An Environmental History Magazine

Why Environmental History?
Towards a Critical Reflection on the
Transformative Character of Historical Ecology

José Ignacio Irazábal, 2022

Environmental history is a promise. It promises to include and connect divergent discourses that would otherwise float disciplinarily; its scope is multi- and trans-disciplinary, seen as academic disciplines that intersect and merge their discourses and methods to generate new interpretations. In a sense, I argue that environmental history functions as a bridge on which it is possible to reconceptualise our ways of approaching relationships, networks and apprehensions that have formed from our presence on the planet. One of the central approaches used in environmental history is known as Historical Ecology. The framework of historical ecology emphasises the critical aspects of being as a living being.1 However, as a discipline of knowledge it moves quickly among philosophy, history, and biology, traversing that complex whole we call society and nature; connecting every area of knowledge that focuses in one way or another on our forms of inhabiting, perceiving, understanding, using, and relating as humans – and participants – to a living, active, voracious, and transformative environment, an environment with collective agencies.2


At the same time, the cognitive ambition of historical ecology enables it to recognise the active, political, and interested role of history. This cognitive ambition gives rise to reconstitute frameworks of understanding of historical processes that impact our present and are projected into our future, dynamising histories and discourses that were pretended to be static.3 A key example is Crumley’s (2000)4 reconceptualization of the term heterarchy which breaks linear and hierarchical forms of relationship between human and non-human agents proposing a constant interconnectedness that create and recreate both human and non-human in egalitarian relations. Another key example is Hastrup’s topophilia 5 (following the reconceptualization of Tuan 1990),6 which embodies an ethical approach, where humans no longer are the centre but a node among nodes in a multidimensional network of relationality. Another important input to historical ecology and studies of socio-ecological interaction is provided by Lindholm and Ekblom (2019)7 and their concept of biocultural heritage. As a concept, biocultural heritage implies multidisciplinary views of socio-ecological interactions and put emphasis on applying this knowledge to policy-making – which affects both human and non-human in the process of living in- and through the environment, among others.


My effort here – which aims to contribute to the disciplinary debate on historical ecology – would be to emphasise the importance of historical ecology. To this end, I have posed this macro-question – which also serves as a title: why historical ecology? I have outlined part of my answer in the lines above. Nevertheless, that part functions both as a prelude and as the intention to hybridise diverse disciplinary perspectives in an ethical-moral action – seen as my stance of self-critical commitment with the historical interpretation – that may allow us to create frameworks of dialogical rather than dialectical understandings.8


Simply speaking, we – turning now my voice into a manifesto of the multiplicity of voices that might share my stance; not as an attempt to speak for the entire universe of historical ecology practitioners, but as an attempt to unite voices into an inclusive voice of those who feel morally represented by my proposal – are no longer interested in the old debate between the opposition of nature/culture or nature/human; without negating the importance in the how historical ecology has become self-critical through this contradiction,9 our movement and reflection, our why is understood here as a breakpoint.10

We argue that environmental history is the narrative of new academic consciousness integrated with meta-narratives – or human and more-than-human narratives – that allow us to understand and criticise ourselves as participating, creating, dependent, involved, embedded, and interested beings in the world we live in. Therefore, our why implies expansion of discourses that are no longer linearly associated in a ‘box of thought’, not as ‘thinking outside the box’ but recognising that the ‘box’ was never a total validator of truth and seeing its boundaries erased as new voices emerge in, through, and out of that ‘box’. Let us take two quick examples illustrating our position through a couple of these voices.


When Wirtz (2016) proposed a new active interpretation from Bakthin’s (1981)11 concept of chronotope, she aimed to understand a phenomenon from a dialogical point of view, including a myriad of voices interconnected across space and time and were evoked through action. A chronotope is understood as an ontological unit that works as a framework of historical reference and is invoked and evoked at the moment of social relations without dependence on social consciousness. This enabled Wirtz (2016) to approach interconnectedness in historical multiplicities, including scholarly history, like a flux of time that is symbolised yet felt, to create multiple temporalities that are pervasive with each other through the language. Undoubtedly, this was a breaking point to understand particular and recursive links through different narratives, especially when considering that voices related to spirits and the dead were included through her research, without reducing their meaning to a possible efficacy within society.


In a reflection on a different scale, Haraway (2015) offers a fascinating proposal. The author reflected on the core conceptualisation of the political establishment of social eras. Starting with the Anthropocene, she found notions still embedded in the aforementioned polar distinction and moves from the how to the whywhy for, and from where is constructed and enunciated this era of human activity. She evaluated different proposals inside this construct – Capitalocene, Plantationcene, Necrocene, among others – and she emerges with a dialogical possibility, in which it is possible to include human, non-human, more-than-human, in an inter- and trans-connected relationship through kinship thinking. In her tentacular thinking it is possible to surpass the rigours of filiation as an academic construct and link narratives of different indoles, overflowing imaginaries that are active, conscious, and unconscious participants in our multi-connectedness with a pervasive and constitutive whole. She names this era the Chthulucene. For us, this effort represents a vision, a possibility, where historical ecology manifests one myriad of possibilities through the inclusion and the change of narratives in different scales.


So far, I have proposed three of our whys, seen as three parallel possibilities in historical ecology: multi- and transdisciplinary hybridisation, reconstitution of frameworks of historical understandings, and the expansion and inclusion of meta-narratives involving new discourses. One last why emerges as the consolidation of our endeavour as academic and human beings, as a way of blending our values, interests and intentions through historical ecology; I refer to the possibility of providing new social sensitisation – actively including us as researchers – promoting new social consciences and implementing inclusive historical awareness.


In this becoming, historical ecology is both a discourse and an action. The self-critical reflection that allows us to see how to, for example, all the entanglements a la Hodder (2012)12 or affectedness a la Whitmore and Hichliffe (2013)13 not only implies our subjects and themes of interests but involve us – as ecological historians – dynamically.14

Making us part of narratives, stories and hybridising our individual and collective boundaries towards creating a new system of relations that we could pose as knowledge-conscience.15


The promise of historical ecology is an ethical-moral promise of acknowledging the otherness as a constitutive and intra-dependent part of ourselves. This otherness is revealing an integrative us with possibilities to permeate both academic texts and us as researchers as well as the social implementations of historical practices in our present. It is the post-modern possibility of ascribing to other ways of making ‘truths’, where our position as researchers is no longer shackled to a structured box of knowledge and domination of reality. Moreover, it expands our notions as we expand ourselves by hybridising with the other, be it another individual, another natural, another thought, or another look at our being here.




This short essay was peer reviewed by Petter Larsson and Leni Charbonneau, whose comments and constant revisions not only clarified the text but also my ideas around my reflection. To them and to all the editorial team of the journal my sincere thanks.

  1. Merchant, C. (ed.). 2008. Ecology: Key Concepts in Critical Theory. New York: Humanity Books.
  2. Crumley, C. 2007. Historical Ecology: Integrated Thinking at Multiple Temporal and Spatial Scales. In: Hornborg, A. and C. Crumley, (eds.). 2007. The World System and The Earth System: Global Socio-Environmental Change and Sustainability Since the Neolithic. Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press. pp. 15-28. Crumley, C. L., Lennartson, T., and A. Westin (eds.). 2018. Issues and Concepts in Historical Ecology: the past and future of landscape and region. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Delhi, Singapore: Cambridge University Press. Witmore, C. 2014. Archaeology and the New Materialism. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1.2, 203-46.

  3. Radkau, J. 2008. Nature and Power: a global history of the environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp 1-35.
  4. Crumley, C. 2000 From Garden to Globe: linking time and space with meaning and memory. In: McIntosh, R. Tainter, J. and S. Keech McIntosh (eds.). 2000. The Way the Wind Blows: climate, history, and human actionSeries in Historical Ecology, Balee, W. and C. Crumley, eds. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 193-208.
  5. Hastrup, K. 2009. The Nomadic Landscape: people in a changing Artic environment. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal  of Geography. 109 (2), pp. 181-189.
  6. Tuan, Y. (1990). Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. New York: Columbia University Press.
  7. Lindlholm, K. and A. Ekblom. (2019). A Framework for Exploring and Managing Biocultural Heritage. Anthropocene 25, March 2019, Article 100195.
  8. I understood a dialectical framework as that branch of the historical discipline that has led us to understand reality through oppositions that are inherently opposed and rooted in an ontology of knowledge in which a phenomenon manifests itself through its contradiction (e.g., nature/culture or rural/urban). In contrast I offer a dialogical framework of reference as the linguistic point of interconnection where it is possible to understand oneself through integrations, fusions, and hybridisations, and where the phenomenon enters into a hermeneutic understanding of the interpreted reality, it being impossible to oppose phenomenon to its knowledge, or even phenomenon to its researcher. Cf. Hinchliffe, S. 2007. Geographies of Nature: societies, environments, ecologies. London: Sage. Visconti, L., Sherry, J., Borghini, S. and L. Anderson. 2010. Street Art, Sweet Art? Reclaiming the ‘public’ in public space. Journal of Consumer Research, 37. Haraway, D. 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationcene, Chthulucene: making kin. Environmental Humanities, 6, 159-65. Wirtz, K. 2016. The Living, the dead, and the Immanent: dialogues across chronotopes. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1), 343-69.
  9. For this interesting debate and how is possible reconceptualise concepts rooted in this polar opposition as an ontology of the historical ecology discipline I recommend Crumley 2018 with special emphasis on Erikson 2018, which reflects on critical perspectives based on the philosophy of Latour (2008) in which nature/human has become a ‘naturalised’ opposition.
  10. Eriksson, O., Ekblom, A., Lane, P., Lennartson, T., and K. Lindholm. 2018. In: Crumley, C., Lennartson, T., and A. Westin (eds.). 2018. Concepts for Integrated Research in Historical Ecology. Issues and Concepts in Historical Ecology: the past and future of landscape and region. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Delhi, Singapore: Cambridge University Press. Latour, B. 2008. Re-Ensamblar lo Social: Una Introducción a la Teoría Actor-red. Buenos Aires: Manantial.
  11. Bakhtin, M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: four essays, edited by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  12. Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Willey-Blackwell.
  13. Whitmore, S. and S. Hinchliffe. 2010. Ecological Landscapes. In: Hicks, D. and M. Beaudry, (eds.). 2010.  The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 440-58.
  14. The two authors theorise on how humans maintain dependencies with the non-human, the former focusing on material culture and its social representation, and the latter from a psycho-social point of view where emotional dependencies with the natural exist beyond the physical.
  15. This is not opposed to the system of power-knowledge conceptualised by Foucault (1977: 171-74) as “political technologies” by which the biological environment was controlled by rationalising capacity. Instead, we are trying to offer a perspective that implies how the construction of ‘truth’ can now pass-through frameworks of hybridisation of new consciousness through historical ecology as an inter- and transdisciplinary backbone. Foucault, M. 1977. Historia de la Sexualidad. 1. La Voluntad del Saber. México D.F.: Siglo Ventiuno Editores.
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