Environmental History

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View of the Earth photographed by Apollo 16 mission April 16, 1972.
Earth as photographed on April 16, 1972, by the Apollo 16 Mission. Source: NASA

Environmental history is the study of past relationships and interactions between humans and the natural environment. In the introduction to his Dictionary of Environmental History, Ian Whyte explains: "Environmental history puts human history in its widest setting by focusing on its interactions with the environment[;] the impacts of technological, political, economic, social and aesthetic changes on nature[;] and the effects of environmental variations on past societies and cultures."[1]

Aspects of Environmental History

Environmental history is a complex topic that includes many different kinds of historical questions and approaches. Although most of these topics or approaches focus on the study of human activity (including human thought and policy making), environmental historians also pay attention to the natural environment itself, in order to understand how physical geography, climate, etc., have shaped human history. As historian Ted Steinberg explains in the preface to Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, "Environmental history centers on the examination of various relationships--how natural force shape history, how humankind affects nature, and how those ecological changes then turn around to influence human life once again in a reciprocating pattern."[2]

Physical Geography, Climate, and Natural Events

This aspect of environmental history focuses on the historical implications of several aspects of the natural environment. For example, the formation of the continents and their geography had an impact on the distribution and development of the human population. Likewise, climactic events such as the most recent Ice Age had profound implications for humans. Natural events such as asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts, and hurricanes have frequently impacted human history. Historians who focus on this aspect of environmental history often depend on research carried out by scientists. (citation needed)

Human Ideas and Values Regarding Nature

Human ideas and values regarding nature often affect how communities and societies make use of nature and set policy regarding human utilization of land, water, etc. For example, European colonizers of North America had very specific ideas about what constituted appropriate and efficient use of the land, and these views influenced their interaction with Native Americans. (citation needed)

Human Utilization of Nature

Environmental Impact of Human Activity

Environmental Activism and Policy

Additional Resources


  1. Ian Whyte, Dictionary of Environmental History (London, GBR: I.B. Tauris, 2013), p. 2, accessed November 8, 2015, ProQuest ebrary.
  2. Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, 2nd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2009), xi.