The Turning Points of Environmental History

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. 220 pages.

We are, it seems, entering the adolescence of environmental history. The teenage years are characterized by intense changes that can exacerbate conflict but also promote positive development. In equal measure, according to environmental historian Frank Uekoetter, the discipline is in a transitional stage of development: While it is still finding its place in the world, the field presents great potential for growth.

In Uekoetter’s words, environmental history is founded in the belief that we should rethink the past to include “animals and plants, the land, the sea, and the atmosphere, and to the wide range of ideas and practices that link these entities with human societies.” To that end, Uekoetter asked top environmental scholars to identify the key turning points in their respective fields. The resulting collection of essays spans agriculture, forest history, urban environmental history, the knowledge society and the nation-state, among others.

Considering the breadth of subject matter, the use of turning points gives the book a necessary coherence and structure. While such an approach is common in social history, it presents challenges in this discipline. Environmental change often takes place on glacial time – forests grow slowly by human standards – so it can be extremely difficult to accurately identify specific turning points. Uekoetter is aware of this potential drawback, and humorously acknowledges it with a good-natured warning: “This book contains sweeping generalizations and significant omissions!”

On the whole, The Turning Points of Environmental History provides readers with a broad understanding of major themes in environmental history, and is also useful for experts interested in exploring related fields of environmental study. The aim of this compilation is to create a coherent understanding of this still-evolving field, and to tackle its most glaring limitations. This contribution should not be taken lightly.

Phoebe Stephens is pursuing her MA in Global Governance at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. She is particularly interested in global environmental governance and is researching the environmental impact of Chinese FDI in the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

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