skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Research guide

Helen Macdonald

What is it?

In its broadest sense, Environmental History is history focusing on the interactions that humans have – and have had – with nature; it has been described as history that takes 'nature' as a fundamental category of historical analysis. It has precursors in landscape history, in historical geography, and in the Annales school of history, but it has developed into a vigorous and engaged interdisciplinary field – particularly in America – and it offers an unusual opportunity for synthesis across historical subfields and across disciplines such as ecology, geography, science studies, anthropology and so on. HPS meets Environmental History in diverse ways.

The emergence of the field of Environmental History was tied with the rise of ecologism and the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s. When reading the literature remember that the field was born from strong moral purposes: strong political commitments underlie many of the works given below. Like gender, class or race histories, environmental history often has a strongly revisionist agenda. Many works have strong normative dimensions, stressing the deleterious effect that humans have had the environment. Remembering this is important for two reasons. Firstly as a plea for critical distance when reading secondary sources. And secondly, because one of the strengths of this field is that it is able to problematise understandings of nature that underpin much environmentalist discourse. Environmentalist critiques regularly appeal to nature as an ahistorical fact, an edenic 'good' against which humanity is to be judged – often harshly. Problematising these edenic narratives should not be considered a destructive, but rather, a positive contribution to the debate. If Nature, as William Cronon maintains, is the meeting place between the world 'out there' and the historically and culturally constructed ideas and beliefs and values that groups project upon that world, then exploring these ideas and beliefs makes the writing of Environmental History a thoroughly engaged and important activity.

Scope and scale

At the beginning of every academic year, members of the Department attempt to impress upon students that when choosing a topic, success is often defined by specificity. Start small and work outwards, rather than attempting to do what many environmental historians have tried to do, and write an environmental history of the world in ten and a half chapters. How to find a topic? While reading around the subject, you might come across something that catches your eye, or niggles away at you. Trust your intuitions: these flickers of instability in the otherwise smooth façade of a naturalised nature can often, with a little work, be prised open, to uncover major faultlines leading to fascinating questions about the way different groups have understood themselves, science, society, nature and nation. Don't neglect sources that seem at first sight trivial. Newspapers, magazines such as National Geographic, popular periodicals, field-guides. For example, I was looking at a 1940s birdwatching guide when I noticed that its illustrations of birds used the conventions of diagrams in plane spotting books. Prising open and exploring that homology launched me into writing a paper on the practices and strategies of observation in amateur field science during WWII.

A few general observations

Think about exploring the contested meanings given to nature – how they are constituted and articulated across different social worlds. Think about credibility battles over different epistemologies of nature, and how science is used to validate knowledge-claims in, say, conservation policy or to support various kinds of environmental activism. You can explore the disciplinary policing that occurs on the boundaries of science and how knowledges are made and traded across them. What makes wildlife management different from gamekeeping, for example, or specimen collecting for museums different from hunting? How are the borders of agriculture and science construed? Who counts as an expert and who as an amateur in this field, and how and why has this come to be so? Examine the technologies used to encounter, manipulate, observe or control nature. Think about the moral or emotional economies of the social groups you look at. Think about what political or ideological claims are at stake in particular programs or uses of nature.

Choosing a topic

As you can imagine, the scale and scope of possible subjects is vast. Here are a range of areas on which research students have worked in recent years.

History of ecology

This has received considerable attention from historians of science. You could look at the tension embedded within ecological science, which has aimed both to create theoretical, general models of ecosystems, and detailed, descriptive studies of specific locations. Or the relationship between theoretical and applied ecology – the development of ecology as a discipline was closely related to its practical uses in pest control, game management and so on. Its ideological underpinnings are also fascinating. For example, as Gregg Mitman has shown, Edward Allee championed a theory of cooperative, altruistic ecology that had explicit social and political weight – lending credence to the idea that human society was essentially cooperative, not competitive. Allee's Quakerism was important in shaping this ecological program. Similarly, Frederick Clements' theory of ecological succession is clarified when you set it alongside contemporary American understandings of cultural progress and the American frontier. The relation of pest control to warfare and nationalism has been discussed in a number of excellent papers and books. And in the 1970s, of course, the history of ecology entered a new phase: you could explore what impacts are made on a scientific discipline when it becomes the focus of society's concerns and values.

History of conservation

Conservation biology is concerned with particular organisms and unique places, rather than general ecosystems. Thus it is far from the imperative of generalisation that is traditionally regarded as a goal of science. Politics is everywhere in this field; conservation biology must address management issues with stakeholders of landscapes and multiple users of nature. Work on the history of conservation also raises interesting ethical questions – for its normative bases rely on often hidden assumptions about the value of biological entities – and also raises interesting questions relating to disciplinary identity – unlike conventional ecology, conservation biology is a goal-oriented enterprise that aims to prevent the extinction or decline of particular species. Radically manipulative techniques to save endangered birds in the 1970s were described as 'clinical ornithology', and functional parallels between conservation science and medicine have been mooted. You might like to consider the processes by which certain individuals, such as Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, Gerald Durrell or Aldo Leopold, become portrayed as 'heroic' conservationists. Philosophical questions too, are raised in this field: how, for example, do different approaches to biological systematics and taxonomy impinge on the conservation of the units they define?


Sociologists of science have given considerable critical attention to the field sciences. Recent works have focused on the divisions between laboratory and field, exploring divisions both spatial and epistemological; between observational knowledges, aesthetic knowledges, scientific, expert and lay, specialist and popular knowledges. The field is constituted through a range of embodied practices – travelling, collecting, recording, narrating – and is constituted institutionally through networks in a range of different spaces. New hybrid spaces have arisen you might like to examine. For example, organisms are now commonly tracked remotely, through radio- or satellite-tracking, rather than by a biologist in the field. How do these new ways of visualising places and organisms relate to the laboratory/field distinction? If a biologist receives emailed updates of the location of her animals from a satellite uplink via a ground station in France, how do these forms of knowledge relate to those gained in the field, and to the social, bodily, and disciplinary identity of the biologist?

Animals and the environment in popular culture

Animal studies is a rapidly growing academic field, and a very broad church, ranging from anthropologies of human-animal interactions, the ethics of human-animal interactions, animal geographies, the place of animals in the construction of meaning and identity, and animals in popular culture, as well as animals in science. Animals are fabulously rich cultural tracers. You could look at how popular science promotes or sustains particular ideologies through representing animals. Students in this department have worked on the representation of animals in BBC wildlife documentaries, for example, and Gregg Mitman's book Reel Nature is a wonderful case study of how wildlife films articulated changing moral, environmental and family values in twentieth-century America. Zoos are another strong vantagepoint from which to explore the place of nature in popular and scientific cultures. Animal behavioural sciences are a fascinating and often troubling topic, inviting strong political and ethical readings. You could look at issues of anthropomorphism, on the quest for an objective study of behaviour claimed by both ethologists and comparative psychologists, and the general issue of laboratory and field approaches to animal behaviour.

Science, nature and the military

The often uneasy relationship between academic science and the military, particularly in the cold war, has been an increasingly important topic in the history of science. Throw in nature as well and the field becomes bizarre. From Skinners WWII project to develop pigeon-guided bombs, to US Department of Defense field-tests of incendiary bats; from ecologists using Manhattan-project isotopes to study ecological energetics to the remote-sensing technology now routinely used to track endangered animals, this subfield is rewarding – provided one can gain access to sources.

The history of the environmental movement

You might look at controversies over particular areas or particular animals, like the battles over nature reserves or hydroelectric projects; science is commonly a guarantor in such battles, despite many activist organisations having a strongly anti-technological, anti-scientific programme. Pollution is a particularly interesting topic in this regard. Or perhaps explore the historical factors influencing particular environmental or conservation movements. If you're looking for a specific piece of environmental activism to work on, controversies are useful places to start, and contested valuations of the environment have enormous scope. The two-volume Chronology of Twentieth-Century History: Ecology and the Environment edited by F. Magill (1997) provides concise, short case-histories of such events.


For the sake of space this is a truncated list, is confined mainly to twentieth-century material and does not include, for example, the intersection of environmental history with issues of gender, imperial history, or environmental ethics. The works included here are wide-ranging and of variable quality. Read critically!


  • Crosby, A. (1986) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Cronon, W. (1996) (Ed.) Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: Norton).
  • Lewis, C. H. (1993) 'Telling Stories About the Future: Environmental History and Apocalyptic Science', Environmental History Review 17, pp. 43-60.
  • Macnaghten, P. & Urry, J. (1998) Contested Natures (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
  • Myllyntaus, T. & Saikku, M. (Eds.) (2001) Encountering the Past in Nature: Essays in Environmental History, Series in Ecology and History (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press).
  • Stine, J. K., & Tarr, J. A. (1988) 'At the Intersection of Histories: Technology and the Environment', Technology and Culture 39, pp. 601-40.
  • White, Richard (2001) 'Environmental History: Watching a Historical Field Mature', Pacific Historical Review 70, pp. 103-110.
  • Worster, D. (1994) Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, Studies in Environment and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Worster, D. (1988) The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Yearley, S. (1995) 'The Environmental Challenge to Science Studies' pp. 457-479 in S. Jasanoff, G. E. Markle, J.C. Petersen and T. Pinch (Eds.) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA, London).

Science in the field

  • Burkhardt, R. W. (1999) 'Ethology, Natural History, the Life Sciences and the Problem of Place' Journal of the History of Biology, xxxii, pp. 489-508.
  • Cittadino, E. (1993) '"A Marvellous Cosmopolitan Preserve": The Dunes, Chicago, and the Dynamic Ecology of Henry Cowles' Perspectives on Science, i, pp. 520-559.
  • Henke, C. R. (2000) 'Making a Place for Science: The Field Trial' Social Studies of Science, 30(4), pp. 483-511.
  • Kohler, R. E. (2002) Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Kohler, R. E. (2002) 'Place and Practice in Field Biology' History of Science, xi, pp. 189-210.
  • Kuklick, H. & Kohler, R. E. (1996) Science in the Field. Osiris, Second Series, Volume 11.
  • Latour, B. (1999) 'Circulating Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest'. Chapter 2, pp. 24-79 in Pandora's Box (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
  • MacLeod, R. (2001) '"Strictly for the Birds": Science, the Military and the Smithsonian's Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, 1963-1970' Journal of the History of Biology 34.
  • Pauly, P. (1988) 'Summer Resort and Scientific Discipline: Woods Hole and the Structure of American Biology, 1882-1925' pp. 121-150 in R. Rainger et al (Eds.) The American Development of Biology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Rudwick, M. (1996) 'Geological Travel and Theoretical Innovation: The Role of "Liminal" Experience' Social Studies of Science 26(1), pp 143-159.
  • Star, S. L. & Griesemer, J. R. (1999) 'Institutional Ecology, "Translations" and Boundary Objects', pp. 505-524 in M. Biagioli (Ed.) The Science Studies Reader (New York & London: Routledge).
  • Schneider, D. W. (2000) 'Local Knowledge, Environmental Politics, and the Founding of Ecology in the United States: Stephen Forbes and "The Lake as a Microcosm" (1887)' Isis 91(4), pp. 681-705.
  • Gieryn, T. F. (2000) 'Introduction', and 'Hybridizing Credibilities: Albert and Gabrielle Howard Compost Organic Waste, Science, and the Rest of Society'. Chapter 5 in Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

History of ecology

  • Anker, P. (2002) Imperial Ecology. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Bocking, S. (1997) Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).
  • Egerton, F. (1983) 'The History of Ecology: Achievements and Opportunities' (Part 1) Journal of the History of Biology pp. 259-310.
  • Egerton, F. (1985) 'The History of Ecology: Achievements and Opportunities' (Part 2) Journal of the History of Biology 18, pp. 103-143.
  • Golley, F. B. (1993) A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology: More than the Sum of its Parts (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  • Hagen, J. B. (1992) An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).
  • Kingsland, S. E. (1985) Modelling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Kwa, C. (1987) 'Representations of Nature Mediating between Ecology and Science Policy: The Case of the International Biological Programme'. Social Studies of Science, 17 (3), pp. 413-442.
  • Miller, C. and Rothman, H. (1997) Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press).
  • Mitman, G. (1992) The State of Nature: Ecology, Community, and American Social Thought, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Pauly, P. J. (1996) 'The Beauty and Menace of the Japanese Cherry Trees: Conflicting Visions of American Ecological Independence' Isis, 87(1) pp. 51-73.
  • Real, L. A., & Brown, J. H., (Eds.) (1991) Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Shortland, M. (ed). Science and Nature: Essays on the history of the environmental sciences (Oxford: British Society for the History of Science).
  • Sheail, J. (1987) Seventy-Five Years in Ecology: The British Ecological Society (Oxford: Blackwell).
  • Taylor, P. J. (1998) 'Technocratic Optimism, H. T. Odum, and the Partial Transformation of Ecological Metaphor after World War II' Journal of the History of Biology 21, 1.
  • Weiner, D. R. (1984) 'Community Ecology in Stalin's Russia: "Socialist" and "Bourgeois" Science' Isis, 75(4), pp. 684-696.
  • Worster, D. (1979) Nature's Economy: The Roots of Ecology (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books).
  • Zeller, S. (2001) 'Darwin Meets the Engineers: Scientizing the Forest at McGill University, 1890-1910'. Environmental History 6(3), pp. 428-50.


  • Hanson, Elizabeth (2002) Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Baratay, Eric and Hardouin-Fuger, Elisabeth (2002) Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London: Reaktion Books).
  • Barrow, M.V. (1998) A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Bousé, D. (2000). Wildlife Films (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
  • Burt, J. (2002) Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books).
  • Crist, E. (1999) Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
  • Ritvo, H. (1993) The Animal Estate (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Jones, R. W. (1997) '"The sight of creatures strange to our clime": London Zoo and the consumption of the exotic'. Journal of Victorian Culture 2, pp. 275-294.
  • Jansen, S. (2000) 'An American Insect in Imperial Germany: Visibility and Control in making the phylloxera in Germany, 1870-1914'. Science in Context 13(1), pp. 31-70.
  • Mitman, G. (1999) Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Pauly, P. J. (2002) 'Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789'. Environmental History 7(3) pp. 485-507.
  • Robbins, L.E. (2002) Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-century Paris (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Rothfels, N. (Ed.) (2003) Representing Animals (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press).
  • Rothfels, N. (2002) Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Philo, C. & Wilbert, C. (Eds.) (2000) Animal Spaces, Beastly Places (London: Routledge).
  • Russell, E. (2001) War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • Sleigh, C. (2001) 'Empire of the Ants: H. G. Wells and Tropical Entomology'. Science as Culture 10, 33-71.
  • Strum, S. and Fedigan, L. M. (Eds.) (2000) Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Taylor III, Joseph E. (1999) Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Cultures of nature

  • Allen, D, (1993) The Naturalist in Britain (Princeton University Press).
  • Barnes, T.J. & J.S. Duncan (1992) Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape (London: Routledge).
  • Cronon, W. (Ed.) (1994) Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York, W.W. Norton).
  • Davis, Susan G. (1999) Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Fine, G. A. (2000) Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Henniger-Voss, Mary (Ed.) (2002) Animals in Human Histories: The Mirror of Nature and Culture. Studies in Comparative History (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press).
  • Matless, D. (1999) Landscape and Englishness (Reaktion Books: London).
  • Lynch, M & Law, J. (1999) 'Pictures, texts, and objects: The literary language game of birdwatching', pp. 317-341 in M. Biagioli (ed.), The Science Studies Reader (London: Routledge).
  • Nash, R. (1979) 'The Exporting and Importing of Nature: Nature-Appreciation as a Commodity, 1850-1980'. Perspectives in American History 12, pp. 519-560.
  • Outram, D. (1996) 'Spaces of Natural History' in N. Jardine, E. Spary, and J. Secord (Eds.) The Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 249-265.
  • Price, J. (1999) Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York, NY: Basic Books).
  • Robertson, G., Nash, M., et al. (1996) FutureNatural: Nature, Science, Culture (London and New York: Routledge).
  • Stepan, N. L. (2001) Picturing Tropical Nature (London: Reaktion Books).
  • Wilson, Alexander (1992) The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (Cambridge MA & Oxford: Blackwell).
  • Wolch, J. and Emel, J. (1998) Animal Geographies: Place, Politics and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (London: Verso).

History of conservation and environmentalism

  • Andrews, Richard (1999) Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  • Budiansky, S. (1995) Nature's Keepers: The New Science of Wildlife Management (New York: Free Press).
  • Clements, Kendrick (2000) Hoover, Conservation, and Consumption: Engineering the Good Life (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas).
  • Dorsey, Kurkpatrick (1998) The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: U.S.-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era (Seattle: University of Washington).
  • Dunlap, T. R. (1988) Saving America's Wildlife (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Dunlap, T. R. (1991) 'Organization and Wildlife Preservation: The Case of the Whooping Crane in North America'. Social Studies of Science 21(2), pp. 197-221.
  • Elliot, R. (1997) Faking Nature: The Ethics of Environmental Restoration (London: Routledge).
  • Evans, D. (1992) A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London: Routledge).
  • Gottlieb, R. (1993) Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington: Island Press)
  • Hays, Samuel P. (1987) Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • Hays, Samuel P. (1999) Conservation and the gospel of efficiency: the progressive conservation movement, 1890-1920 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press).
  • Jacoby, Karl (2001) Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Lear, Linda (1997) Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt and Company).
  • Maher, Neil M (2002) 'A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corps'. Environmental History 7(3) 435-461.
  • Meine, Curt (1988) Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
  • Nash, Roderick (2001) Wilderness and the American Mind (4th ed) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press).
  • Rome, Adam (2001) The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • Sheail, J. (1976) Nature in Trust: The History of Nature Conservation in Britain (Glasgow: Blackie).
  • Sheail, J. (1981) Rural Conservation in Inter-war Britain (Clarendon Press: Oxford).
  • Sheail, J. (1995) 'War and the Development of Nature Conservation in Britain', Journal of Environmental Management 44, 1995, pp. 267-283
  • Sutter, Paul (2002) Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press).
  • Wrobel, David M. (1993) The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas).
  • Yearley, S. (1989) 'Bog Standards: Science and Conservation at a Public Inquiry', Social Studies of Science 19(3) pp. 421-438.


Familiar journals such as Isis and Journal of the History of Biology are useful. More specialist journals include:

Web resources

The following may also be useful: