This semester I found myself teaching U.S. Environmental History in what I’ll just call a disturbing political climate (har) for those of us concerned with our environment. In the past four months, Scott Pruitt, a “climate change denialist” and the former Attorney General of Oklahoma with a history of suing the agency he’s now charged with leading, was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the president’s transition team asked the Department of Energy to identify employees who have worked on Obama’s energy and climate policies; White House officials and the president have discussed withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords; the Dakota Access Pipeline was completed with Trump’s support despite protests, and within weeks sprung several of the leaks its critics charged were likely; the administration shared a federal budget proposal that would slash EPA funding and ax all support for the Chesapeake Bay Program‘s restoration efforts. That’s a sampling, but the clear trend is that none of these moves signals an administration particularly receptive to scientific or historical evidence, or committed to prioritizing environmental protections.
Most of that was easy enough to anticipate as I planned my classes for the semester, and I wanted to make sure we addressed some of those developments as they occurred. But my goal was to try to use environmental history to encourage political consciousness, rather than insist on a political ideology. To that end, I asked students to watch the news for current events related to the environment, and consider how deeper understandings of environmental history might shape actions, policies, arguments/debates, news coverage, etc.
I am sometimes a bit wary of asking students to draw connections between the past and the present, though not because those connections don’t exist or are unimportant. Sure, part of the value of studying history can be to make just those comparisons, but because many students’ historical knowledge remains fairly limited (we’re working on it!) their conclusions often tend towards the teleological. It often seems like many just aren’t (yet!) able to fully explain that arc, or recognize the complexity lying between a then and a now, and so instead resort to cliche–essay conclusions that assert a historical event is important “because it’s how we got where we are today.” Not necessarily wrong, but not wholly productive, either. I’ve been trying to find a way around this, in part because many students seem inclined to look for parallels, and in part because I want others to acknowledge and explore what environmental historians have termed a “usable past.”
One strategy I’ve landed on is to use historical examples or historical thinking to shape inquiries. That is, rather than encouraging students to find and fully explain parallels and direct connections, I want them to take a more complete understanding of either their present or historical example, and use that to develop questions and methods of learning about the other piece of that comparison. This means we can use gaps in our knowledge in productive ways, and whichever approach students adopt, they’re developing historical thinking. If they explore a historical episode and then consider its significance for the present–what current social or political tensions it reminds them of, for instance, or what ongoing environmental concerns appear similar to a change from history–they’re beginning to construct a usable past. If they explore a more contemporary issue and then speculate about what knowledge and information they need to better understand it, and how they might pursue that, they’re thinking methodologically about how to do environmental history–about the types of inquiries that drive it, and the sources available for resolving those questions.
This does mean the written product always reflects an inchoate process, but my hope is that privileging inquiry over assertion/argument allows students greater latitude to explore a variety of environmental issues and to take some intellectual risks. I also hope that by approaching such issues through a set of queries students will more comfortably critique the version of events they’ve been presented with by whatever news source they’re drawing from, whether it be the Washington Post, Fox News, The Economist, or the Billings Gazette.
Initially I wanted this assignment to reflect a historiography in which scholars the scholars we read throughout the semester consistently reminded us that environmental history is not simply a story of declension in which people arrive and destroy pristine environments, and I did receive papers that addressed species recovery, environmental education programs, and green business practices. But the majority focused on actions taken by and in response to the Trump administration, a reminder that it’s perhaps difficult to see our current moment as a story other than declension.