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Environmental History, Ecology, and Sustainability in Public Lands

Written by Jill Baron Professor from Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Ruth Alexander Professor from the Department of History, and Will Wright Graduate student from the Department of History.

How can we learn from the past to improve current and future resource management decisions related to public lands? That is the topic of our Global Challenges Research Team, “Environmental History, Ecology, and Sustainability in Public Lands.” We deliberately stress “how” more than “what” because learning, whether through historical or scientific methods, is very much a process. “What” has happened is important, of course, but factual evidence about humans and nature in the historical past is not transparent in meaning or relevance. Nor are the methods of environmental historians and scientists self-evident. Rather, our group has found that creating synergies between environmental history and ecology requires that we carefully explain “how our different disciplines think and what they have the capacity to do.” Similarly, we have found it necessary to evaluate carefully historical and scientific evidence about the past, looking for the lessons it might offer for present and future decision-making. It will not simply tell us what to do.

Our group of environmental historians, resource managers, and scientists meets monthly to discuss readings related to the past, present, and future of natural resource management. We are especially concerned with the western United States, though our group also considers questions of broad geographic scale. “Priming systems”  such as global capitalism and its related technologies have produced powerful and broad patterns  of change in human societies and the natural environment, evident at  the local, regional, national, and international level. Seeking sustainable systems of natural resource stewardship in the Anthropocene thus requires that we consider the western United States in a global context. Often, in choosing readings on a particular topic (for example, public lands restoration), we pair a selection by environmental historians with a paper written by one or more ecologists.   

We have now met four times. While our early discussions were stimulating, they did not appear to advance us notably toward our goal. In hindsight, and with the feeling that we are now hitting our stride, we realize that what felt like chaos was actually learning each other’s vocabularies and, especially, patterns of thinking. What we’ve learned has the potential to frame a more nuanced approach to resource management during these times of rapid global change. We still have a long way to go but offer the following as a summary of our emerging insights.

Professionals often suffer from the arrogance of thinking that their particular discipline offers unique and complex windows onto the “truth,” dismissing other fields of study with simple assumptions. As a scientist, Jill viewed history as a dry set of facts to be suffered through. As an historian, Ruth assumed the natural sciences to be insufficiently curious about human values and practices, past and present.  We have learned that both history and science are vibrant modes of inquiry, each having the capacity to examine both natural and human conditions. Moreover, the methods applied by historians and scientists are very similar. Both involve asking questions, posing hypotheses and piecing together a narrative based on observations, experiments, and meta-analyses that lead to a conclusion that confirms or refutes the initial ideas.  Both history and science produce knowledge and understanding about causation and impact. They illuminate the present and can help us make choices for the future.

And that leads to another revelation: the questions raised by scientists about the natural world, or by historians about the past are very much shaped by culture. Science and history are tools for learning, but the questions that scientists and historians pursue are a product of the time in which they are raised, the issues of the day, and the prevailing thoughts of disciplinary peers. Humans are social animals, after all.  This is not meant to diminish the value of the topics studied, or the knowledge produced, but scientists and historians should be very aware that they cannot escape context and culture as they go about their craft. Culture and disciplinary training might make it difficult, for example, for an historian in the United States in 2015 to frame questions about land or water use among 17th-century Mohegan Indians that adequately acknowledge their material, social, and spiritual frames of reference. Similarly, professional norms may make it difficult for ecologists in the United States in 2015 to ask questions about humans and their interaction with natural resources in public lands that look as closely at why humans act in certain ways as at their harmful impacts.

While culture may constrain our questions it may also provoke dramatically new quests for knowledge. We are living in such a moment.  Global climate change and other effects of the Anthropocene are pushing historians, ecologists, and resource managers to look more closely at the “coupled natural-human systems” that shape both human existence and conditions in our public lands. Certainly, we see this in the practical world of natural resource management, where goals have changed markedly with time. Management goals today are strongly shaped by a scientific understanding of ecological principles; they are also firmly grounded in, and trying to be cognizant of, cultural trends and values. Confronted with unprecedented climate, land use, and technological change we hope our interdisciplinary coalition of historians, scientists, and resource managers can put this broader perspective to further use in protecting the processes, species, and resources of our public lands.

Photo #1: Courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo #2: E. Lucy Braun and George Damon Fuller (others unidentified) on a University of Chicago field trip to Loch Vale watershed in Rocky Mountain National Park 1912. Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago archives.


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