Environment and the Materiality of the Past: The State of Environmental History in Canada


This April, the Wilson Institute for Canadian History and the Network in Canadian History & Environment will host a three-day symposium called EH+: Writing the Next Chapter of Canadian Environmental History. The symposium is intended to assemble up to fifty scholars to discuss and debate future directions for the study of environmental history in Canada. Applicants have been asked to submit a statement on the current state and future of the field of environmental history so I thought I would post my statement here and ask for your feedback. Please post your thoughts, questions, and comments below.

Depending on whom you ask, environmental history, as a sub-discipline of Canadian history, is either very old or relatively new. When considered from a deeper historiographic perspective, Canadian history has a long tradition of concern with the interrelationship between the environment and national development. Much of the early work in political economy of Harold Innis, A.R.M. Lower, Donald Creighton, and J.M.S. Careless focused on the role of natural resources, geography, and transportation in the construction and development of the Canadian nation-state. This research was preoccupied with an environmentalist interpretation of history, but one that differs significantly from contemporary understandings of environmental history. Early twentieth-century historians, of course, understood and interpreted the relationship between people and environment in a fundamentally different manner. These early historical researchers operated within the context of the predominant environmentalist interpretation of the American past, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. To some extent, Innis, Lower, Creighton and Careless sought a “made-in-Canada” counter-part to the frontier thesis, which seemed to so neatly explain the origins and development of US democracy and expansion. By 1954, Careless himself admitted that “we can hardly examine the current state of Canadian historiography, and perhaps project its lines of growth, without giving heavy weight to the North American-Environmentalist view of our history which stemmed originally from Turner’s frontier thesis and which still leaves a rich heritage on both sides of the Canadian-American boundary.” The environment was the focal point of early narrative analyses of the Canadian nation.[1]

Historical researchers, however, turned away from both national histories and environmentalist views of Canadian history by the 1960s and 1970s, leading to what historical geographer, R. Cole Harris, recently characterized as “the widespread contemporary disinclination to write national histories.” The older environmentalist approach to Canadian history was abandoned in the process and somewhat marred by critiques of environmental determinism, beginning with the work of Carl O. Sauer and the development of his concepts of landscape morphology and cultural history. Though more immediately influential in the field of historical geography, Sauer’s work provided a foundation for understanding landscape as the product of the interrelationship between humans and the environment, “an area made up of a distinct association of forms, both physical and cultural.” As Canadian historiography explored new avenues of biography, and further fragmented into various “limited identities” of social history along lines of ethnicity, class, and gender, the remaining historians and historical geographers of Canadian political economy reinterpreted the staples approach from a regional perspective, most prominently in H.V. Nelles’s The Politics of Development and Graeme Wynn’s Timber Colony.[2]

Environmental history, then, has deep roots in Canadian historiography, but as a deliberately defined sub-discipline, its roots in Canada are relatively shallow. Most Canadian historians would agree that the field of environmental history in Canada was specifically inspired by pioneering work from the US by scholars including Roderick Nash, Alfred Crosby, Donald Worster, John Opie and Carolyn Merchant. In 1970, six years prior to the founding of the American Society for Environmental History, Nash bravely attempted to define the proto-field with a somewhat premature “State of Environmental History” article, the first of many to appear over the course of the next couple decades. By the early 1990s, US environmental historians had more clearly defined the field, its theories and methodologies, focusing explicitly on the changing reciprocal relations between humans and non-human nature in US history.[3]

Because of the environmentalist traditions of historical research in Canadian political economy, environmental history seemed like a natural fit for Canadian historians. In an effort to catch up with their counterparts in the US, emerging environmental history researchers in Canada re-discovered books like The Politics of Development and other works in Canadian political economy because, according to Nelles, “the limitations on the land placed upon social, economic, and political development were among its main concerns.” This early wave of interest in environmental history, then, focused mainly on a revival of older works in political economy and a general recognition of environmental issues in the current literature. As Alan MacEachern put it in 2002, “there are more historians deciding that because their topic has an environmental angle – their battle scarred Belgian landscape, their politician made his money in forestry, their striking coal miners mined coal when they were not striking – environmental history must be part of what they do.” Environmental history in Canada by the beginning of the twenty-first century was somewhat methodologically vague and in need of new original research. The first textbook reader in Canadian environmental history, Consuming Canada, reflected this early approach to the field, consisting of a loosely organized collection of reprinted articles and book chapters, many of which were drawn from US literature.[4]

Within the past few years, environmental history in Canada has experienced substantial growth. In 2004, the Network in Canadian History & Environment was awarded initial funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to coordinate the first scholarly organization for environmental history research in Canada. In terms of publications, there has been significant growth in both articles and original monographs in Canadian environmental history, led by the UBC Press Nature/History/Society series. A number of environmental history researchers have been appointed Canada Research Chairs and we are just beginning to see history departments seek tenure-track appointments for Canadian environmental history. The largest area of growth in environmental history research continues to be at the graduate level with numerous new M.A. and Ph.D. projects on a wide variety of topics. Finally, environmental history can be more regularly found in undergraduate course calendars and, within just the past two years, two excellent textbooks in Canadian environmental history have been published.[5]

The challenge, of course, for those attending the EH+ workshop will be to determine some future directions for the field. While environmental history research in Canada has grown substantially within the past decade, arguably becoming more mainstream in historical scholarship, it has yet to mature methodologically. Canadian researchers have yet to fully embrace the methodological frameworks for environmental history laid out by leading scholars like Carolyn Merchant, Donald Worster, and Alfred Crosby. Environmental history, according to these scholars, is more than simply a distinct set of topics in historical research concerned with some aspect of the natural world. It is more than just history with trees. “It becomes easy to forget,” as Ted Steinberg argues, “that the earth’s climate, geology, and ecology are not simply a backdrop, but an active, shaping force in the historical process.” From her earliest work in the field, Merchant was clear that environmental history “asserts the idea of nature as a historical actor,” or rejects, as Worster put it in 1988, “the conventional assumption that human experience has been exempt from natural constraints.” Environmental history, as it was conceived by some of its earliest practitioners, is a revisionist methodological approach to studying the past from a biological perspective. Crosby was perhaps the most explicit in his argument that the field should not merely be understood as a sub-discipline of history but as an entirely new way of understanding the past. He believed that “[h]istorians were purblind in considering environmental matters,” and that by not viewing humans as biological actors, “historians and people in general can overlook subjects of colossal importance.” This historical “astigmatism” could, according to Crosby, be corrected by adopting an environmental history approach, which he characterized as a kind of analytical lens, one that could alter traditional understandings of history. His own research on ecological imperialism still stands as one of the most significant reinterpretations of global imperialism that has had a lasting impact on historical scholarship outside the field of environmental history. Future environmental history research in Canada should strive for this kind of revisionist impact.[6]

Environmental history must integrate into and influence Canadian history research as an interpretive framework and analytical lens for studying the past. Just as gender, class, and ethnicity have reshaped our understanding of Canadian history within the last generation, so too should historians consider the material limits of the interrelationship between humans and the non-human world. Ellen Stroud has argued that environment stands out even from gender, class, and ethnicity as a category of analysis because “[p]olitics, economics, and social relations are all shaped by and dependent upon the environment.” There is great significance to understanding the materiality of history. When reconsidering the role of James Wolfe in the conquest of Quebec, for instance, historians might reasonably ask questions about how his decisions were informed by mid-eighteenth century understandings of masculinity or his status within British class hierarchy. So too should historians think about Wolfe’s place in history as a biological actor, suffering from an unknown gastrointestinal disorder on the eve of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Historical studies of climate and epidemiology might clarify still unanswered questions about the influence of an agricultural crisis and cholera in Lower Canada prior to the outbreak of violent rebellion in the late 1830s. We are already seeing fine examples of this kind of revisionist work, including Esyllt Jones’s study of the influence of the 1918 influenza epidemic on class relations in Winnipeg leading up to the 1919 general strike and Liza Piper’s case study of the impact of the 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia on agriculture in colonial New Brunswick. By using an environmental history approach to studying the past, these historians have begun to establish the field as not merely a sub-discipline of Canadian history but something far more pervasive. Rather than producing new monographs isolated from the broader discipline of Canadian history, environmental historians should strive to produce research that engages with a wide range of disciplinary fields of history and, perhaps, challenges older interpretations of Canada’s past that were purblind to the biological and socio-economic interdependence of humans and the rest of nature. If taken in this direction, environmental history in Canada is likely see greater growth and influence within the broader discipline.[7]


[1] Harold Adams Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930); A.R.M. Lower, Settlement and the Forest Frontier in Eastern Canada (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936); Donald G. Creighton, The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence: 1760-1850 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1937); J.M.S. Carless, “Frontierism, Metropolitanism, and Canadian History” Canadian Historical Review 35 (1) 1954: 1.

[2] R. Cole Harris, The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada before Confederation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009) 7; Carl O. Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape” in Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer, ed. John Leighly (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) pg. 321 [Originally published in University of California Publications in Geography 2 (2) 1925: 19-54.]; J.M.S. Careless, “Limited Identities in Canada” Canadian Historical Review 50 (1) 1969: 1-10; H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines & Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974); Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony: A Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981).

[3] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1973); Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); John Opie, The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farm Land Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapter Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Roderick Nash, “The State of Environmental History” in The State of American History, edited by Herbert J. Bass, 249-60 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970); further statements on the field include Carolyn Merchant, “The Theoretical Structure of Ecological Revolutions” Environmental Review 11 (4) 1987: 265-74;  Donald Worster, “Appendix: Doing Environmental History” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed., Donald Worster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History” Journal of American History 76 (4) (1990): 1087-106; Alfred W. Crosby, “The Past and Present of Environmental History” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1177-89; Douglas R. Weiner, “A Death-Defying Attempt to Articulate a Coherent Definition of Environmental History” Environmental History 10 (3) 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 (1) 2007: 107-130.

[4] H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines & Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005 [1974]) xxiii; Alan MacEachern, “Voices Crying in the Wilderness: Recent Works in Canadian Environmental History” Acadiensis 31 (2) 2002: 215; Chad Gaffield and Pam Gaffield Consuming Canada: Readings in Environmental History (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1995).

[5] For an excellent review of recent literature in Canadian environmental history see Anya Zilberstein, “Nature and Nation: Recent Books in Canadian Environmental History” Journal of Canadian Studies 42 (3) 2008: 193-207.

[6] Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 4; Carolyn Merchant, “The Theoretical Structure of Ecological Revolutions” Environmental Review 11 (4) 1987: 267; Donald Worster, “Appendix: Doing Environmental History” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed., Donald Worster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)290; Alfred Crosby, “The Past and Present of Environmental History” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 1181; Marc Cioc and Char Miller, “Alfred Crosby” Environmental History 14 (3) 2009: 564; Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[7] Ellen Stroud, “Does Nature Always Matter? Following Dirt through History” History and Theory 42 (4) 2003: 76; I.L. Epstein and D. Ledin, “Battles and Bowel Disease: The Gastrointestinal Complaints of General James Wolfe” presented at Canadian Digestive Diseases Week 2008 [http://www.pulsus.com/cddw2008/abs/340.htm]; Fernand Ouellet argued this in Le Bas-Canada, 1791-1840: Changements Structuraux et Crise, (Editions de l’Universite d’Ottawa), 1976; John B. Osborne “Preparing for the Pandemic: City Boards of Health and the Arrival of Cholera in Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia in 1832” Urban History Review / Revue d’Histoire Urbaine 36 (2) 2008: 29-42; Esyllt Jones, Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007); Liza Piper, “Backward Seasons and Remarkable Cold: The Weather Over Long Reach, New Brunswick, 1812-1821” Acadiensis 34 (1) 2004: 31-55.

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