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Environmental History Lessons in the Classroom

Posted by Katherine Ireland
31 January 2014 - 4:29am


In Heather McGregor’s post, Teaching Environmental History and Cross-Cultural Comparison, she states:

“Environmental history provides a window into human activities in the natural world over time. It should also provide a window into comparison between groups of humans over time. In doing so, the understanding of ‘Others’ can be expanded – both human others and non-human others. Perhaps then decisions and judgments about relationships and policies relevant to the environment can be constructed with more creativity, and more respect.”

In order to be able to do this we need to access the primary source material that allows us to make the reasoned judgments that lead us to these comparisons. Policies that lead to reduced access to this material and draw into question the importance (or lack thereof) policymakers place on environmental history should be examined in the history classroom as a way for students to delve into the way in which environmental history in the present is being positioned for future generations.  

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ move to close seven of its 11 libraries by 2015 is one that raises relevant questions for classroom exploration about who controls access to primary documents in different fields, and the implications this has for future research. Fisheries and Oceans’ claim that their collections are in the process of being digitized does little to stem the concern over worrying reports of documents being unceremoniously thrown in the trash, or the concerns over why original documents are being discarded at all. These closures have been called a “loss to science”; the discarding of documents during the process of digitization has been called indiscriminate, and has been called the latest act in the Canadian government’s war on science. These are claims that students can examine, debate, and predict the outcome of in the history classroom as a way of exploring how actions in the present will unfold into the past and set the path for the future.

Beyond the sphere of academic history, this move is being discussed in public forums as a significant act of limiting access to knowledge with little to no regard for its impact on the public good. For example, reports from one of the Fisheries and Oceans libraries being closed here in New Brunswick informed Silent Spring author Rachel Carson’s research on the effects of DDT on salmon in New Brunswick rivers. Having students consider the impact of texts such as Silent Spring, and the power of access to research in such activist endeavours and social action, can be a valuable exercise in the history classroom.

Without access to these types of documents, the “window into human activities in the natural world over time” McGregor refers to is closed and the shades are pulled, leaving historians, researchers, and students as well as the general public, in the dark. This limits our ability to conduct unbiased research, if what is made available to us has already been combed through and formed into a package presenting a particular view of Canada’s environmental history. It also limits transparency, so we might have no way of finding out what we are missing. 

The sites where our primary sources are housed must be recognized as sites of public knowledge and treated with respect and care. As much as we teach students about the value of primary source documents, these library closures indicate that we must also teach about the ways in which these sources are stored, who has access to them, under what regulations they then fall, and the implications of this. This is an excellent example of the ways in which we are limited and how this affects the way we piece together the past.

How do you incorporate environmental histories into your history lessons?

Photo: author's photo


Knight, W. (2014, Jan. 17). Closing libraries, foreclosing research. Available online:

Munro, M. (2013, April 14). Closure of fisheries’ libraries called a ‘disaster’ for science. Available online:

Paris, M. (2014, 6 Jan.). Fisheries and Oceans library closings called loss to science. CBC news. Available online: