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Teaching Environmental History and Cross-Cultural Comparison

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
4 January 2014 - 3:47pm

I am mostly an educational historian, and I came to educational history by way of environmental history. After all, as an historian of the Arctic and Arctic peoples how could one not begin with the environment? Preparing this blog and thinking about environmental history in terms of teaching (only too briefly), is, in a way, a ‘returning’ for me.

On my bookshelf is David Freeland Duke’s edited collection Canadian Environmental History (Canadian Scholars Press Inc., 2006). Dr. Duke was my undergraduate thesis supervisor, and his Environmental History course was my first history seminar experience. I remember vividly being put on the spot by Dr. Duke to speak up, and more often. One day in class he asked students to share something about what the “wilderness” represents to them personally. In response came comments from my peers like “summer camping” “going to my cabin” “visiting parks”. And then eyes were on me and Dr. Duke said “And to you, Heather, what does it represent?” I said something like: “It is a dangerous place. In the Arctic when you are out on the land your life could easily and frequently be in danger. It is somewhere you have to be knowledgeable, well prepared, and alert and careful. White outs, polar bears, cracking ice, freezing water… it isn’t a playground.” I got the sense from Dr. Duke that was the kind of contrast he was looking for.

Our conversation that day in class became an introduction to the idea that human views of the environment are socially and culturally constructed. While I was not necessarily representing an Indigenous perspective on the environment, my experience being from Nunavut allowed me to contribute a variation on the constructions more common in other regions of Canada. A more controversial example of such regional and cultural differences, and one that is having significant impacts on northern communities, surrounds seal hunting practices by Inuit, by non-Indigenous Newfoundlanders, and those who condemn any form of seal harvest full stop.

Humans may tend to look upon the natural world with some expectation of universality. After all, haven’t these trees and rocks always been here? Didn't we all use trees for shelter at some point? Don’t we all use trees to make paper now? Aren't trees here to be used by us? Particularly societies steeped in Enlightenment logic tend to see the natural world as under their control.

In Dr. Duke’s edited collection, Douglas R. Weiner argues: “…our cognitive maps of the world are continually being produced and revised, and their production is closely tied up with our systems of politics and economics and the practices associated with those systems. So what we study when we study the human-nature relationship is a set of shadows and distorted images – a moving target. The objects of our study, social actors, are armed with their own socially constructed cognitive maps, which we, armed with our own maps and tools, try to understand” (2006, p. 72).

As humans learn more about science we come to see the environment as a changing ecosystem, and ourselves as changing actors holding changing ways of knowing the world, within those fluctuating webs. Perhaps we even come to see science itself as socially and culturally constructed rather than “neutral.” Not only that, but (hopefully) we come to recognize the distance in time between how we know the environment now and how our ancestors knew the environment. And not only that, but (hopefully) we also come to recognize our distance in understanding from peoples of other places and other cultures – groups who look upon the environment and non-human beings with completely different meanings and relationships. After all, aren't trees potentially living beings, teachers, homes, ancestors, tools, resources, and works of art? Hopefully we come to truly consider such differences, alongside the human and environmental reasons for them, rather than writing different ideas off as ill-informed superstitions.

A history classroom can – and should – facilitate cross-cultural comparison using environmental themes to better understand the past, the environment, and the present. History should look at what we assume and what we take for granted about the environment, making the implicit explicit and seeing how it has worked for human experience.

Some contemporary implications of this (or not doing this) – particularly for cross-cultural human relationships – are well articulated by Dr. Michael Marker in his article “After the Makah Whale Hunt: Indigenous Knowledge and Limits to Multicultural Discourse” (2006). In the article Dr. Marker shows how whale hunting practices amongst an American Indian people of the Pacific Northwest became an educational flash point when white teachers were unable to historicize or contextualize this form of human relationship to the whale in a respectful cross-cultural comparison. He explains:

…it was unacceptable for the Makah family to offer whale meat in their school presentation because it was defined as a religious and symbolic ritual by the White parents and school officials. The scenario placed the Indians as a suspiciously positioned cultural Other and the White parents as the cultureless mainstream. Whales could not be viewed as food outside the controversial location of the Makah tribe but must be contained in the category of special and protected “animal friends” (p. 498).

And yet, there is arguably “mainstream” food culture in the United States, in which schools participate and which takes on quasi-mythic proportions itself:

The symbols and ritualized consumption of foods in the schools are set to correspond with the mainstream patterns of industrially packaged and marketed products. Students develop loyalties and identities around corporate food products and logos. They develop “mythic kinship relationships” to these products that are extracted from the natural world (p.498).

Marker asks if views of the environment masked by “science” or the “mainstream” are in fact imbued with emotion and anthropocentrism. Most debates about resource use extend far beyond economic scales, even beyond political commitments, and enter into a space of spirituality, ontology and the metaphysical. These are complex ideas to engage young children in, but Marker’s article demonstrates the cost of neglecting to name such everpresent influences.

I would invite history teachers, and historians who help develop resources for environmental history education, to consider more deeply how we can teach students that human relationships with environments and environmental components (any non-human beings) are heavily mediated by changing cultural views. How do we look for, and mobilize, sources that convey different views while taking those views seriously stretching our minds to imagine what it means when someone understands a rock as an animate being, or a seal as their relative as well as their sustenance?

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.

How do you incorporate environmental history into your history lessons?



Duke, D. F. (2006). Canadian Environmental History. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press Inc.

Marker, M. (2006). After the Makah whale hunt: Indigenous knowledge and limits to multicultural discourse. Urban Education, 41(5), 482-505.


Photo credit: Phil McComiskey