American Environmental History Syllabus

Course Description:

If you pay half attention to the news, you should know that we face a barrage of environmental problems.  Mountaintop removal in Appalachia, deforestation in the Amazon, species extinction, air and water pollution, depletion of topsoil, shortage of drinking water, expanding deserts.  Of course, the biggest challenge that you will face in your lifetimes is how to solve the issues associated with global climate change.  Understanding the historical context of these issues—in other words, how we got to where we are today—is the paramount job of the environmental historian.  In this class, we will learn how and why humans have changed the face of the Earth, as well as how and why humans have sought to mitigate those changes.  We will also learn how non-human nature has shaped human history.  The eminent environmental historian William Cronon has written that history cannot provide lessons for the future, only parables of the past.  A parable is an anecdote, or story, told to convey some moral lesson, but the lessons that we draw from these parables are not the domain of the historian.  Yet, as people concerned about environmental change, we cannot but help to ponder what those lessons might be.  In this class, we will ponder those lessons, but first we must learn the parables.

This course is an introduction to American environmental history.  We will examine the interactions of humans and the non-human world, the factors that shaped those interactions, and how those interactions changed over time.  A background in American history will be helpful but not necessary.

This syllabus is the guide for this class.  As a student, you are responsible for everything that is in here, so read it carefully. This syllabus is subject to change.

Course goals and objectives

Content goals. Students will learn:

  • How Americans have perceived, shaped, and been shaped by non-human nature over time.
  • The central debates over the means and ends of reform efforts.
  • That American history unfolded in a context created by natural conditions, and over time, Americans gradually asserted more and more control over their environment.
  • That environmental change and efforts to mitigate change always have social costs, and, historically, the poor and racial minorities bore those costs.

Methodological goal. Students will learn how to:

  • Interpret, analyze, and evaluate primary sources
  • Conduct primary research and write a scholarly history article
  • Analyze and evaluate scholarly articles

Required Texts:

  • Louis S. Warren, ed., American Environmental History (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2003)
  • Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History
  • Gene Stratton Porter, The Harvester (1911). Available via googlebooks.
  • Mart Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).


Your grade in this course will be determined by the following formula:

  • 40% exams
    • 15% – Midterm
    • 25% Final Exam
  • 15% Research Paper
  • 20% Journal
  • 10% Book Essays
  • 15% Participation in Discussions


This class requires careful and engaged reading of assigned sources.  This class does require a lot of thinking, and I will require you to organize and express your thoughts in writing.  If you come to lectures ready to learn and to discussions prepared and ready to participate, you can do well in this class.  However, that is no guarantee that you will get the grade you want.   I encourage you to come talk to me in office hours if you are struggling or you are unsure of how to improve.

Lectures and Discussions:

This class is a mixture of lecture and discussions.  You will need to come to lectures having done the assigned readings and ready to learn and take careful notes.   Lectures are interactive and typically conclude with a more sustained discussion of the lecture and the readings.  Your participation is required.

Make-up Policy:

Do not miss a test.  I will not administer a make-up exam unless your absence is due to extraordinary circumstances.  This means that you are either violently ill, on a prior approved school function, or at a funeral of a loved one.  You will need to provide documentation for any of these absences.

Classroom behavior:

Scientific studies have shown that students retain more information from lectures when they take notes on actual paper, rather than on a computer.  Studies have also shown that students are typically not as good at multitasking as they think they are.  Therefore, there will be no laptops allowed in the classroom.  Sorry.  Excessive talking, texting, eating, or anything else that, in my judgment, disrupts the learning environment, will not be tolerated.

Academic Honesty:

The University of Georgia, as well as the rest of academe, takes academic honesty very seriously.  Upon entrance to UGA, you pledged your commitment to perform “all academic work without plagiarism, cheating, lying, tampering, stealing, giving or receiving unauthorized assistance from any other person, or using any source of information that is not common knowledge without properly acknowledging the source.”  You will face severe penalties, including failure in the course and possible expulsion from the university, if you violate this oath.  For more information, see the school’s policy at

Research Project DUE April 22. For your final paper, you will do some research into a topic of your choice and write a well-organized, scholarly paper.  Your paper will be on a particular place and address the themes we have discussed in class.  Instructions for this assignment will be handed out at the beginning of the semester.

  • March 5 – TOPIC DUE
  • April 2 – DRAFT DUE

Course Outline:


Week 1: Introduction to Environmental History

This lecture is designed to provide a broad introduction to the themes of the course.

M – Lecture 1: Why study environmental history? Introductions.

W -Lecture 2:  Laying out the Framework for Debates. Learning what questions to ask.

F – Discussion: What is environmental history? What is “Nature?” What is wilderness?” What is Culture?


  • Introduction: What is Environmental History, Warren, ed., American Environmental History, 1-3.
  • William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review, 17, 3 (Autumn 1993), 1-22.
  • Steinberg, Preface, 3-7.



Week 2: Colonial Transformations, Economic and Cultural

M – Lecture 3: The New World Before Columbus.

W – Lecture 4: The colonial ecological revolutions

F – Discussion: What are the uses of the pristine myth? How did Native Americans change the landscape?


  • Warren, American Environmental History, 1.
  • Steinberg, Ch. 2, “A Truly New World.”


Week 3: Commoditizing nature – of Men and Markets in New England

M – Lecture 5: Beaver, Deer, and early Commodification of Nature

W – Lecture 6: The capitalist ecological revolution

F – Discussion: Should environmental change by judged by what was good for people, in the sense of whether that change promoted economic growth, social justice, or improved health and nutrition? Or should historians judge the past by less anthropocentric standards, i.e., what was good for other species or ecosystems?


  • Warren, American Environmental History, 3, “Colonial Natures: Marketing the Countryside.”


Week 4: The Frontier in Myth and Reality

M – Lecture 7: Southern Agriculture and the Environment

W – Lecture 8: The Commodity Frontier: the Great West

F – Discussion: What is the agrarian myth, and why has it been so popular in American history?


  • Donald Worster, “Beyond the Agrarian Myth,” Ch. 1 in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (Oxford: University Press, 1992), 3-18.
  • Warren, American Environmental History, 4, “Forest and Plantation in Nineteenth-Century America.”
  • Mart Stewart, What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920 (1996). BOOK ESSAY DUE



Week 6: Agrarianism and Wilderness: Changing Ideas about Nature

M – Lecture 9: Thomas Jefferson, the Enlightenment, and Nature

W -Lecture 10: Henry David Thoreau, Romanticism, and the Wilderness Idea

F – Discussion:  How did Jefferson and Thoreau see the relationship between democracy and nature?


  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia [exceprts].
  • D. Thoreau, Into the Maine Woods or Walden [exceprts]


Week 7: Alternatives in the Nineteenth Century

M – Lecture 11: Brook Farm and Communal Experiments

W – Lecture 12: The Yeomanry

F – Discussion: Why did industrial capitalism, despite its many critics, continue to spread across the country? Due to a lack of sources, much of what historians claim about how average rural people felt about the market is based on their own perspective on “human nature.”  Based on what you know about people, do you think that people favor stability and security? Or the pursuit of profit and luxury?


  • Harry Watson, “’The Common Rights of Mankind’: Subsistence, Shad, and Commerce in the Early Republican South,” in Sutter and Mangianello, eds., Environmental History and the American South.
  • Ralph Lutts, “Like Manna from God: The American Chestnut Trade in Southwestern Virginia,” in Sutter and Mangianello, eds, Environmental History and the American South.


Week 9: Industrial Capitalism and the Environment in the 20th Century

M – Lecture 13:  The Rise of Industrial Agriculture

W – Lecture 14:  Consumerism and the Problem of Second Nature

F – Discussion: Are consumers to blame for the transformation of California’s Central Valley?



  • Warren, American Environmental History, 6, “Markets, Nature, and the Disappearing Bison”



Week 10: Progressive Conservation: Revisiting the Tragedy of the Commons

M – Lecture 15: The “Conservation Movement” and its antecedents

W – Lecture 16: Conservation and Democracy: Conservation on the ground.

F – Discussion: Is the gospel of efficiency anti-democratic?


  • Gene Stratton Porter, The Harvester. BOOK ESSAY DUE
  • Warren, American Environmental History, 7, “The Many Uses of Conservation.”


Week 11: Conservation in Peril? The Evolution of Conservationist thinking after World War I

M – Lecture 17: Victory of Conservation? Leisure and Efficiency in the 1920s

W – Lecture 18: Nature and the New Deal

F – Discussion: Is Wilderness part of the problem or the solution?


  • Warren, American Environmental History, 8, “National Parks and the Trouble with Wilderness.”


Week 12: Natural and Unnatural Disasters

M – Lecture 19: The Dust Bowl and American Capitalism

W – Lecture 20: Manmade Disasters

F – Discussion: Who is to blame for the Dust Bowl and other natural disasters?  Could they have been avoided?



  • Ted Steinberg, “Do-it-yourself deathscape: the unnatural history of natural disaster in South Florida,” in Sutter and Mangianello, eds., Environmental History and the American South.



Week 13: The Postwar Environment

M – Lecture 21: The Suburban Environment and the Consumer Revolution

W – Lecture 22: Environmental Impacts of Consumerism

F – Discussion: What is the problem with suburbia?  Did it bring Americans closer to nature? Or insulate them from it?


  • Kristoffer Whitney, “Living Lawns, Dying Waters: The Suburban Boom, Nitrogenous Fertilizers, and the Nonpoint Source Pollution Dilemma,” Technology and Culture, 51, 3 (July 2010), 652-674.
  • David Owen, “The Efficiency Dilemma: If our machines use less energy, will we just use them more?” The New Yorker, 20, 2010.


Week 14: Environmental Movement and its Accomplishments

M – Lecture 23:  Victory of Wilderness: From Echo Canyon to the Wilderness Act of 1964

W – Lecture 24:  Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and the new ecological awareness

F – Disucssion: Why should humans care about preserving the habitats of all species?


  • Warren, American Environmental History, 9: Something in the Wind: Radiation, Pesticides, and Air Pollution.
  • Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac.


Week 15: The 1970s: Environmental Politics and its Discontents

M – Lecture 25: The Decade of the Earth

W – Lecture 26: Environmental Politics of the Counterculture:  Back-to-the-Land and the Intentional Community Movement

F -Discussion: What are the limits of state power in protecting the environment?



Week 16: The Environment in a Digital Age

M – Lecture 27: The Conservative Environmental Backlash

W – Lecture 28: The Wal-Mart Economy and its Consequences

F – Discussion: Environmental Justice—who wins and loses from environmental reform?


  • Warren, American Environmental History, 11. “Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice.”
  • Warren, American Environmental History, 12. “Backlash Against the Environmental Movement.”