History Department
History Department

Institute for Historical Studies conference emphasizes importance of environmental history for diplomacy in contemporary world

Thu, May 7, 2009

Twenty historians and other scholars held seven well-attended public panels to discuss the details and historical implications of the current growth of transnational flows of people, goods, money, and ideas that has increasingly eroded the ability of governments and people to meet diverse environmental challenges.

Keynote speaker John McNeill of Georgetown University, the author most recently of Epidemics and Geopolitics in the American Tropics, 1640-1920 (Cambridge UP, 2008) reminded the conference participants and other attendees of the interconnectedness of environmental problems and international history. Delineating what he believed were the most pressing changes modern society has wrought upon the global environment in the past half-century, McNeill emphasized the massive increase in energy use beginning in the early Cold War era and continuing into the present. McNeill specifically called attention to the relation between energy—as produced, consumed, and regulated—and concerns with national economic markets and environmental degradation.

The conference participants, including a panel of University of Texas Ph.D. students, gave 16 papers over five panels, with a dizzyingly wide range of subjects and historical periods, including:

  • the designation of wilderness in the North American borderlands;
  • the international waste trade;
  • transnational nuclear policy;
  • British imperial forestry;
  • Chinese national identity and resource capture;
  • transnational policy in the Brazilian Amazon;
  • Humboldtian science;
  • migratory wildlife;
  • the relation between disputed national borders and national parks;
  • environmental toxins including Agent Orange, DDT, and chemical insect control; and
  • the links between water resources and political conflict.

Often emphasizing the ecological and historical specificity of different regions, areas, and policies, many of the panelists discussed the ethical implications of difficult environmental policy decisions. The unequal social, economic, and cultural distribution of the consequences of environmental degradation was noted by many of the panelists.

The final roundtable session, “Looking Toward the Future,” featured the founder of Forest Ethics, Tzeporah Berman, and the former President of the Sierra Club and Professor of Communications at the University of North Carolina, Robbie Cox. Both presenters recognized the importance of history for understanding past environmental problems and decisions, and stated that these historical lessons can help policymakers and activists work towards sustainable solutions in what Cox characterized as the “neoliberal, carbon-based economy.”


Berman specifically discussed her use of the media in the current debate about the relation between the energy and water-intensive strip mining of Canadian tar sands—which leaves a significant “toxic footprint”—and U.S. energy security. The political instability caused by potential scarcity, Cox agreed, was a growing concern and created a situation in which policymakers were often willing to make a trade-off between environmental well-being and national security.

Although the pace of change that McNeill noted in his keynote speech had created many historically enduring problems, Cox also said, technological change continues along its vertiginous path, providing the potential for a positive transition to a cleaner economy with more environmentally sound public policies.

The conference concluded with a stirring discussion on the critical importance of environmental history for the contemporary world, broaching topics as varied as the theoretical and practical definitions of environmental sustainability and its relation to economic development to the role of crises in moving public opinion to the oft-difficult balance modern nation-states must strike between environmental change and national security.

Chris Dietrich, History Graduate Student
Dept. of History, University of Texas

Related Links:
Institute for Historical Studies
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