U.S. Environmental History
By Andrew R. Graybill
Binnema, Theodore. Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).
Binnema’s study considers the complex ways in which indigenous peoples of the northwestern Plains (on both sides of what became the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada) interacted with newcomers, the natural world, and most importantly each other.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (1962; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
Carson’s book serialized in the New Yorker before its publication in 1962 endures as perhaps the most important text in the history of the modern environmental movement. Though a scientist by trade, Carson was nevertheless able to reach a broad audience with her careful but impassioned critique of indiscriminate pesticide use.
Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. (New York: Knopf, 1971).
In the tradition of the Progressive Era muckrakers, Commoner sought to enlighten the American public about the hidden dangers of industrial society. Arguing that Americans were uninformed victims of environmental change, Commoner raises penetrating questions about the role and responsibility of private enterprise in maintaining ecological stability.
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983).
Developed from a graduate school research paper, Cronon’s first book has become a staple of college and university environmental history classes. In highly readable prose, Cronon details the ways in which the encounter between European newcomers and the indigenous peoples of New England transformed the region’s landscape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. (New York: Norton, 1991).
Another work by Cronon of immense significance, Nature’s Metropolis argues that Chicago developed into a major urban center during the nineteenth century because of its importance in processing and shipping the extensive raw materials of the Midwest (lumber, grain, and pork) to the towns and cities of a rapidly industrializing America.
Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
This book by one of the foremost human ecologists argues that European colonial dominance was more an accident of biology than a spectacular military or political achievement.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. (New York: Norton, 1997).
Written by a professor of medicine at UCLA, this Pulitzer Prize winning study attempts in the words of the author “to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.” Diamond does a masterful job in explaining how peoples on some continents (i.e., Europe) developed more technologically advanced societies before those on other continents (i.e., North America).
Fiege, Mark. Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999).
In this regional study, Fiege illustrates the transformation of the landscape of southern Idaho from its natural condition to a site of intensive commercial agriculture. Most intriguing is Fiege’s contention that, despite the best efforts of farmers and engineers, the natural world continues to make its own changes to the land, seen in the introduction of new plant and animal species which in turn alter both the natural and built environments.
Flannery, Tim. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. (New York: Grove Press, 2001).
Flannery’s book is an ambitious effort to capture the vast ecological history of the North American continent from 65 million years ago (when an interplanetary asteroid slammed into the earth) to the present. Readers should be advised that humans do not make any appearance onto the scene until about halfway through the volume.
Flores, Dan. The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001).
This collection by a leading environmental historian is composed of academic essays and personal reflections, and contains both new and previously published material. Especially noteworthy are chapters three (“Bison Ecology, Bison Diplomacy”) and five (“Place: Thinking About Bioregional History”).
Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
Hurley’s book is perhaps the best academic study of what has become known as “environmental racism.” Focusing closely on Gary, Indiana, an infamous symbol of industrial decay, Hurley argues persuasively that the city’s civic leaders passed along the costs of environmental degradation to Gary’s poor (and overwhelmingly non-white) residents.
Isenberg, Andrew. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Isenberg’s study is a model of environmental history scholarship. He vigorously contests the long held belief that mere avarice led to the near-extinction of the buffalo during the late nineteenth century, arguing instead that a mix of ecological and cultural factors as well as economic ones combined to speed the animals’ decline.
Jacoby, Karl. Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
Using case studies from upstate New York, Wyoming, and Arizona, Jacoby probes the roots of the late-nineteenth-century conservationist movement and the resistance of local peoples to state and federal environmental regulations.
Krech, Shepard. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. (New York: Norton, 1999).
In this study Krech seeks to correct those historians and anthropologists who have argued that Indian impact on New World environments was minimal. Instead, he demonstrates that indigenous peoples made significant alterations to the landscape by constructing transportation networks, building cities, and hunting game, among other things.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
Marx’s seminal intellectual history of the American struggle to reconcile its veneration of the pastoral with industrial progress.
McEvoy, Arthur F. The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Praised by William Cronon as “one of the finest environmental histories we have on any western subject,” McEvoy’s complex and rigorous book investigates the competition for control of California’s fisheries and the attendant efforts of state and federal governments to manage the industry (often with disastrous results). A classic work on the problem of the “commons.”
Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
In this complex study, Merchant argues that the emergence of capitalism in New England beginning in the late eighteenth century reordered the region’s ecology and economy, with profound implications for women.
Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. (1967; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
This study by one of the founding scholars of the field has become the standard intellectual history of the American concept of “wilderness,” from the colonial period to the present. Although by this point (nearly four decades after its initial publication) the text has become rather dated, Nash has attempted to keep the book current by including new material in each of its three subsequent editions.
Rothman, Hal. Saving the Planet: The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century. (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2000).
In this study Rothman traces the shift from conservation (a concern with the wise use of natural resources) to environmentalism (which focuses more on the threats to the American public posed by post-Second World War industrial development) during the twentieth century.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993).
Sale’s book is a brief but deeply enlightening study of the modern environmental movement, chronicling its development from the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to the so-called “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.
Smith, Sherry, ed. The Future of the Southern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
This is a solid collection of essays based on scholarly papers presented at a 2001 symposium. The volume contains several chapters of particular importance to readers interested in the environmental history of the region, especially the pieces contributed by Elliott West (on natural resource exploitation); Connie Woodhouse (on drought); John Opie (on water management); and Diana Olien (on petroleum).
Spence, Mark. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Spence’s book is another study in the exercise of state power, this time applied to the removal of Native Americans from three famous national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier) in order to make them as accessible as possible to non-Indian visitors.
Steinberg, Theodore. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)
In this volume Steinberg examines the ways in which Americans have understood and reacted to natural disasters, from earthquakes to hurricanes, arguing that our tendency to blame such catastrophes on nature has allowed us to obscure the fact that the brunt of such disasters is borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable members of our society.
Steinberg, Theodore. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Steinberg’s fourth book is a lively and comprehensive study of American environmental history, charting the role of the natural world as an actor in the nation’s past from European colonization to the late twentieth century.
Warren, Louis. The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
This richly nuanced study draws on historical episodes from locations throughout the United States Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Montana to situate the problem of the commons in comparative national perspective. In contextualizing the frictions between hunters and environmentalists, Warren probes the roles of race, class, and power in shaping competing notions of land use.
White, Richard. Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington. (1980; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992).
White’s first book is an environmental history classic. Using a single county (comprised primarily of two islands) as a case study, White reveals how gradual shifts in both the use of the land and human attitudes towards it produced sweeping changes in the ecology, economy, and society of Island County, Washington.
White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).
In his second book, White applies to the study of Native Americans the dependency theory models popular among scholars investigating so-called “developing nations” (especially those in Africa and Latin America). His examination of the three indigenous groups aims to explain how and why they succumbed to white Americans during the late nineteenth century.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Worster’s account of the Dust Bowl reoriented academic thinking on the causes of the catastrophe by challenging the popularly held notion that a prolonged drought was largely to blame. Instead, Worster suggests that avarice and ignorance were the disaster’s essential ingredients, leading Americans to mistreat an ecosystem unfit for intensive cultivation.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
In this immensely challenging work of riparian history, Worster established himself as the chief intellectual heir of Walter Prescott Webb, whose ideas about aridity are central to the study of the environment in general and the U.S. West in particular. For his part, Worster argues that power in the modern West turns to a great extent on controlling and manipulating the region’s scare water supply.