Landscape and memory

Environment and History

June 7, 1996

The past two decades have witnessed an extraordinary development of interest in the environment. From being the preserve of a rather limited corps of ecologists and physical geographers, the environment has become a central concern for practitioners of a very large range of disciplines. Subdivisions of environmental studies have developed - inter alia environmental law, environmental ethics, environmental politics, environmental economics, and environmental history.

Transdisciplinary environmental centres have been established in progressive universities, and new journals and books have been spawned.

However, notwithstanding these developments, the links between environment and history have been long established, and the history of landscape modification by human activities has been at certain times and in certain places a central theme of historical geography. One thinks of the influence of Carl Ortwin Sauer and Clarence Glacken in the United States and of H. C. Darby and M. Williams of the United Kingdom. Equally, as the writings of Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and Lucien Febvre constantly remind us, the symbiotic relationship between history and geography, revealed through the school of the Annales, had an incalculable influence on the study of modern history in France.

The purpose of this new journal, dedicated to environmental history, has been clearly stated by its editor, Richard Grove. Grove was by training an Oxford geographer, but made a considerable name for himself through his study of the history of colonial environmental history. He points to three stimuli for the journal in his maiden editorial.

The first of these has been the growth of subaltern studies, which seek to document the history and experiences of ordinary people and to move away from elitist history. The second stimulus has been to redress the balance between North America and the rest of the world "by bringing the environmental history of the rest of the world closer to centre stage and to deliberately encourage the writing of environmental history in Africa, Asia, Australia, South America, the Pacific and, not least, in Europe". Third, Grove believes that "in our global time of crisis, the agendas of environmental history have emerged as being increasingly relevant. We are called upon to explain and to narrate how it is that humanity has come to tread such a potentially dangerous path". Perhaps, he continues, "by making a sober, scholarly and committed contribution to history, we can help to suggest some useful paths away from danger and towards a more just and stable future".

The first volume contains three issues, with the total number of pages amounting to 378. Given this size, the individual subscription (Pounds 30) and the institutional subscription (Pounds 60) are both extremely modest by modern standards and one wonders how the White Horse Press can achieve this when some of the more famous international journal publishing houses cannot. Moreover, a discount of 20 per cent is available to subscribers in G77 countries.

The publication format is traditional rather than avant-garde, but line drawings and plates, though few in number, are reasonably well produced. The production quality compares well with that of more expensive journals.

Two of the issues in volume one are general and one, on Zimbabwe, is thematic. There are three book reviews. In terms of geographical spread, individual papers deal with Zimbabwe, Australia, Britain, India, China, Guinea, and Southeast Asia. In addition there are more general papers that are less place specific, including one by Michael Redclift on "Environment and society as global discourse".

The first issue of volume two is another thematic issue which arose from a symposium at Lammi in Finland. This provides a strong Scandinavian focus, though not to the exclusion of other topics. Donald Worster, for example, starts it with a broad review of "The two cultures revisited: environmental history and the environmental sciences", while A. R. Main concludes it with a discussion of the environmental history of Australia entitled "Ghosts of the past: where does environmental history begin?" The nature of the environmental issues or changes that are discussed is also very wide-ranging and topics include coastal change, deforestation, savanna-forest boundaries, famine, alkali pollution, cinchona transplantation, soil erosion, the ivory trade, water supply, an early meteorological station in Sandwich, landscaping of heathland, and tar production.

Rather less diverse are the origins of the authors. With the exception of one Zimbabwean, the affiliations of the authors are clearly situated in the first world: Australia, Scandinavia, Germany, the UK and the US.

The eclectic and sometimes esoteric nature of the papers does not detract from the appeal of the journal. Indeed, the papers are both engaging and readable. In contrast to a great deal that passes for human geography at present, the papers were largely free from the turgid, faddish and elitist language that emanates from social theorists. This is important in a journal that is transdisciplinary, for the less verbal freemasonry that exists the better. This is a journal that deserves to succeed. I have gained more pleasure from reading it than from any other single journal. The publishers and editors are to be congratulated on bringing their brainchild to fruition and attracting so many distinguished authors.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography and chairman of the management committee, Environmental Change Unit, University of Oxford.

Environment and History: (three times a year)

Editor - Richard Grove
ISBN - ISSN 0967 3407
Publisher - White Horse Press
Price - £60.00 institutions, £30.00 individuals

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