Environmental History

A Transformative Tool in Sustainability Education

"The historians, even when articulating world history, deal not with the whole world but just with the human, as if the human were something separate from or an addendum to the story of the Earth and the universe."
— Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry

One of the most striking indications of the modern cultural disconnect from Nature is the exclusion of the natural environment from history teaching. To remedy this disconnect, all history would include, indeed focus on, environmental history.

History teaching has traditionally portrayed the history of the Earth in terms of wars, great civilizations, and human achievements, ignoring environmental contexts that triggered—or were caused by—these events (Leemans and Costanza, 2005). In contrast, environmental history 'draws on social, political, economic, and intellectual history, the history of science, and the roots of environmental values' (Merchant, 2006). It could also include examples of more sustainable cultures.

The goal of environmental history is to understand how humans have affected and been affected by their natural environment, and with what results. Understanding past environmental change is a prerequisite for understanding future change. (Leemans and Costanza, 2005). Students need to learn the history of the state of the planet (shifting baselines) to be able to work on sustainability solutions.

As one important example, older students need to learn the history of the current, human-driven, mass extinction of species (Eldredge, 2001). Environmental history timelines are available from Ontario Tech University's Timeline of Sustainable Development and Professor William Kovarik's Environmental History: Timeline and Historical Insights.

History is often taught as values-free, so the record of Euro-American destructive wars and oppressive exploitation escapes moral censure, allowing terrible socio-environmental mistakes to be repeated. In contrast, environmental history places the past in an ethical framework.

For example, because of Africa's colonial history of subjugation, African environmental history has made its contribution by refiguring colonialism in environmental terms, placing an emphasis on the history of environmental injustice and eco-racism (Carruthers, 2005).

Students conclude what matters to their culture—and what does not—by what is left in or out of 'his story' (Orr, 1992, p. 85). History does not teach for a sustainable future. Socio-environmental history — 'our story' — does.


Carruthers, J (2005, February). Africa's Environmental History. In Update — Newsletter of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, pp. 8-9

Eldredge, N (2001, June). The sixth extinction. American Institute of Biological Sciences ActionBioscience.org. Accessed 26/11/2021 at

Leemans, R and Costanza, R (2005, February). Integrated history and future of people on Earth (IHOPE). In Update — Newsletter of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, pp. 4-5

Merchant, C (2006). Research interests.

Orr, DW (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, (SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought). Albany, NY, SUNY Press, 210 pp.

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