Does nature always matter? Following dirt through history

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29 Scopus citations


Despite several decades of impressive scholarship in environmental history, the field remains largely marginal to the discipline as a whole. Environmental stories are still more likely to turn up in introductions, sidebars, and footnotes to political, social, and economic histories than they are to be incorporated into those narratives in a transformative way, though we as environmental historians know that potential is there. As we struggle to identify what precisely it is that we want other historians to do with our work, we run up against questions of definition and mission: What is environmental history? What do we do that is unique? What do we want other historians to learn from what we do? Some scholars in our field have suggested that we can answer these questions by framing "environment" as a category of analysis parallel to race, class, and gender, arguing that careful attention to the environment offers as rich a way of uncovering power relationships in societies as attention to these other categories does. While it is true that power can be read in the environment, and is frequently expressed through it, I argue that "environment" as both concept and fact is so fundamentally different from class, race, and gender that the analogy does not work, and distracts us from another, more fruitful strategy for articulating the broader relevance of our scholarship: demonstrating the significance of material nature for histories beyond the environmental realm. If other historians would join us in our attention to the physical, biological, and ecological nature of dirt, water, air, trees, and animals (including humans), they would find themselves led to new questions and new answers about the past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-81
Number of pages7
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Philosophy


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