There are two immutable facts that underlie human-environment interactions. First, humans are part of the biosphere, and we rely on it to meet our essential needs. Second, through human history, but increasingly over the past 300 yrs. (years), we have become the dominant agent of environmental change. Understanding the relationship between humans and their environment has become increasingly important in recent decades due to human-accelerated environmental change, most pronounced in global climate change, biological extinctions, and soil and water degradation.
Environmental history is the field of study concerned with the systematic understanding of long-term transformations of landscapes, ecosystems, and natural resources through the interaction of humans with the environment, and the role of feed backs of environmental change on human societies (Figure 1). Environmental history aims to provide the context for understanding our present environment, indicate what past environments were like, and identify lessons we can learn for building a sustainable future. The key elements of environmental history revolve around (a) analyzing human-modified landscapes through the linkage of socioeconomic and biophysical data, explaining how historical processes such as human settlement patterns and disturbance regimes help shape contemporary landscapes and ecosystems; (b) addressing the temporal and spatial dimensions of human landscape transformation; and (c) understanding human-modified landscapes as cultural legacies.
Environmental history has discarded former dualistic approaches to human-environment relations, instead conceptualizing that social and natural systems are inextricably intertwined. Equally important, environmental history challenges the notion of pristine landscapes or “natural ecosystems” with the belief that it is difficult to find a landscape or ecosystem anywhere on the planet that has not somehow been changed by human activities. As human impacts on the global environment continue to accelerate, environmental sustainability has become an increasingly important part of the global social conscience and international policy agenda. In this context, environmental history is an essential component of environmental planning and management.
The following sections outline the emergence and development of environmental history as a discipline, the methods used by environmental historians, and some common issues in the study and application of environmental history. The final section considers the application of environmental history to contemporary human environment interactions.