The Future of Our Past: Voices from the Next Generation of Environmental Historians

Today’s blog introduces a group of young scholars working on environmental history in the North of England, spotlighting their work and giving a platform to the new Northern Environmental History Network (which also encompasses Scotland)

Enter … another group of reformers, the environmental historians, who insist that we have got to go still deeper yet, down to the earth itself as an agent and presence in history.[1]

In 1989, Donald Worster made a rallying cry for environmental history to be the next major movement in historical scholarship, opening up the possibility of new methodologies and untapped sources.[2] This approach, with an intellectual ancestry stretching back to at least the late nineteenth-century, if not further, found new impetus in the ‘ecological turn’ of the 1960s and 1970s.[3] Growing concern for devastating anthropogenic destruction of the natural world called for reassessments of the complex inter-relationship between nature and culture.[4] Environmental historians sought to dismantle the illusion that nature was merely a backdrop, or a stage, for human affairs.[5] Instead it was, and is, an active agent of change in human history.[6]

In the face of our worsening climate crisis, there cannot be a greater need for long-term perspectives on our relationship with the environment. In February 2022, the Northern Environmental History Network was launched with an online workshop. This gathered postgraduate and early career researchers, working on environmental history and related topics, from universities in northern England and Scotland. As part of the programme, several speakers, all postgraduates, were invited to offer a five-minute summary of their current research. The result was a thrilling tour across multiple geographies and time periods, ranging from seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burials mounds to twentieth-century British colonial soil science. These talks demonstrated the vitality and growth of environmental history over thirty years on from Worster’s pronouncements. This article offers the opportunity for those speakers to expand on their exciting research. By doing so, readers are given a flavour of where the future of environmental history is heading.

Statistics, Computing and Environmental Knowledge in the 20th century

Theo Tomking (Ph.D. Candidate, University of York)

Based at the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity at the University of York, I am a first-year Ph.D. student researching the production and circulation of knowledge of soils throughout Britain’s tropical colonies in the mid-twentieth century. I am particularly interested in (mis)perceptions of the fertility of tropical soils and the work conducted by scientists at agricultural research stations in the Caribbean and East Africa. 

A key question in my research concerns how developments in Britain’s colonies contributed to global scientific discourse and knowledge of soils. For example, I explore how the realities of tropical environments prompted new ways of thinking about soils and their utility within agriculture, as well as the role of indigenous knowledge in changes in ecological thinking. Further to this, my research also investigates the historical associations between scientific knowledge of soils and relations of power in colonial contexts; for instance, by looking at how this information was used to control access to land.

British Narratives of Arctic Travel and Exploration, 1875–1940

Christian Drury (Ph.D. Candidate, Durham University)

My research looks at British travel writing about the Arctic between roughly 1875–1940, with particular focus on depictions of landscapes and modernity. I try to understand how certain notions of the Arctic as a place were constructed, particularly the idea of the Arctic as a ‘blank space’, as well as the idea of the Arctic as a ‘playground’ for adventure and exploration. One of the most important parts of doing Arctic history now is reaffirming the importance of the human and the cultural and I think that environmental history, done carefully and done well, can do this.  

Tourists enjoy the midnight sun at Nordkapp in Northern Norway, 1909. https://digitaltmuseum.no/021018740049/prot-midnat-paa-nordkap

I look at tourist travel to the Arctic, particularly Northern Norway/Sápmi, and think about how fantasises of escaping to rural life were necessarily enabled by development and accompanied by questions around authenticity and preservation. The Arctic is already experiencing a climate crisis and current depictions of the Arctic are often defined by an imminent sense of loss. It is important to remember that the Arctic is not immutable or timeless; it is a place with its own histories and cultures and has always been changing. Recognising this construction and contingency is crucial for understanding the Arctic properly and fully.

Landscape and Gender in Seventh to Tenth-Century England

Nicola McNeil (Ph.D. Candidate, Durham University)

The seventh century in England saw a surge in gendered burial under mounds. Given their prominence in the early English landscape, these barrow burials have often been interpreted in relation to their landscape context: specifically, as assertions of political, ideological and ethnic identity. The significance of this landscape in relation to the gender of the interred, however, has all but been overlooked, though, as a key principle of social organisation, gender is visible in landscapes and is indeed in both early English barrow burials and landscapes that house them. 

 A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_Burial_Mound_cleaned.jpg

My research, then, explores the relationship between the landscape context of seventh-century barrow burials and the gender of the individual interred therein. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, using textual evidence to help explain gendered patterns in their landscape context revealed via spatial analysis. A correlation between the male variant of this burial rite and proto-urban areas could, for instance, indicate the importance of increasing trade in shaping the elite forms of masculinity emerging in this period, whilst a link between the female barrow burials and the boundaries delineated in contemporary land grants would confirm the importance of land ownership in shaping the forms of high-status femininity crystalising in this period. In this way, it is hoped that this research will shed light puzzling shifts in gender relations observed in this formative period more generally.

Insecticides and the Japanese Empire: Pyrethrum in 1880s–1950s Japan

Kirill Kartashov (Ph.D. Candidate, University of York)

Pyrethrum is an insecticide produced from the dried and ground flowers of a daisy-like plant Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium. It is used against lice, mosquitoes, fleas, cockroaches, and other insect pests in the form of powder, kerosene-based spray, or insect-repelling incense. Between 1915 and the late 1930s, Japan was the world’s leading pyrethrum producer and exporter, and part of the explanation for this can be found in the domain of environmental history. 

Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium, commonly referred to as pyrethrum. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anacyclus_pyrethrum_kz12.jpg

Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium, which is commonly referred to as pyrethrum, is not indigenous to Japan. Its seeds were introduced to the country in the 1880s through a series of exchanges that involved plant breeders, chemists, and statesmen. Pyrethrum cultivation and production in Japan experienced its first sharp rise in 1894-95. During the Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent Japanese invasion of Taiwan, the Japanese military needed an effective insecticide to tackle the vectors of insect-borne diseases. As a result, pyrethrum prices increased by two or three times, and the acreage for pyrethrum cultivation was expanded accordingly. Pyrethrum was also in high demand during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), where it was widely applied to halt the epidemic of typhus. Japan established itself as the world’s leading producer and exporter of pyrethrum during World War I, as the previous leader, Dalmatia, was no longer capable of satisfying the growing demand for the insecticide in Europe. Japan maintained the status of a major pyrethrum exporter until the late 1930s, when Kenya emerged as Japan’s rival. In 1943, the export of Japanese pyrethrum stopped completely.

The story of pyrethrum in Japan is not only the story of war: it was also used as a household and agricultural insecticide in Japan and beyond. But the necessity to deal with a natural factor – disease – and the desire to build a powerful empire certainly became one of the strong stimuli for cultivation and production of pyrethrum in Japan, especially at the early stages of the industry’s development.  

****

If these excerpts have inspired you to find out more about environmental history, please do get in touch (alexander.hibberts@durham.ac.uk) to be added to our mailing list. Alongside our annual workshop, the Northern Environmental History Network hosts seminars at different universities in northern England and Scotland. The next event is scheduled for late April 2022.

Speaker Contacts

Theo Tomking (tjht500@york.ac.uk)

Christian Drury (christian.j.drury@durham.ac.uk)

Kirill Kartashov (kk1115@york.ac.uk)

Nicola McNeil (nicola.mcneil@durham.ac.uk)

References

Hoffmann, Richard, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2014).

Hughes, Donald What is Environmental History? (Cambridge, 2020).

Merchant, Carolyn, ‘The Theoretical Structure of Ecological Revolutions’, Environmental 

Review 11:4 (1987), pp. 265-274.

Schama, Simon, ‘History, naturally’ in Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb (eds.), What is 

History, Now? (London, 2021), pp. 314-330.

Worster, Donald ‘Doing Environmental History’, in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on 

Modern Environmental History (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 289-307.


[1] Donald Worster, ‘Doing Environmental History’, in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge, 1989), p. 289.

[2] Ibid., pp. 289–307.

[3] Ibid., p. 291; Donald Hughes, What is Environmental History? (Cambridge, 2020), pp. 19–36; Richard Hoffmann, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 85–110.

[4] Hughes, What is Environmental History?, pp. 1–37.

[5] Carolyn Merchant, ‘The Theoretical Structure of Ecological Revolutions’, Environmental Review 11 (4) (1987):  267.

[6] Simon Schama, ‘History, naturally’, in Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb (eds), What is History, Now? (London, 2021), pp. 314–30.


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