Help! Know any planetary history?

By Kevin O’Sullivan

The beauty of history, to add to Juliana’s list, to me lies in its never-ending possibilities. It’s like finding an author you love and discovering they’ve written ten other novels all waiting to be read. Or falling in love with a band on their sixth album and delving through their back catalogue. There’s always something out there that you don’t know, something that you should know, a genre that you hadn’t even known existed.

Early last month, in response to a post that I wrote on the practice of contemporary history in Ireland, Juliana made a simple but telling comment:

If we truly think that history is integral to humanity, then it must be the history of humanity that we aim for. This means being aware of the ways in which being aware of the ways in which different disciplines address the same questions that historians do and acknowledging that the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question.

I am, I admit, a bit of a fool for big ideas. But only good ones. So the idea of writing a history of humanity that goes beyond the boundaries of the political seems at this juncture to be a pretty compelling one. And, over the last two months or so, it’s one I’ve found myself returning to again and again.

When reviewing Neil Hegarty’s Story of Ireland – the accompaniment to Fergal Keane’s RTÉ/BBC television series of the same name – for radio late last month, I was struck by the absence of the everyday. In Hegarty’s telling, the plain people of Ireland get a look-in on our island only when they are suffering: from plague, famine or lock-out.

Yet there were glimpses in Hegarty’s narrative of an alternative story of our country’s past. The arrival of the Vikings in Ireland, he writes, was merely part of a much broader pattern of population change across Europe in the Middle Ages – the result of rising temperatures, ever more favourable conditions for farming, a rapid growth in human population, and increased pressures for land. And those catastrophes for the ‘ordinary’ Irish – the plague, famine, potato blight? All driven in part by circumstances outside human control.

Which brought me back to Juliana’s observation. If, as she suggested, ‘the political state is not always the correct viewpoint from which to pose a question’, then how far do we take our studies?

Another admission: if I’m a fool for big ideas, I’m also a bit of a Guardian environmentalist. (As in: I recycle, get the train to work and switch off the lights, but still own a car and love air travel.) Watching the coverage of Japan’s catastrophe over the past few weeks, humanity’s power in the face of disaster has been remarkable. Yet the way in which it has been narrated also reminded me of how little I know about environmental history. The science – James Lovelock’s Gaia theory or Tim Flannery’s ambitious Here on Earth: A New Beginning – I know in passing. But if Newsnight’s analysts could speak of earthquake clusters, of shifting plates, of measuring seismic activity over long periods of time, I asked myself, how have historians incorporated this kind of research into their narrative of humanity? Where and how do natural disasters and environmental change fit?

Which is where I throw myself on your mercy, Pue’s readers, to help me find my way into the field of environmental history. What are the genre’s classic texts? Who are its leading lights? What is its future? And, most importantly, what should I be reading?


6 Responses to “Help! Know any planetary history?”

  1. Juliana Says:

    Ah Kevin, you’ve discovered environmental history. It’s good stuff. I would think that it has great relevance as well to African history and to how European nations view Africa. In particular there is interesting literature on the lasting association (particularly in the ideas of Europeans) between tropical climates and disease.

    Here are some fun ones to get you started:
    A. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: the biological expansion of Europe
    W. McNeill, Plagues and peoples
    Or for a less biological (microbial) and more environmental view of a huge range of time see
    J. Diamond, Guns, germs and steel

    Diamond is more of a synthesizer, and he is far too deterministic, but he comes up with some interesting ideas and is easy to read.

    I haven’t read as much specifically about Africa, but W. Beinart and L. Hughes, Environment and Empire has a pretty comprehensive bibliography that could be mined.

    As for Ireland, there’s David Dickson’s Arctic Ireland

    An environmental history of the Viking Age sounds like a fantastic idea, I’ll ask Poul Holm if he knows of any.


    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Juliana: Yes – have finally made my way around to environmental history! I’ve no idea why I never did before. Thanks for the tips. I’ve read David Dickson’s *Arctic Ireland* – an excellent book – but there’s loads here to follow-up on. Will have a joyous time working my way through them.

      Thanks too to Caroline Pennock for her recommendations via Twitter (via @carolinepennock). For the record, she recommended the Environmental History Resources ( and IHR’s overview of environmental history from its Making History Project ( Plenty of fascinating looking writing there too.

      Plenty to get me started, but I’d be happy to add more to my list if anyone else has any further reccomendations.


  2. Brian J Goggin Says:

    Another Jared Diamond book that might be of interest is Collapse:


  3. Sara Says:

    The two environmental historians that I’m aware of in the American context are William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ( – there are pdfs of a few articles you can download on the website as well as a list of books) and Richard White at Standford, but I’m sure there are many more. In American history, the environmental aspect especially relates to colonialism and western expansion.


  4. Brian J Goggin Says:

    Stop me if you’ve already thought of this, but it strikes me that you might find a lot of material in economic history. Sara’s comment reminded me of James Belich [b]Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World 1783-1939[/b], OUP 2009. I haven’t started it yet, and I got only a little way in to Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke (of TCD) [b]Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy in the Second Millennium[/b], Princeton UP 2007.

    I got distracted by a reference to the work of Brinley Thomas and have now added to the unread pile his [b]The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy: selected essays[/b], Routledge 1993, [b]Migration and Urban Development: A Reappraisal of British and American Long Cycles[/b], Methuen 1972, and his essay “Escaping from Constraints: The Industrial Revolution in a Malthusian Context”, originally in [b]The Journal of Interdisciplinary History[/b], which I can’t get at, but also in Robert I Rotberg & Theodore K Rabb [b]Population and Economy: Population and History from the Traditional to the Modern World[/b], Cambridge UP 1986.

    The link to environmental matters is in resources: for instance, the Thomas essay in Rotberg & Rabb begins: “The industrial revolution was Britain’s response to an energy shortage which afflicted its economy in the second half of the eighteenth century. A population explosion intensified the need to change its energy base from wood fuel to fossilized fuel.”

    Apologies if you already know about all this stuff.


  5. open source Says:

    open source…

    […]Help! Know any planetary history? « Pue's Occurrences[…]…

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