Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment matters. American History is about looking at the past of not only the United States, but of both the American continents. This wider view is especially important when we realize that people occupied the Americas for over 15,000 years before Europeans arrived and that when the came to the Americas, Europeans focused their interest for centuries on areas that are not part of the current United States. As we get closer to the present, we will focus more on the U.S., but we’ll try to remind ourselves from time to time that we’re not the only nation in the Americas by considering how other nations have experienced and affected the environment.
Not that long ago the world seemed so big and human actions seemed comparatively so small that it was easy to ignore our effect on the world around us. Today we understand that people have a big impact on our surroundings. And we’re becoming aware that our environment has played an important part in our individual lives and in the growth of our cultures. Instead of being just a neutral backdrop, the environment is now recognized as a powerful shaper of human choices. That is, history.
By the environment, I mean everything around us. The natural world, but also the manmade world. Often it’s difficult to draw a distinct line between those two. We intuitively feel that tree-lined suburbs are more natural than the city and that the wilderness is even more pristine. But if we look closer we often find the suburban trees were part of a developer’s design, and even wilderness areas are special human-made places that have been deliberately protected or even rehabilitated so they resemble our idea of pristine nature.
The environment is also more than just the green part of the world. Even the most sophisticated urbanite depends for her food, water, and energy on elements of a much wider environment than she may be aware of. Nor are we talking only about environmentalists. The most jaded materialist depends on the environment just as much as the most dewy-eyed idealist.
If environment is a surprisingly complicated word, so is history. Most Americans live our lives within a set of stories that describe who we are and who we think we ought to be. These are the civics and social studies lessons we are all so familiar with. Historians recognize that many of these stories are not as true as we’d like to think. A lot of our histories have changed quite a bit over time, as have our reasons for telling them. History isn’t just data about the past, it’s the stories we tell about the past.