Environmental history and New Zealand history

Paul Star[1]

I practise environmental history. I have found that this kind of history is still often poorly understood by other historians, as well as by New Zealanders in general. Many neither really know what it is nor appreciate its worth. This is a sorry state of affairs, and all the more so in ‘a land to which not only Europeans, but also humans of any kind, came late’.[2] The present paper pursues that point among others, in the course of specifying eight reasons for studying New Zealand environmental history in particular.

But, to start with, what is environmental history?  The definition I favour states, simply enough, that environmental history is ‘the study of relationships between humans and the environment over time’ – especially the changes in that relationship. I want to differentiate this from historical geography, which is a sub-discipline that was identified much earlier, but which at least overlaps with it. In fact, it’s tempting to define historical geography as ‘environmental history as practised by geographers’.

Environmental history, historical geography and ecological history

When I was a thirteen-year old schoolboy I was given the option of studying either history or geography, but not both, so regrettably I learnt very little geography thereafter. I’ve had a lot to do with geographers in recent years, however, and I find their psyche is markedly different from that of historians. Broadly speaking, geographers always think first about space and place, while historians always think first about time.

Historians also always think about things in terms of people, whereas geographers only sometimes do – They train in both ‘physical geography’ and ‘human geography’, with ‘historical geography’ appearing as a subdivision of the latter. Given this framework, we can see why geographers got into ‘historical geography’ earlier than historians got into ‘environmental history’. ‘Environment’ is ‘place’, and it can exist with or without people, whereas ‘people’ can’t exist without ‘environment’. But if you’re not trained to regard place and space as so important, it’s hard to get away from thinking of change purely in terms of people, which is what historians tend to do.

I therefore define historical geography simply as ‘the study of relationships between the environment and humans over time’. In other words, it’s much the same as ‘environmental history’, but with a stimulating change of emphasis in terms of what you look at first.

There is a third sub-discipline I want to identify, which I call ‘ecological history’, though I’ve seen the term used interchangeably with ‘environmental history’, which leads to confusion. In my definition, ‘ecological history; describes ‘the study of biotic relationships within an ecosystem or the environment over time’ – once more with the emphasis on changing relationships, whether or not a particular progression or ‘succession’ of relationships is recognised. ‘Biota’ is the term for everything alive in both the plant and the animal kingdoms, including humans.

The key point about this kind of study is, that it doesn’t necessarily pay particular attention to the role of humans. In fact, it can be a study of biotic relationships with no human component whatsoever – for instance, alteration to the range of nothofagus and mixed podocarp forest ecosystems as a consequence of climatic variation in pre-human New Zealand. This is the kind of angle pursued by some ecologists and paleobotanists, but it is not what I mean by ‘environmental history’, which is narrower in its scope, insofar as it only looks at the situation when people are on the scene.

Those trained as historians, like myself, find it even harder to adopt this ecologist’s view than to the geographer’s view. But, on the other hand, it is also hard for ecologists to think like historians, and that this is where our input can be particularly useful. Geoff Park is, in my view, the New Zealand ecologist who has most successfully managed to research and think like a historian, and this is one reason why his book Nga Uruora is so significant. The ecologist Philip Simpson has also made a significant contribution with his books on the cabbage tree and on rata and pohutukawa. As yet I don’t think any significant New Zealand historian has got properly to grips with both ways of thinking. One or two geographers, like Peter Holland in Otago, have managed much better.[3]

Environmental history and mainstream historiography

From 1969 to 1971 I studied British and European history at Cambridge, and the position of economic history then, in relation to history in general, was rather like the relationship now of environmental history to general New Zealand history. There was good stuff being done by economic historians about fluctuations in cotton imports and population dynamics and all the rest of it, but most historians found it incredibly boring even while grudgingly accepting that it was an approach which had some value. This was certainly true of the attitude shown by my director of studies, Derek Beales, who was much happier discussing why Lord John Russell was more significant than Sir Robert Peel.

Beales was (and is) of the generation who, had he been a New Zealand historian, would have contributed an excellent chapter to the first edition of the Oxford History of New Zealand, which was published in 1981. There’s a lot of political history in that volume, a respectable amount of social, economic and Maori history, but virtually nothing about the New Zealand environment. At least, not specifically so. You can find material on changes in the ownership of land, and development in resource use, which is of course very pertinent to environmental history, but there is no focus that draws this, and other unmentioned material, together. Nor is there in the second edition, published in 1992, which is still a ‘standard textbook for undergraduate courses in New Zealand history’. The older single-author New Zealand histories, like Keith Sinclair’s Pelican History, also didn’t include environmental history.[4]

It has, however, made a definite appearance in works of the last decade, and notably in ‘twin-peaked Mount Belich’, as Michael King called it, and in King’s own Penguin History of 2003. King specifically ‘commended’ the 2002 volume, Environmental Histories of New Zealand, edited by the historian Tom Brooking and the geographer Eric Pawson, and it is this volume, more than any other, that has put New Zealand environmental history on the academic map.[5] New Zealand environmental history is also creeping into university course lists, Tom Brooking having led the way with a second year paper at Otago.

The New Oxford History of New Zealand, edited by Giselle Byrnes of Waikato University, is due to appear in 2009. This work will include one chapter specifically of environment history, which I have written.[6]   I think acceptance of the need for such a chapter in such a book shows that environmental history has definitely now “arrived” in New Zealand, even though still rather grudgingly accepted by some historians. I find it rather striking, though, that this is only one chapter among about thirty that is going to deal with the environment, while the others, with one or two partial exceptions, have little or nothing to do with it. The rest of the book, in other words, still displays the tendency of most historians to study and write exclusively about a human’s relationships with other humans, or a group of humans’ relationships with other groups.

I intend this as an observation rather than a criticism. I would say, though, that while I also find interactions among people significant and fascinating, the interactions between people and the environment are equally significant, and can be equally fascinating – and nowhere more so than in New Zealand!  My claim is that the environmental history of New Zealand is particularly interesting and worthy of study. I can identify at least eight reasons for this.

Motives for studying New Zealand environmental history

The first and most important reason is that people arrived so late in New Zealand. The time that the first humans reached here is, of course, disputed, and there may well be further revisions to the most commonly held view at present, that the first Polynesians reached here about 800 years ago. But even if this date is a few centuries wrong, it is still in striking contrast to the situation in other large landmasses in the world, where humans have had a presence for millennia, and so have had time to co-evolve with their environment. It is also in striking contrast with the situation in the nearest other large landmass, Australia, where Aborigines have been co-evolving with their environment for perhaps 60,000 years.[7] Assuming these datings are roughly correct, the time ratios for co-evolution with their current environments for Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori and New Zealand Pakeha are about 240:3:1.

Secondly, not only humans but also all their closest relatives – the other land mammals – were also exceptionally late in reaching New Zealand. Until the Polynesians brought kuri (dogs) and kiore (rats), there were probably no land mammals here except two or three species of bat. This means that, when you are thinking of the capacity for ecological alteration that arrived with humans – with what is rather more subjectively called the ‘ecological invasion’ – New Zealand got a “double whammy”.

The third special feature of New Zealand’s environmental history is the rapidity of ecological transformation. Whether or not you are looking at events after Polynesian arrival or after European arrival, change occurred far more quickly – that is, in the space of a very few generations – than in any other landmass of similar size.

Now, I find all this tremendously exciting! The three factors combined of lateness of change, depth of change, and rapidity of change to the New Zealand environment surely make this the unique and most significant aspect of New Zealand history and therefore the aspect most worthy of study in the global scale of things. This was recognised early on by the celebrated geographer A H Clark, who studied The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals in the 1940s, and by the world historian Alfred Crosby, who developed his ideas on Ecological Imperialism in the 1980s by using the New Zealand example as his main case study.[8]

The title of Clark’s book underlines that the invasion was not just by humans and mammals – but also other animals – fish and birds, notably – and by plants as well. Crosby, furthermore, laid particular stress on the role of exotic weeds and ‘varmints’, or animal pests, and on pathogens and disease. Of these different kinds of ‘portmanteau biota’ – that is, the biological baggage’ of human settlers, rather than their ‘cultural baggage’ – not enough historical study has been done so far of insects, or of microbes. Big organisms catch the eye more easily.

Most scholars of New Zealand’s past have shown little interest in the country’s biota, big or small, but instead have concentrated on subjects like the development of socialism, national identity, women’s rights in the New Zealand context, and the confrontation and interrelationship between European and Maori. I am also interested in these matters, which have great significance for New Zealanders living here now, and are obviously appropriate subjects for New Zealand historians. I do claim, however, not only that New Zealand’s environmental history is equally worthy of study, but also that it has this particularly unique aspect to it, from a global point of view. The same cannot quite be said of New Zealand’s race relations or male/female relations, despite the exceptional aspects of the Waitangi Tribunal or the lead New Zealand took on women’s suffrage.

A fourth significance of New Zealand environmental history is the lateness of the arrival of European humans to New Zealand. This is a different point to my first one – the lateness of human arrival of any kind – and was not quite unparalleled. Graeme Wynn points out, for instance, that Europeans settled on the northwest American coast, around British Columbia, at much the same time as other Europeans settled New Zealand.[9]

The great significance of the arrival of Europeans, when it occurred in non-European parts of the world, was their greater capacity for environmental change through greater technical knowledge, global communication networks and capital accumulation. There was also continuing reference back to Europe – return journeys for more people, more biota, more supplies and more knowledge.

One could argue that the Polynesian impact on the New Zealand environment was more profound than the later European impact, given that the Polynesians really did confront a pristine environment. Even so, the loss of links with their past meant an inability to reinforce and recharge the impact with further boosts from the country of origin. The environmental impact of Polynesian people upon the environment prior to the arrival of Europeans was restrained by their entrapment within a ‘closed circuit’. Perhaps over time this necessitated the development of a more harmonious relationship with their environment than Europeans needed in New Zealand. May be for this reason Maori, despite the comparative recency of their settlement are truly indigenous in the same way that Aborigines are in Australia. In other words, may be indigeneity should be gauged more by the way a people treat a place than by the duration of their presence.

My main point here, however, is that because of their isolation the Maori established few new species, therefore the later arrival of Europeans had a correspondingly greater potential for environmental impact. European settlers came to an environment that was certainly not ‘pristine’, but there were still relatively few humans, much of the original forest cover and most wetlands remained, and so did many of the flightless birds that had evolved in the absence of mammalian predators.

The fifth importance I see in the study, specifically, of New Zealand environmental history, is again an allied point. It relates to the fact that the most dramatic time of change – the European period of the last couple of centuries – coincided with the flowering, world wide, of written and photographic documentation. There is a vast amount of documentary evidence of the people-environment relationship in New Zealand newspapers and government records, as well as in private papers, photos, pictures and maps. It’s been particularly exciting in the last year or two to be able to word-search a couple of dozen nineteenth century New Zealand newspapers through PapersPast on the Net – a free service set up by the National Library which, I believe, is not yet available in this form anywhere else in the world.[10]

Sixthly, there is a special fascination and significance in the peculiar combination of people and environment in New Zealand. Many historians are deeply interested in the coming together of the culturally very different Maori and European, and of how they have dealt with one another since. With environmental history, however, the concern is rather with how they both dealt with the environment they held in common.

For me, most interest lies in the European relationship with the New Zealand environment, particularly in the nineteenth century. What is striking here is the coming together of a Western culture with a singularly unWestern environment. Europeans came here imagining they had reached what was, potentially, the Britain of the South, but the one thing the two landmasses had in common – a temperate climate – masked tremendous differences. It meant it was possible to grow lush English grass in New Zealand, as feed for introduced cattle and sheep, but only at tremendous environmental cost. It meant the rapid removal of the existing vegetation, destruction of the existing fauna, the application of artificial fertilisers and the utilisation of oil-based technologies. None of this denies that it also meant financial gain and the chance for a prosperous Western-style society in a southern land, at least for a couple of centuries.

For the past four years I have been part of the ‘Empires of Grass’ team. This is a Marsden-funded group, headed by Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, looking specifically at the history of the reclothing of New Zealand in English grasses. This is a fundamental example of how Europeans superimposed their cultural expectations, and their plants and animals, upon a landscape which had not only worn a different biology, but which continued to have a different geology and physiography.

Of course, all this is also true of Australia, which witnessed European settlement at much the same time. In this case, however, the otherness of the environment was soon evident to Europeans, whether prompted by the sight of rivers without water or of duck-billed platypuses laying eggs. It could also scarcely be ignored that most of Australia, unlike New Zealand, was tropical rather than temperate. But at least Australia had, and always has had, mammals, and in common with Europe it had a very long history – long unrecognised – of anthropogenic environmental modification.

Australian and New Zealand environmental historians can both draw on the two main schools of their discipline – the American and the European – to elucidate the changing relationships between their humans and their – if it is ‘their’ – environments. The published corpus of American environmental history, after forty years of solid academic endeavour, is rich and deep. Much of this deals with pioneering settlement, particularly of the West, at much the same time and same pace as in the Antipodes. There are parallels of experience, in other words. But, at the same time, the cultural background of most settlers in both Australia and New Zealand was not American but directly European, and the experience and traditions they sought to apply to their new found lands were British. This means that we have as much to learn from European and especially British environmental historical studies, even though they describe a far more gradual environmental modification.

The American and European schools of the discipline are represented by two international journals – Environmental History in America, and, rather confusingly, Environment and History in Britain. The latter is published in the Outer Hebrides, which is a neat example of what is possible thanks to computers and the Net. New Zealand environmental historians have published quite widely in the British journal, which had this special issue in 2003 edited by the Brooking-Pawson combo.[11] Over half of the November 2008 issue also deals with New Zealand.

We can also draw on the work of a third school of environmental history, emanating from Australia. This is particularly strong at ANU in Canberra, thanks to the husband and wife team of Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin. Its strengths are apparent in another recent issue of Environment and History,[12] which contains articles by a new generation of young Australian environmental historians. There is a regular workshop in Canberra specifically for PhD students writing environmental history theses.

At present we as New Zealanders can learn more from Australian researchers than they can from us, but the intriguing aspect of the environmental comparison, for scholars in both countries, is the absolute contrast between the two places. They were completely different environments even before one was modified by an ancient indigenous people, the other by a recent indigenous people, which were then both modified over by much the same group of mostly British immigrants. Tim Flannery has something to say of this in his book, The Future Eaters.[13]  Rather like those studies of identical twins brought up by different parents, comparisons between Australian and New Zealand environmental histories should provide insight into the respective roles of cultural and environmental influences.

I maintain that New Zealand historians, by studying their environmental history, will not only colonise academic ground previously occupied by geographers, but will also catch up with overseas academic trends. But, more importantly, and seventhly, it can widen the base of understanding of New Zealand history in general. This is because environmental history is now sufficiently well developed to provide a framework for environmental factors when describing human history. There is no better example of this approach than William Cronon’s book, Nature’s Metropolis,[14] which is a study of Chicago, but which describes the city’s development primarily in terms of the exploitation of the America’s natural resources.

Of course there has always been some understanding among New Zealand historians that there are factors, other than human factors, that have shaped our history, though this has more often become explicit for geographical than biological factors. There has been plenty of talk about the effect of location and isolation on both New Zealand and Australia – ‘distance looks our way’, and Australia experiences ‘the tyranny of distance’. The consequences of mineral distribution – gold in New Zealand, but not iron – have been noted. So has the influence of climate, at least upon our agricultural history. It was the mildness of New Zealand’s winter – meaning that stock could stay outside all year – that counterbalanced the additional cost of sending produce half way round the world to market. I would encourage all New Zealand historians, however, to think constructively about the environment in relation to their own particular fields of study. The relationship of the pre-European Maori to their environment is acknowledged as crucial, but how much attention do mainstream historians give to environmental factors post-1800?

A grounding in Maori history has proved useful to the many historians who have found employment with the Waitangi Tribunal.  New Zealand’s environmental history, in turn, will prove useful within a society increasingly concerned with biodiversity, climate change, sustainable management, resource use, and renewable energy. The final reason for studying environmental history, therefore, pertains to its marketability.

Historians often try to justify their existence, and apply for research grants, maintaining that the past helps to explain the present, or that the study of history can help to reduce similar mistakes in the future. This idea should become more widely accepted as the length of the European presence – and hence of mistakes in treatment both of indigenous people and the environment – increases. Much as Tribunal reports have a strong historical component, I think that reports on resource management issues will make increasing reference to the history of human interaction with particular ecosystems or resources.

Much of the work on current environmental and energy problems is by people with a scientific training. In my experience, this won’t have equipped them with skills to explore the historical background. If they need to include this kind of research, they should commission historians who know how to look into archives and who are familiar with the environmental approach. This role for environmental historians is made clear in the work of Stephen Dovers of Canberra. It is also evident in a recent Australian symposium entitled, cheekily,  ‘Can Environmental History Save the World?’[15]

A piece of work I did earlier this year, concerning Waituna Lagoon in Southland, illustrates how this kind of research work might apply in the New Zealand context. Maori traditionally used to hunt and fish in and around the lagoon, and it was recognised as an area of cultural significance to them under the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act of 1998. It’s also a wetland of international significance, and was registered as the first Ramsar site in New Zealand in 1976. And it has been a place of recreation during the hundred years or so for local Pakeha, who introduced Australian swans and European trout, and who have farmed the land north of the lagoon, with varying intensity. In the same period, the water quality of the lagoon, and the healthiness of the ecosystem it supports, has been under threat. Since 2001 a local Landcare Group, in co-operation with the Department of Conservation, has sought to achieve ‘a workable balance between environmentally sympathetic and cost effective land management practices’ near the lagoon.[16]

A research team with expertise in water health has now been commissioned to look into this. They will preface their report with a description of how settlers have lived and worked there over the years and the effect this might have had on the lagoon. Since the team has no background in historical or archival research, they subcontracted me to look at the evidence in this light. I produced a ‘working paper’ for them that illustrated how the ways the land was worked would have affected Waituna Stream and the lagoon it flowed into. It was a description of wasteful milling techniques, earth removal for rail and road building, burning, drainage with mole ploughs and tile drains, ploughing and regrassing, flax farming and flax dumping; of the introduction of sheep then dairy cattle; and more recently of the intensification of dairy farming and fertiliser usage, with consequential increases in profit, eutrophication and pollution.


In this paper I have sought to identify what environmental history is and why it is worthy of pursuit. I have argued that New Zealand’s environmental history has unique features that render it particularly fascinating, significant and available as a subject for study. What I would stress finally is a further point: its potential relevance to decision-making processes in contemporary New Zealand. The Waituna Lagoon report I have referred to is just one among hundreds of environmental reports that cry out for a historical perspective. I believe benefits will be conferred both upon professional historians and upon society in general as this becomes more widely recognised. I have tried to define and account for environmental history within a New Zealand context. It remains to more fully consider, in time, where it can take us.

[1] An earlier version of this paper was given at a seminar in the University of Waikato’s Department of History in September 2008. I thank that university for a small research grant that enabled my visit.

[2] Paul Star, ‘New Zealand environmental history: A question of attitudes’, Environment and History Vol 9 No 4 (2003), p 463.

[3] Geoff Park, Nga Uruora (The Groves of Life): Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1995; Philip Simpson, Dancing Leaves: The Story of New Zealand’s Cabbage Tree, Ti Kouka, Christchurch, 2000; Philip Simpson, Pohutukawa and Rata: New Zealand’s Iron-hearted Trees, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2005; Peter Holland, ‘Cultural landscapes as biogeographical experiments: A New Zealand perspective’, Journal of Biogeography, Vol 27 (2000) pp 39-43.

[4] W H Oliver and B R Williams (eds), The Oxford History of New Zealand, Oxford University Press, Wellington, 1981; Geoffrey W Rice (ed), The Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1992, p vii; Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Pelican Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1959.

[5] James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, Auckland, 1996; James Belich, Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, Auckland, 2001; Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, Penguin Books, Auckland, 2003, Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds), Environmental Histories of New Zealand, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

[6] Paul Star, ‘Humans and the environment in New Zealand, about 1800 to 2000’, in Giselle Byrnes (ed), The New Oxford History of New Zealand, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 2009 (forthcoming).

[7] King, The Penguin History of New Zealand, p 19; Libby Robin, How a Continent Created a Nation, University of New South Wales Press, 2007, p 7.

[8] Andrew Hill Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals: The South Island, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1949; Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.

[9] Graeme Wynn, ‘“Shall we linger along ambitionless?” – Environmental perspectives on British Columbia’, BC Studies, Nos. 142-3 (2004) pp. 5-67.

[10] See http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast

[11] Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson (eds), ‘Special Issue: New Zealand’, Environment and History Vol 9 No 4 (2003).

[12] Libby Robin and Mike Smith (eds), ‘Special Issue: Australia Revisited’, Environment and History Vol 14 No 2 (2008).

[13] Timothy Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, Reed Books, Chatswood NSW, 1994.

[14] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, W.W. Norton, New York and London, 1991.

[15] Stephen Dovers (ed), Australian Environmental History: Essays and Cases, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994; Sarah Brown et al, ‘Can environmental history save the world?’ History Australia Vol 5 No 1 (2008) pp 3.1-3.24.

[16] Waituna Landcare Group, ‘Lifting economic and environmental outcomes by improving land management practices in Waituna Catchment, Southland’, http://www.maf.govt.nz/sff/about-projects/search/05-160/index.htm