What is Environmental History?

Environmental history is the study of the interactions between people and nature in the past, and how they have changed with time. Australasian environmental history includes:

  • the environmental history of Australia and New Zealand,
  • environmental history that compares Australia and/or New Zealand with other places, and
  • environmental history being done in Australia or New Zealand about other places

Environmental history is a rich collection of inquiries into the transformation of the natural world by human action and the consequences for both nature and people. It takes nature as an actor in history as much as it takes people as actors in nature. It aims at a synthesis, although the weighting given to human or natural agency varies considerably between inquiries.

It overlaps many areas of the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences and draws in archeologists, foresters, geographers, historians and scientists of many sorts, for example. It includes or is closely related to fields such as agricultural history, forest history, garden history and historical climatology.

Environmental history is often stimulated by a concern for current environmental problems. If we know more about how they arose, perhaps we can do better in the future. Australian environmental history is concerned with the interactions between people and the environment in two periods.

First is the long period from the first arrival of humans, 50-60 000 years ago, during which there were great changes in the climate, sea levels, coastlines and ecology. Anthropology, archeology, biogeography and historical ecology provided major insights. The use and effects of fire receive considerable attention.

Second is the modern period since European occupation began in 1788. The settler society had a brutal impact on the Indigenous people and drastically transformed the landscape. History generally, economic history and historical geography provided some of the early insights. Interest expanded and diversified rapidly from the 1970s. Forest history and heritage studies have received considerable attention in both the academic and public domains.