The Uneasy Embrace of Nature and Culture


Despite much of the work that I will be discussing below, it is still difficult to speak of environmental history embracing the so-called cultural turn. That said, to argue that environmental historians have been blind to the theoretical and methodological challenges posed by cultural studies would require resorting to a simplistic caricature of what by now is a vast and continually expanding field.[1] Indeed, I think it is best to characterize the meeting of environmental history and cultural studies as a tacit recognition, one of the other in equally guarded suspicion. I say “meeting” because I think it should be acknowledged that the relationship goes both ways, and that cultural historians have perhaps been just as slow to embrace the questions raised by looking at the social and ecological ramifications of change in environment over time. That, however, is an issue for another time.

In this essay I will examine the dynamics of this uneasy encounter by looking at how environmental historians have engaged with three particular aspects of the cultural turn, arguing—along with Sörlin and Warde—that, were environmental historians more in tune with developments in the social sciences and humanities, then what have been seen as watershed moments in the field might be recognized as reflections of decades-old innovations.[2] I will begin with an overview of some work that has taken on the challenge posed by the cultural turn and will end with some reflections on what environmental history has to offer historians interested in the cultural turn.

To begin with, it should be recognized that, as a moniker, “the cultural turn” has been used to cover such a wide breadth as to purge it of any real significance. So for the purposes of this essay I will resort to a restricted working definition that highlights three specific—although clearly intertwined—criteria.     

The first can be described as a postmodern dissolution of binaries and critique of metanarrative. Taking on the postmodern challenge, many have questioned the modern ontological separation of nature and culture, which produced a nature that is always already “out there.”[3] Likewise, environmental history’s metanarrative par excellence, the declentionist narrative, has been implicated in this transition. This trend can be characterized especially by an emphasis on the local—studying “natures”[4] as opposed to Nature—and a reconsideration of the idea of wilderness.

Next, the cultural turn can be characterized by a postructuralist emphasis on discourse whereby discourse and practice are seen as mutually constituitive processes as opposed to isolated, individuated reflections of one another.  In this vein, environmental historians have chosen to look at how ideas about nature shape the relationship between humans and non-human nature.[5] This has generally coincided with priority being placed on other social fields beyond the political and the economic, as well as a general emphasis placed on representation.

The final aspect of the cultural turn that I am concerned with is the attention paid to subjectivity and agency characterized by engagement at the interstices of race, class and gender. Here environmental history has marked a watershed by posing the question of non-human agency. However, much more can been done to problematize the interventions of race, class and gender in the relationship between humans and non-humans.


The Declentionist Metamyth

If we can talk of environmental history having a “first wave,” that initial period would be characterized by the tenets of deep ecology and post-materialism. A “finger-wagging lament over loss and damage,”[6] these early works clung tightly to the myth of pristine wilderness, lamenting environmental degradation as the product of anthropocentric thinking, which could only be remedied with humans taken out of the equation. Moreover, as part of what was a laudable fusion of academic prowess with activist passion, this approach rested on a kind of “full-stomach” environmentalism that held nature preservation as a project people embraced only once their material needs had been satisfied. With the ever-increasing alienation from wilderness brought on by the twin motors of modernity and industrialization, came a continually strengthened concern for maintaining those “untouched” spaces where man[7] could reconnect with nature—or so the post-materialist thesis went.[8] Behind this work was the underlying idea of nature as something “out there,” separate from the human domain, something that humanity’s spread was destroying. Thus the declentionist narrative—stories of wasteland-ification[9]—was intricately enmeshed with the modern nature-culture binary.[10]

The myth of wilderness as something existing outside the confines of culture has since been widely discredited. Hailed as a pivotal volume in environmental history, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,[11] brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to deconstruct the cultural processes by which Nature has been mythologized. William Cronon’s contribution rooted the myth of wilderness in two prevailing tropes of the American collective psyche: the sublime and the frontier. Arguing that “wilderness gets us into trouble” for the dualism it perpetuates, Cronon demonstrated how the American wilderness so cherished by deep ecologists was a cultural construct at the crossroads of two visions: one in which the realm of nature was fused with the supernatural (the sublime) and thus eventually fused with Romanticist notions of the sacred; and one in which it was endowed with the regeneration myth of the American frontier, where:

… easterners and European immigrants … shed the trappings of civilization, rediscovered their primitive racial energies, reinvented direct democratic institutions, and thereby reinfused themselves with a vigor, an independence, and a creativity that were the source of American democracy and national character.[12]  

Critiquing the myth of wilderness from another angle, Ramachandra Guha charged that “the emphasis on wilderness is positively harmful when applied to the Third World.”[13] As part of his focus on the so-called “environmentalism of the poor” Guha—along with his periodic co-author, the Latin Americanist Joan Martínez-Alier—conceived of environmental struggles as the newest manifestations of class struggle and argued that the cult of wilderness influenced preservation models—now referred to as “fortress conservation” for their exclusion of local populations—in which resources are directly transferred from the poor to the rich. By sealing off areas and restricting access, the fortress conservation model often took away local livelihoods and made Nature the domain of tourists and sport hunters.[14]

Guha’s critique directly resituated people in the wilderness so revered by post-materialists. Likewise, by championing the so-called “ecosystem people” whose very existence poses difficult questions for the pristine myth, Guha showed that the history of human encounters with the non-human world does not always need to be a story of devastation and decline. Indeed, while not negating degradation, the environmentalism of the poor highlights the struggles of local communities to protect their local ways of participating in the ecological relationships that sustain them.     

Taking a similar tack, some work on enclosure and forest domestication has challenged the declentionist narrative by going local. Stuart McCook told a story of the technocratic transformation of nature in the service of turn-of-the-century Latin American liberal states, examining the rise of export-oriented monocultures and the plant sciences’ treatment of the problems it posed. Arguing that Latin American governments and planters sought economic growth through forest domestication, he treated Caribbean scientific institutions as “contact zones”—drawing from literary critic, Mary Louise Pratt and the useful adoption of her framework by Latin Americanists[15]—where what he called “Creole science” was developed to bolster the cultivation of sugarcane, cacao and coffee.[16] In these contact zones the story of an “insatiable” imperial appetite[17] is tempered by the complexities of North American science as played out in—and altered by—Caribbean environs. Moreover, the easy rebuke of imperial designs must be considered against the equally destructive pursuits of local governments, planters and itinerant botanists.

Thus, as one part of environmental history’s contemplation of the cultural turn, the modernist dichotomy of nature and culture was brought into question both from the outside (Guha) and from within (Cronon) while the declentionist metanarrative was reconsidered as historians told increasingly more local stories.


Discourse, Discord and Dialogics

Nancy Leys Stepan’s Picturing Tropical Nature is one of few examples of environmental histories that take representation seriously.[18] She looked at the ways the tropics, tropical people and tropical diseases have been represented over the past two centuries. Humboldt’s depiction of the Andean volcanoes, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi; Wallace’s tale of eating a monkey; Agassiz’s anti-Darwinist photos; the images of elephantiasis and Chagas’s disease; Roberto Burle Marx’s landscape designs; for Stepan all of these are examples of media symbolically endowed with the ideas of their authors and their times, from Romanticism to “tropical modernism.” Decidedly anti-post-structuralist in tone, Stepan worked under the assumption that the accounts, illustrations, photographs and gardens that she analyzed symbolically reflect guiding mentalities about tropical nature and the people found to inhabit it. By only focusing on the ideology they represent, without much consideration of how they influence the formation of ideologies, she couched the production of nature firmly within the purview of culture. In doing so, however, she treated her material as little more than a conduit through which the empty signifier of nature was imbued with the tropicalist tropes en vogue at the time.[19]   

Deborah Poole, on the other hand, placed the power of imagery at the forefront of her analysis. Using three visual representations of Latin American landscapes—Frederic Edwin Church's Heart of the Andes (1859), an 1868 engraving by Ephraim George Squier, and a photograph done by Hiram Bingham in 1913—she questioned the role of the visual in constituting what Edward Said called the "pleasures of empire." She also leveraged these images to examine different periodizations of visual imperialism, or three distinct “visual regimes,”[20] as she called them: one pertaining to a trancendentalist mode of possessing the subject through representation, aligned with Manifest Destiny; another characterized by the quantification of experience; and a final period coinciding with the modernist abstraction of form and content in which the attainment of a “new view” overwrites (indeed, according to Poole, erases) that which is represented. Poole argued that each of these three periods marked a distinct way in which the “imperial gaze”[21] was manifest. In doing so, she took her treatment of representation beyond the kind of unidirectional symbolism that Stepan saw in her material. For Poole, imagery simultaneously reflected and constituted the imperium as Bingham’s photography, for example, rendered landscape in its exotic difference.

Such difference was the focus of Julie Cruikshank's Do Glaciers Listen? Here an attempt to rethink the nature-culture divide was made, not by reconciling, but blurring the boundaries between scientific understandings of glaciers and the oral tradition surrounding them. Cruikshank flowed from one register to another, blending the scientific histories of Gulf of Alaska glaciers with the oral histories of how Tlingit and Athapaskan peoples navigated glacial terrain and endowed collective experience of glacier growth and recession with meaning.

Through Cruikshank’s dialogical notion of local knowledge, the history of human interactions with, and understandings of, glaciers in the Gulf of Alaska became a staging ground for the struggle for equal representation in colonial contexts. As Cruikshank presented them, Tlingit oral histories pose resistance to the epistemological[22] and ontological[23] bases of dominant discourse. Indeed they can, and should be used as timeless narratives in timely ways as valuable historical commentary.”[24] Therefore, it can be said that Cruikshank also launched her study beginning with the dichotomy of nature and culture so prevalent in Enlightenment discourse. But her project destabilizes that divide through the introduction of oral histories that resist the dominance of sources like those provided by La Pérouse, Muir and Glave. In her way, she relied on that boundary between glaciers as objects of science and glaciers as subjects in a community in that deconstructing it through the notion of dialogue is her primary objective. Whereas Stepan looked at representation as a static reflection of mentality, and Poole acknowledged the two-way nature of imagery as both constituitive of and reflecting landscape, Cruikshank introduced another layer by remembering one of the core tenets of environmental history. The representations she analyzed not only reflected nature, or even discrete epistemological engagements with nature; the representations she dealt with tracked the way humans engaged with environment in different ways, as it changed over time. Thus her study raises the crucial question of non-human agency.


Agency and Subjectivity

Indeed the issue of non-human agency points to what is perhaps one of the most important contributions of environmental history.[25] With respect to the cultural turn, it has posed the specific question of how environment mediates constructions of race, class and gender. Stepan’s Picturing Tropical Nature certainly demonstrated how ideas about environment mitigated constructions of race.[26] Judith Carney’s work on the gendered knowledge of rice cultivation in the Gambia has raised the issue of how environment mediates gender constructs.[27] But the most work by far has been done at the interstices of class and environment. Two examples of how non-human actors have been implicated in processes of proletarianization come from Myrna Santiago and Sidney Mintz.[28]

Myrna Santiago blended social and environmental history to explain transformations in the Mexican oil industry leading up to President Cárdenas' nationalization in 1938. The guiding concept she used to bring these two fields together was the notion of an "ecology of oil," which addressed the interwoven patterns of land tenure and use with social structures.[29]

In a similar, and brilliant, example of the role of non-human actors in class formation Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power linked the transformation of landscapes (the fusion of field and factory that was the plantation) to the formation of the British working class. As sugar plantations became increasingly capitalistic, sweetness became less of a luxury and more part of the everyday. Sucrose also came to replace complex carbohydrates in the British commoners’ diet and became ritualized as a marker of the factory work schedule.

Mintz made the complex argument that capitalistic exploitation of the British Caribbean colonies (production) was fed by and fed the increasing taste for sweetness in the metropole (consumption), which in turn nourished the proletarianization of the British commoner (power) by breaking down the social structure of, and time needed for, meals. Thus by tracing the history of sweetness, he was able to explicate the network of relationships linking imperial environmental transformations with the social history of the British working class. [30]

While more fusions of social and environmental history are out there, and one would not be too hard put to come up more examples of work exploring articulations of class and environment, to the best of my knowledge environmental histories of race and gender are harder to come by.[31]



In this essay I have tried to examine the way environmental history has engaged with the so-called cultural turn. Using a limited definition of the cultural turn I looked at how environmental historians have grappled with problems of binaries, metanarratives, representation, agency and subjectivity.

As I argued at the outset this encounter can hardly be characterized as an embrace. And with the exception of a few overzealous attempts to jealously guard an evermore dispersed and crumbling niche,[32] this encounter cannot be characterized as one of outright rejection either.

Instead I have tried to demonstrate that there are some aspects of postmodernism that have dovetailed well with environmental history. The dissolution of the nature-culture divide and the critique of the declentionist narrative represent some of the strengths of recent work. This may have something to do with the fact that similar moves toward indeterminacy and locality were happening in biological sciences like ecology, which has traditionally nourished environmental history.[33] For on the other hand, environmental historians seem to have been less willing to and less successful at dealing with representation and poststructuralist discourse analysis. Likewise, while there has been a strong connection between environmental history and constructions of class, treatments of race and gender seem to be in shorter supply. On the issue of agency, however, environmental history’s treatment of non-human agency represents a boon to the study of subjectivity.

To close, I would like to end where I began. While this has been a discussion of how the field of environmental history has reacted in the face of the cultural turn, I would like to reiterate that those more comfortable with the insights of cultural studies still stand to gain a lot through serious engagement with what environmental history has to offer.  

[1] For a sense of how much the field has grown in twenty years see J. R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (December 2003): 5–43; Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde, “The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History: A Re-Reading of the Field,” Environmental History 12, no. 1 (January 2007): 107–130.

[2] Sörlin and Warde, “The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History,” 115.

[3] For a clear discussion of the nature-culture divide and its reliance on the separation of subject and object inherent in the ontological position of modernity see Mario Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

[4] See Asdal’s discussion of Bruno Latour’s brand of political ecology in Kristin Asdal, “The Problematic Nature of Nature: The Post-Constructivist Challenge to Environmental History,” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (Diciembre 2003): 60–74.

[5] Donald Worster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Donald Worster, “Nature and the Disorder of History,” Environmental History Review 18, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 1–15; Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006).

[6] Peter Coates, “Emerging from the Wilderness (or, from Redwoods to Bananas): Recent Environmental History in the United States and the Rest of the Americas,” Environment and History 10, no. 4 (2004): 409; For a similar characterization of early environmental history in the United States see Paul S. Sutter, “When Environmental Traditions Collide: Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods and U.S. Environmental History,” Environmental History 14, no. 3 (July 2009), and; Ted Steinberg, “Down, Down, Down, No More: Environmental History Moves beyond Declension,” Journal of the Early Republic 24, no. 2 (July 1, 2004): 260–266, doi:10.2307/4141504; For syntheses of the work on Latin America see Mark Carey, “Latin American Environmental History: Current Trends, Interdisciplinary Insights, and Future Directions,” Environmental History 14, no. 2 (April 2009), and; Shawn William Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[7] Intentionally gendered masculine, given the imperial and, by extension, patriarchal ramifications of the post-materialist project, as can be seen in the discussion of conservation below.

[8] See Guha’s critique of deep ecology as well as the introduction, both in Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (London: Earthscan Publications, 1997).

[9] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1992): 1347–1376.

[10] Despite the challenges posed to the declentionist narrative, it remains a common trope. In the Latin American canon alone see the following for recent examples. Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand the Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, 1st pbk. printing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Elinor G. K Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico, 1st. pbk. ed (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America; Shawn William Miller, Fruitless Trees: Portuguese Conservation and Brazil’s Colonial Timber (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2000); Alfred W Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1972); Alfred W Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Canto ed (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Myrna I Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Richard P Tucker, Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Elizabeth Dore, “Environment and Society: Long-Term Trends in Latin American Mining,” Environment and History, 2000.

[11] Coates, “Emerging from the Wilderness (or, from Redwoods to Bananas).”

[12] William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1996), 76.

[13] Guha and Martínez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism, 95; Joan Martínez Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002).

[14] Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009); Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); For an example of the shift to this kind of non-consumptive use of nature in early twentieth-century Canada see Loo, States of Nature.

[15] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992); For one good example of how Latin Americanists have followed Pratt’s model, see Ricardo Donato Salvatore, Catherine LeGrand, and Gilbert Joseph, eds., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1998).

[16] Stuart George McCook, States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940, 1st ed (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); Tucker, Insatiable Appetite; Melville, A Plague of Sheep.

[17] Tucker, Insatiable Appetite.

[18] Aside from the works mentioned below, Erica Fudge, Animal (London: Reaktion, 2002); Carolyn Merchant, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History,” Environmental History 8, no. 3 (July 2003): 380–394; Loo, States of Nature.

[19] Nancy Stepan, Picturing Tropical Nature (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[20] Deborah J Poole, “Landscape and the Imperial Subject: U.S. Images of the Andes, 1859-1930,” in Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations., ed. Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 13.

[21] Ibid

[22] Tlingit accounts demonstrate how the measurement and classification required by the scientific discourse of the Enlightenment are not the only ways of knowing and understanding glaciers.

[23] These accounts also anthropomorphize glaciers, bestowing upon them the capacity to listen, thus weaving them into the community of a place's inhabitants.

[24] Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), p. 60.

[25] For a few examples consider Crosby, The Columbian Exchange; Crosby, Ecological Imperialism; Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004); Melville, A Plague of Sheep.

[26] Also see Merchant, “Shades of Darkness.”

[27] See Judith Ann Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001); Richard Peet and Michael Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies Environment, Development, Social Movements (London: Routledge, 1996).

[28] For other key works on the relationship between work, class and environment see Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Theodore Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, 2nd ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” The American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (June 2002): 798–820; Guha and Martínez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism; Martínez Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor.

[29] Santiago, The Ecology of Oil.

[30] Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, N.Y: Viking, 1985).

[31] One good interdisciplinary start on race is Donald S Moore, Jake Kosek, and Anand Pandian, eds., Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[32] I’m thinking of J.R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History”; John Robert McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[33] For parallels in ecology and poststructuralism see Donald Worster, “Nature and the Disorder of History,” Environmental History Review 18, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 1–15; Karl S Zimmerer and Kenneth R Young, eds., Nature’s Geography: New Lessons for Conservation in Developing Countries (Madison, Wis: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998); Sörlin and Warde, “The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History”; Asdal, “The Problematic Nature of Nature.”