Are Cold Places, by Nature, Exemplars of Environmental History?*

By Andrew Stuhl, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Bucknell University. Andrew’s co-authored article with Pey-Yi Chu, ‘Reorienting World Environmental History: Pedagogy and Scholarship on Cold Places’ has just been published in Environment and History 23.4, November 2017

Cold places appear to be natural subjects for environmental history. In these locations—the Arctic, Antarctica, Siberia, and mountain-top regions—nature and society shape one another in ways so obvious that most scholars treat as common sense the subfield’s foundational interventions. It is widely accepted, by all manner of academic historians, social scientists and natural scientists, that temperature, light, ice (water), soil conditions, flora, and fauna have governed life in cold places, whether past or present. Since the late 1990s, climate scientists and other researchers have agreed that changes in some of these phenomena over the past half-century remain our best indicators of anthropogenic climate change and the fate of a warming planet. In doing so, climate scientists have essentially underlined the environmental historian’s dictum: all social change has a natural context and all environmental change has a human context.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, this is not the main lesson of an environmental history of cold places. Or, more accurately, my colleague Pey-Yi Chu and I advocate for cold places as exemplars of environmental history for another reason: they compress, in time, some of the most transformative processes in modern history, both human and more-than-human.[i]

An aerial view of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, North America’s largest oil field by geographic extent and amount of recoverable oil. 14 July 1968. 
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.

We think readers will agree most world environmental history courses do not feature cold places at all. At best, when they do appear on syllabi, cold places are not fully utilised as teaching tools. In a forthcoming essay in Environment and History, we seek to correct this situation. We offer concrete and practical tips for instructors of world environmental history to integrate cold places into their courses. We include suggestions of readings and assignments that are student-tested and can be packaged in multiple ways into modules on environment, empire, knowledge, and politics in modern history.

Bucknell University students participate in a low-ropes initiative during the field trip component of  the course ‘ENST 315: Cold Places’ in February 2014. For many, this experience outside in the elements helped forge a lasting connection to the history, culture, and ecology of cold places. 
Source: Sam Wiley

In the last two hundred years, cold places have witnessed, to varying degrees (#pun), exploration, colonisation, industrial resource extraction, the rise of science and scientific based resource management, the hemispheric shift in imperial power, the expansion of fossil-fuel economies, contests between socialism and capitalism, environmentalism, Indigenous rights movements, the beginning of decolonisation, international environmental governance, and, now, global climate politics. It is difficult to identify another set of locations that experienced all of these events in a shorter timeframe, let alone contributed so much to them. Cold places are valuable as teaching tools, then, because they allow historians to concentrate their narratives about the world and ground them in particular social and ecological networks.

You might be asking – does not all place-based global environmental history, regardless of location, perform this same function? Yes. But, consider the resulting impacts, in terms of the uses of historical analysis, when thinking with cold places, rather than other places.

It may be a stretch to link nature’s agency in European imperial travel in the sixteenth century to the Paris accord of 2015, if not because of the temporal distance one must cover, then because one would struggle to demonstrate the intellectual pay-off for doing so. The same gesture, when applied to the Arctic, is by no means a difficult or pointless historical interpretation. Rather, those political leaders debating climate change adaptation in the circumpolar basin today, some born in the 1940s, are at most three generations removed from the historical moment of sustained encounter between residents and non-Indigenous explorers. This perspective, supported by the archival record, brings changes in global environments over time into sharp relief.

It would be irresponsible to argue that world environmental history courses should focus exclusively on cold places. And, to be fair, not every individual in every cold place has such a direct, historically-rich lineage. The strength of the global scale as a frame of reference derives from comparison and the things concealed as well as revealed. Limiting our teaching to one set of locations, dispersed across the Earth as they are, compromises the entire line of inquiry. That is not our recommendation.

But perhaps cold places have often been overlooked due to the perception that they exemplify environmental history only in a specific and quite limited fashion.

If that is the case, we hope that by making a compelling argument for reorienting teaching about world environmental history, we are also establishing the centrality of cold places in modern history.

 * Andrew wishes he could remember where he first heard the titular question posed, so he could give credit where it is due.


[i] Pey-Yi Chu is Assistant Professor of History, Pomona College. Though I authored this blog post alone, Dr. Chu and I worked together on every aspect of our co-authored article forthcoming in Environment and History. It was Dr. Chu’s creation of the class “Cold Places” that formed the basis of our shared writing. It is my pleasure to acknowledge her expertise, experience, and commitment to collaboration, especially because our shared conversations have so shaped the ideas I present here.

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