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.     

Asdal, Kristin.

Asdal, Kristin. “The Problematic Nature of Nature: The Post-Constructivist Challenge to Environmental History.” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 60-74.

Asdal is advancing a post-constructivist, value-nuanced conception of science that confronts the subject-object dichotomy. By raising the question of “which nature and which conceptions of science should be brought in?” (61) she challenges the foundation of environmental history in the natural sciences.

To begin she lays out what I think is a false dichotomy. She opposes Donald Worster—supposedly deeply rooted in a baseline notion of nature—with Anna Bramwell, whose work is used as representative of a camp that holds all ecology to be the product of culture. Worster is held up as the posterchild for natural science-based environmental history. The problem is I don’t think that Worster does represent such a natural science-based pole. He pays a lot of attention to the significance of discourse. Asdal, in trying to pose a critique of Worster, makes the point that ecology itself has a history. (63) Yet that history was told by Worster himself in a book that Asdal writes off as inconsequential and no longer representative of his views: Nature’s Economy. Instead she resorts to two articles—one in an undergraduate textbook—as indicative of his work.  

I’ve harped so much on this introductory section because Asdal needn’t have wasted so much time building this dichotomy simply to place Haraway and Latour in the middle of it, as neither treating nature as the positive base, nor an entirely ideological construction. This is a review of Haraway and Latour and she could have just set it up as such, without resorting to caricatures.

Sauer, Carl Ortwin

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. "The Morphology of Landscape (1925)." Land and Life; a Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Sauer opens with an impassioned appeal for geographers to return to a classical phenomenological approach to areal study. In the wake of nineteenth-century positivist specialization, in which the natural sciences became a stand-in for chorology and geography, and causality was reduced to a simplistic environmental determinism (for an ironic example of Sauer's own simplistic causality, see this), Sauer is questioning the essence of his field. As he wants to see more integrated approaches to geography based on social science, he reminds his reader that landscape is both a natural and cultural phenomenon.

He emphasizes the dynamic focus of geomorphology and physiography as not too relevant to geography, which he contends should begin with the natural landscape as a static baseline for culture-induced change. This is where he finds geognosy—“which regards kind and position of material but not historical succession” (334)—should be the primary science that cultural geographers should concern themselves with.

Over the course of this essay Sauer develops two formulae: one describing the natural landscape and the other describing the cultural landscape. The natural landscape is described as the combination of forms designated by climate, land (surface, soil, drainage and mineral resource), sea and coast, and vegetation as they have been shaped through time by geognostic, climatic and vegetational factors. (337) The cultural landscape is the combination of population (density and mobility), housing (plan and structure), production and communication forms as they have been articulated by culture through the medium of the natural landscape. (343) Again, Sauer stresses that causality and change with time come from cultural processes, not natural ones.

Flores, Dan

Flores, Dan. “Place: An Argument for Bioregional History.” Environmental History Review 18, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 1-18.

While I sympathize with Flores’ overall agenda of scrapping nation-state frames to start doing bioregional histories, I have some trouble with the programmatic thrust of this piece. Flores tries to take the regional scale out of the realm of socio-political constructions and root it firmly in the soil. Drawing from the work of Donald Worster, he argues the “West” as a construct was not a process but a place unified by topography, climate and ecology. In an attempt to emphasize the materiality of place over its discursive construction, Flores—perhaps ironically—resorts to the bioregionalism movement of the 1970s and its assertion that bioregions served as stages for the acting out of certain human relationships (spiritual and other) with land and nature. By detailing the make-up of place, he argues, environmental historians provide crucial supplements to traditional narratives of social and political processes.

Sauer, Carl Ortwin

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. "Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History." In Land and Life; a Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Declentionist in nature and prone to simplistic causality, this piece is a clarion call for all to beware the ills if capitalist production. Sauer assures his reader that chemistry is not alchemy. That is, the solution to rampant environmental degradation is not to be found in the physical sciences. Social sciences, and primarily economics, need to look at the problem of degradation to find a solution. Furthermore, like Grove, Sauer finds surplus- and export-oriented agriculture in contempt. And he briefly outlines the role of over-production in the extinction of species and varietal forms, the restriction of useful species, and soil destruction. Here he offers a useful precursor to Melville's description of the Valle del Mezquital by showing how the Mediterranean environment was totally denuded by livestock since the Romans engaged in mass herding. Another interesting comment has to do with the erosion of topsoil in the American South, where farming—by the time of writing in 1938—was largely subsoil farming and heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers. Thus Sauer offers something of interest in that here we have a pre-WWII critique of the coming Green Revolution, one in which the capitalist mode of production—not the paucity of naturally occurring phosphorous or other environmental limitations—is put on trial.

Steinberg, Ted

Steinberg, Ted. "Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History." The American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.

To open this article Steinberg looks to history textbooks as a gage of what goes noticed and unnoticed by historians of late. He mentions how the shift from grand political and intellectual narratives to a focus on the contingencies posed by constructions of race, class, gender and sexuality has been generally accepted, yet he laments that in these treatments of how power inequalities form and transform, there is a gaping hole where nature’s agency—“defined here as plants and animals, soil and water, climate and weather” (799)— would be considered as inter acting with human agency—Here he expands on Sewell’s structure-agency equation and pushes us to take nature as more than a mere backdrop. One great illustration of this is seen in the way Crosby’s work has become nearly axiomatic, while a scant few historians ask about the power differentials implicit in the Columbian Exchange, as Carney—a geographer—has dutifully deconstructed. Taking on the question of how environmental history might make itself more relevant to other field by addressing some of the larger questions historians grapple with, Steinberg looks at four cases.

First He demonstrates how by looking at the impact of Northeastern industrialization on riverine ecosystems, and particularly fish, we can further flesh out the social implications of the factory order. As one example he looks at the way damming rivers for industrial purposes isolated backcountry fishers upstream, a problem that had consequences beyond the cultural import of having to do without fish. This issue also resulted in legal transformations, as common law allowing fishers to destroy dams if they interfered with their access to fish, was eroded under the rise of powerful industrial interests during the nineteenth century.

Stepan, Nancy Leys

Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Picturing Tropical Nature looks at the ways the tropics, tropical people and tropical diseases have been represented over the past two centuries. Decidedly anti-post-structuralist, Stepan works under the assumption that the accounts, illustrations, photographs and gardens that she analyzes symbolically represent a guiding mentality, thus the material she looks at is not considered to possess and exercise its own power, based on its position at the nexus of cultural transformations (as Andermann, Rowe et al, would have it). Instead, Humboldt’s depiction of the Andean volcanoes, Chimborazo and Cotopaxi; Wallace’s tale of eating a monkey; Agassiz’s anti-Darwinist (casta) photos; the images of elephantiasis and Chagas’s disease; Roberto Burle Marx’s landscape designs; all of these are examples of media symbolically endowed with the ideas of their authors and their times. (To keep track, I’ll list the person, representations and world-view that she deals with below.)

This point of view troubles me because—well, because I would tend to side with the post-structuralists—but my concern is that, by not taking into account the role these representations play in determining, as much as reflecting, the popular tropical theories of their time, Stepan is loosing sight of a major variable. She has chosen each figure and their representations because she says they mark a significant change in the way tropical nature is portrayed. But by only focusing on the ideology they represent, without much consideration of how they influence formation of ideologies, we miss out a lot of the story.

Miller, Shawn

Miller, Shawn W. An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 2007.

Despite the supposed irreconcilability of impassioned critique and scholarly rigor (as implied by Coates, for example), Miller uses his scholarship to indict a millennial trend of environmental degradation. Sparse on citations (I assume the fault of the press) but rich in compelling imagery, An Environmental History of Latin America tells a declentionist (as Carey rightly points out) tale in broad strokes, colorful vignettes from across the region and most of the last millennium. While his general focus is narrowed to Mexico, Peru and Brazil, with memorable anecdotes of sugar-related deforestation in Barbados, the nineteenth-century hurricane-related ebb of coffee cultivation or twentieth-century rise of organic agriculture in Cuba, Miller’s thesis relies on the relatively simplistic and starkly humanist dichotomy of nature and culture. Episodes from the swidden, or slash and burn agriculture, practiced by the Tupi, to the global exploitation of guano, the four-century-long project of Mexico City’s Gran Canal, or the birth of highways, are all subordinates of a continual bout in which human endeavors come up against the work of the non-human world in a way that echoes some of the most detrimental aspects of modernization discourse.