of the chemical war beyond its theatres of conflict, or on forests, lands, and rivers. Tu traces chemical exposures through skin in military dermatological experiments to the formation of the pharmaceutical skin products industry in Vietnam, revealing the material and metaphorical relevance of this unstable boundary in shaping race and beauty in American and Vietnamese contexts.[5] Boundaries can inform where we might look for continuing environmental pasts.

Lesson Four: Science is always politically embedded and constructed

Maybe this isn’t news, but environmental studies and methods have not contended with it nearly enough. Contextualizing scientific concepts, thoughts, and practices is especially urgent since environmental discourses, historical and current, are saturated with scientific language and terms. We are so fortunate that some incredible anti-colonial, Black, Indigenous, and feminist work countering this phenomenon, whether through critiques of science or uncovering other traditions, methodologies, and modes of knowing, has been recently published.[6] In their much-anticipated Pollution is Colonialism (2021), Indigenous STS scholar Max Liboiron attends to pollution through Indigenous land ethics and relations, arguing that mainstream environmental science and activism retain colonial notions of access to land.[7] How should we problematize the history of pollution, and the notions used in environmental movements in liberal democracies, with this crucial insight?

Lesson Five: The Anthropocene is also circumscribed by coloniality

The Anthropocene is one scientific concept that gets its own lesson, because of its ubiquity in contemporary environmental discussions. Coined by geologists and scientists in the late-twentieth century, environmental and scientific scholars tend to regard the Anthropocene, an era on the earth immensely influenced by human activity, as a universal process and epoch. But Indigenous and Black thinkers have incisively dispelled this universal notion of ecological catastrophe and of human activity. They demonstrate that “Anthropocenes” were different moments for different groups of people and ecologies, deeply situated in processes like colonialism, genocide, slavery, plantations, forestry and timber trades, capitalism, and more.[8] Indigenous and environmental studies scholar Zoe Todd, and political ecology and art scholar Heather Davis, argue that the singular term “Anthropocene” erases significant work that has been done to illuminate power differentials of colonialism. The task instead is to make “the relations between the Anthropocene and colonialism explicit.”[9] The Black Studies scholar and political theorist Bedour Alagraa further contends that we need to destabilize how we think about ecological “catastrophe” altogether, to one that is a “repeating structure tied to the inauguration of racial slavery and plantation modes of production.”[10]

There is plenty more, but I am grateful to be learning from such inspiring thinkers. Despite my frustrations, I found they were worth grappling with in order to move beyond the restrictions of a predefined discipline. I am excited that this handful of lessons points to numerous avenues for how we move forward in carrying out environmental historical work!

[1] See e.g. Paul Sutter, “Reflections: What Can US Environmental Historians Learn from Non-US Environmental Historiography?” Environmental History 8, no. 1 (January 2003): 109-129; Douglas R. Weiner, “A Death-Defying Attempt to Articulate a Coherent Definition of Environmental History,” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (July 2005): 404-420; Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde, “The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History: A Re-Reading of the Field,” Environmental History 12, no. 1 (January 2007): 107-130. 

[2] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). 

[3] Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities,” in Stuart Hall: Selected Writings, Essential Essays, Vol. 2: Identity and Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 70.  

[4] Simeon Man, Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018), 78. Another awesome example is Tao Leigh Goffe’s use of “guano archipelagos” in “Guano in their Destiny: Race, Geology, and a Philosophy of Indenture,” Amerasia Journal 45, no. 1 (June 2019): 27-49.

[5] Thuy Linh Tu, Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

[6] Two pivotal recent works are Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021) and Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).
Just FYI: I didn’t intend to make this all about Duke University Press, but they are publishing awesome work.   

[7] The Red Nation coalition of Native and non-Native activists, educators, and organizers’ book, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action (Common Notions, 2021) is also an important call for social movements on climate crisis beyond colonial state conceptions that center Indigenous liberation.

[8] There is a lot of significant Indigenous work on this. I found these two articles extremely helpful: Jessica L. Horton’s “Indigenous Artists against the Anthropocene,” Art Journal 76, no. 2 (2017): 48-69, and Kali Simmons’ “Reorientations; or, An Indigenous Feminist Reflection on the Anthropocene,” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 58, no. 2 (Winter 2019): 174-179.
An urgent book using Black feminist thought to dismantle the “White Geology of the Anthropocene,” and contend with its grammars and geographies of racism and extraction is Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). 

[9] Zoe Todd and Heather Davis, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4 (2017): 763.

[10] Bedour Alagraa, “The Interminable Catastrophe,” Offshoot Journal (March 1, 2021).

*Cover image: Xsandra. Tea Plantation near Nurawa Eliya, Sri Lanka. N.d. Photograph. Getty Images (cropped by editor).

[Cover image description: A tea plantation, depicting organized wavy rows of bright green tea plants in the foreground, and mist covering trees and extending hills of more tea plants in the background.]

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