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Environmental History Seminar Reading List



To discuss something other than politics (well, not really since what is more political than our understanding of the past), I am teaching a graduate seminar in Environmental History. Here is the reading list. Read along if you want!

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing in the Age of the Atlantic

Chad Montrie, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States

Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan

Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country

John McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States

Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society

Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest

Couple of notes–I wouldn’t assign a book that was more than $30, eliminating a lot of good options but making this easier to decide. You may also note that there is nothing on modern environmentalism. That’s not really intentional but perhaps is indicative of how boring and stale the discussions of a lot of that is, in my view.

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  • Ramon A. Clef

    I read Worster for my first graduate level history course. It was the first time I’d ever seen a direct line drawn between rapacious industrial capitalism & the destruction of the American prairie. Previously, the Dust Bowl had always been presented more or less as, “Welp, this thing happened at the worst possible time. What a pity, amiright?”

  • West

    I’ve read the Scott and Bolster books; both are outstanding. The Weisiger looks like what I might pick from this for next read.

    Thx for posting this list.

  • N__B

    This may be too narrow a focus for you, but Fat of the Land is a nice study of urban pollution.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I’m a big fan of Carey’s In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers. I’ll need to read the rest of them!

  • Linnaeus

    I’ve read most of those books – this is a good list.

    Erik, have you read Christopher Sellers’s Hazards of the Job? Seems like it would be appropriate for your course, since it touches on environment, labor, turn of the 20th century Progressivism, etc. (ETA: if it’s in your stated price range.)

  • FlaMark

    Walden by Thoreau (duh!) it all starts with him. Plus the writings (and battles with the federal gov’t) of John Muir. Plant a seed

  • prognostication

    Everybody should read that James Scott book. There was a faculty member in my grad department who assigned it for candidacy/comps anytime he was on a committee, regardless of how relevant it was to the student’s work, and people would get annoyed with him for awhile and then eventually concede that most social scientists would get something out of it.

    Colten’s An Unnatural Metropolis is a personal favorite.

  • Baron Von McArgleBargle

    Thanks for this. I don’t plan on ever returning to school, but I do miss the books.

  • joel hanes

    If FlaMark can suggest Walden, I can suggest A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

  • Judas Peckerwood

    Have you ever read/considered assigning Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert? A truly eye-opening and rage-inducing history of water policy in the American west.

    • The 7th Marx Brother

      I logged in to suggest the very same. A terrific book, and perhaps especially important for an school on the east coast, where many (most) students with an interest in the environment tend to think of water policy only in terms of pollution, rather than allocation/distribution.

      • dogboy

        Count me in. I would even narrow it down to what I remember as Chapter 5, where Reisner brings a Marxist perspective to the topic of the book.

        His last work, “A Dangerous Place”
        , while short, combines a non-fiction accounting of the ecological folly of living in California with a fictional account of his life the day a major earthquake strikes the Bay area. Said earthquake cuts off the water supply for Los Angeles. Hilarity ensues.

    • delazeur

      I’d like to say that while that book is fascinating, it suffers from some weak analysis. Most critically, I don’t think Reisner understands what to do with inflation when he was comparing the costs and benefits of dams. He also doesn’t seem to know enough about engineering to effectively criticize Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation engineers, but he goes ahead and tries to do it anyway.

      It is deeply unfortunate; I have been unable to find another book that covers the same material more rigorously, and it’s some very important and interesting stuff.

  • Johnnie

    Changes in the Land or Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon are pretty good choices too.

  • delazeur

    I wouldn’t assign a book that was more than $30

    On behalf of your students, I would like to thank you.

    I had a couple of professors assign $200- or $300-worth of books (not available in the library, of course) for a 1 hr/week seminar, from which we would read one or two chapters each. It always irritated me how oblivious they were about why that was irritating. Not that I’m still bitter, or anything.

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