New Directions in Environmental History, Part 1: The Environmental History of Early Modern Empires

AHA Session 55
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

The history of early modern and modern empires has been a booming field in recent years -- Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper’s massive Empires in World History being just the most obvious example. And environmental history continues to be one of our discipline’s most dynamic sub-fields, both expanding to new questions and revisiting old ones with improved tools. (Consider, for instance, how much more we know about climate change than when the idea of a climate-induced 17th century crisis was first broached 40 years ago.)
However, these two literatures have overlapped less than one might expect. (Burbank and Cooper’s landmark book, for instance, has no index entry for “environment,” “climate,” or “deforestation,” though it does touch briefly on the first and last of these.) Our panel attempts to promote such a dialogue, bringing together leading historians and one historical sociologist who have worked on environment and early modern empires in different regions and with different emphases. By keeping initial presentations brief, we hope to maximize the chance for dialogue and audience participation.
Connecting environmental and imperial histories is not only something that needs to be done within the historiography of each empire/world region, but across regions. One reason why this has not happened much in the past may be that when environmental history has been integrated into the history of specific empires, this has most often been done by focusing on one or two especially dramatic within that empire -- the effects of silver mining in Mexico and Peru, sugar plantations in the Caribbean, water control and land clearance in China, hunting for furs in Russia – which often have no close analogue elsewhere. We believe that by going beyond these “greatest hits” to a broader range of phenomena in each case, we can facilitate a richer discussion, linking early modern empires both through comparisons (e.g. by looking at different responses to unfavorable climate change, or different ways of dealing with nomadic groups who paid no taxes, but often provided both men and horses for warfare) and cross-regional connections (e.g. the role of transplanted flora and fauna in various colonization efforts, and of natural resource exports in sustaining imperial administrations). Thus we expect that this set of brief but broad thematic presentations can encourage more discussion than a more monographic set of papers probably could; but at the same time, the panel represents in-depth expertise on enough specific topics to ensure that the discussion remains firmly tethered to concrete research results.