Environmental History

Brian Caton
History, Luther College


This course introduces students to the field of environmental history. Students examine the ways in which humans, plants, animals, and microbiota have acted as agents in the history of the world. The course emphasizes historical developments after 1300 and especially investigates the roles of science, colonialism, capitalism, and the state in changing the physical state of the environment and the ways humans understand their surroundings.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a course without prerequisites at the 200 level, meaning it requires slightly more research and writing than an introductory-level course. It can fulfill several of the college's general education requirements, and many students take the course for this reason. Normally over 50% of the students are Environmental Studies majors or minors (or are contemplating one of these), and it is beginning to attract more History majors and minors. The course is an elective in the ES curriculum, and is optional for History majors and minors (History does not organize courses on a core-elective rhetoric).

Course Content:

The course intends to introduce students to the wide range of topics covered by the field of environmental history. This includes discussion of historical understandings of nature; narrative strategies such as plants, animals, microbiota, weather, fire, and wind as agents of historical change; complex processes such as land use, irrigation, colonialism, consumption, and pollution; and environmental movements, such as conservation and environmentalism.

Course Goals:

  1. Students should become familiar with the range of topics and methodological approaches of the field.
  2. Students should learn the basic historian's technique of reading quickly and writing a summary of a scholarly monograph.
  3. Students should identify a research question in environmental history that interests them and carry out a modest research project that satisfies their curiosity and results in a short piece of writing.

Course Features:

  1. A wide range of readings and discussions (on which students are periodically examined) is intended to move students toward achieving content knowledge goals.
  2. Book reviews are meant to get students to practice summative writing.
  3. The research project engages students with discrete bodies of environmental history scholarship and, if possible, primary source materials in order to move students toward research-writing goals.

Course Philosophy:

Since sustainability is a relatively small component of the scholarship included in the field of environmental history, it should occupy a similar space in a course designed to introduce students to the field.


Please see the list under "Course Features".


Environmental History Syllabus, Fall 2008 (Microsoft Word 54kB Jun3 10)

Teaching Materials:

Environmental History syllabus, Fall 2009 (Microsoft Word 53kB Jun3 10)

References and Notes:

Course texts vary from one semester to the next. There is no single authoritative text in the field, as one might find in other disciplines.
In order to give a sense of the range of topics, the course relies heavily on journal articles as assigned readings.