Primer: Environmental History

J.R. McNeill
Graphic of a tree crosscut showing rings
Coral image shows a series of wavy striped lines


Environmental history lends itself particularly well to a world history framework. Environmental processes do not limit themselves to national or cultural borders. The climate, for example, has always been a global system. Environmental history may also consist of unusual sources and feature "archives" that exist in the natural world. For teachers, environmental history can be an approach that students find compelling, relevant, and meaningful. In this essay, historian J.R. McNeill examines the global connections made possible by environmental history.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.


Definition and Origins
Environmental history means different things to different people, but to most historians it refers to human history understood in the context of the natural world. That includes both human impacts on the environment and environmental constraints on human action. Environmental history comes in three main flavors: material environmental history that is concerned with things such as forests, fish, or fluctuations in climate; cultural environmental history that is concerned with what people have thought about nature and how they expressed those thoughts; and political environmental history that is concerned with policies, regulations, and law as they relate to the environment.

Material and cultural environmental history can extend several millennia back into the past, although in practice the majority of work in these subfields concerns the last two centuries. Political environmental history almost always concerns the last 150 years, and usually the last 50.

As a self-conscious historical enterprise, environmental history dates back to the 1970s. It is a product of broader societal concerns over environmental deterioration. Those concerns have waxed and waned since the 1970s, but environmental history has grown steadily, as measured by the number of publications or membership in environmental history organizations around the world.

World History and Environmental History
Like most varieties of history, environmental history can be practiced on any scale from the extremely local – the history of one farm for example – to the global. By and large, cultural environmental history fits more easily within the boundaries of cultural groups, whether that means Japanese, African-Americans, or Christians. Political environmental history fits best with recognized political units, such as California, the People’s Republic of China, or the European Union. Material environmental history fits less well with specific cultural groups or political units, although historians often enough choose to delimit their studies in these traditional ways and write about US wildlife or Chinese air pollution, even though wildlife migrates and pollution wafts across borders. At least as often, however, material environmental historians adopt other scales selected to fit their topic. Several have chosen, for example, to write about the Mediterranean region as a whole, on the grounds that it features a distinctive climate and vegetation regime. That, they contend, gives it a coherence despite its multiplicity of cultures and political divisions.

Environmental history on the global scale has a powerful logic behind it. Many important environmental processes evolve with scant regard for political borders or cultural variation. The history of climate, a fast-growing subset of environmental history, illustrates this logic. While it is possible to think of the climate history of Texas or Thailand, or (with some imagination) of Theravada Buddhism or Theosophism, it is simpler to think of climate history on the global scale. That is because the Earth’s climate is a global system – indeed slightly more than that because it depends on inconsistent deliveries of warmth from the sun. Histories confined to the effects of climate change might focus solely on Mexico or the Mughal Empire; histories that include cause as well as effect must tackle the climate system more broadly.

Global-scale environmental history contains all the usual pitfalls of world history. No one can know all parts of the world in detail. No one can conduct research in all relevant languages. But world historians have learned to work with these challenges, organizing collaborations and finding suitable ways to delimit their inquiries.

Environmental history, whether on the scales of world history or something smaller, is often unusual in its source base. Environmental historians use texts and archives, as do other historians. But they also use what are sometimes called natural archives, geo-archives, or bio-archives. Records of past climate may be found in tree rings, sea corals, ice cores, carbonate speleothems, fossil pollen, and other “archives.” Indications of past Midwestern farming practices may be found in the chemistry of sediments at the mouth of the Mississippi. The protein residues embedded on papers handled by Milan’s city clerks in the 17th century reveal evidence of their diets. Chemical isotopic signatures in the ivory used to make piano keyboards between 1840 and 1940 reveal the locations of the soils that nourished the plants eaten by the East African elephants whose tusks went into piano key veneer. Together with the dates of manufacture of specific keyboards, this allows a geographic reconstruction of East Africa’s elephant hunting frontier.

Environmental historians are not the only ones to use natural archives. Historians of disease in the last two decades have turned to paleogenomic evidence, such as ancient DNA found in the teeth or bones of skeletons, to help understand the history of infections such as plague or smallpox. Africanist historians, especially of precolonial periods, have long relied on sources and methods other than written texts, and are increasingly making use of natural archives.

Environmental history approaches can help with the challenges of teaching world history. Many students and instructors find themes such as energy use, climate change, soil erosion, or biodiversity loss help make world history courses both more manageable and more compelling. More manageable because these themes unite disparate times and places in a coherent story. More compelling because these themes show that the environmental concerns of today have roots that may extend back many millennia into the past. Fifty years ago, none of the few world history textbooks in existence mentioned environmental issues. Now they all do.They do so for two main reasons. First, the rise of environmental history -- as of the history of women and gender – since 1970 makes it hard to ignore. Second, because of the global and transnational nature of much of environmental history, it meshes well with world history courses.

Johan Elverskog, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
Daniel Headrick, Humans versus Nature: A Global Environmental History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).
J. Donald Hughes, What Is Environmental History? (Polity Press, 2015).
Andrew Isenberg, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
J.R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin, eds., A Companion to Global Environmental History (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015).
Carolyn Merchant, The Anthropocene and the Humanities: From Climate Change to a New Age of Sustainability (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).
John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Laurent Testot, Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).
Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry, A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

Primary Sources

Graphic of a tree crosscut showing rings

World historians who study environmental history sometimes sometimes seek out atypical sources to conduct their research. While a traditional historian may visit an archive to examine governmental records or a collection of personal papers, an archive for an environmental historian might be an x-ray of a cross-section of a coral core or a crosscut of a tree showing its rings like the graphic here. Trees can live to be thousands of years old and their rings can show variations in climate over that time span. Wide rings show that the tree grew more in that year and narrow rings show less growth. The rings also show when in the year the growth occurred and both scientists and historians can use this data to better understand how the climate has changed over time.

This source is a part of the Primer: Environmental History methods module.


John Robert McNeill was awarded a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. from Duke University. Since 1985 he has cheerfully served two masters, as a faculty member of the School of Foreign Service and History Department at Georgetown. From 2003 until 2006 he held the Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environmental and International Affairs, until his appointment as University Professor. He teaches world history, environmental history, and international history at Georgetown; and writes books, and directs Ph.D. students, mainly in environmental history.

How to Cite This Source
J.R. McNeill Primer: Environmental History in World History Commons,