An Environmental Approach to History

Face of the Week: Penn Professor Ann Greene

 For environmental history professor Dr. Ann Greene, the Earth is "an island."

For environmental history professor Dr. Ann Greene, the Earth is "an island."

Science, Technology, and Society professor Dr. Ann Greene always felt that a good understanding of history had the potential to make a difference.


While Greene was in graduate school at Penn, environmental history was a small field that since has become much more established. It is not just a history of environments and environmental change, but an approach to history. It looks at where we are and how we got here, while also viewing the environment as an actor in history.


Although Greene developed this environmental slant later in her studies, she can also read the environment into the experiences that shaped who she is now and how these connections developed.


Before becoming a professor at Penn and teaching courses such as “Nature’s Nation” and “Energy in American History,” Greene spent many years at a secondary school teaching geography. She came to realize her interest in material environments and how they influence society. But her connection to the environment goes even further back.


Greene grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin, always maintaining a sense of working environments. By the time of the first Earth Day, she was in high school and found herself slightly turned off by early environmentalism, even though she had grown up so connected to the land.


“It was very romantic and ended up being very class-based and racially-inflected. And so I never felt that connected to environmentalism,” she said. “I’m sort of an environmentalist who wouldn’t call herself an environmentalist.”


She found that the historical approach grounded her in a different way, understanding the world through a ground-up approach. This, she said, has the ability to reweave traditional narratives.


“If you look at a concept like wild or wilderness … it’s helpful to craft contemporary responses to challenges to wilderness. If you understand something about where that came from in the first place and some of the issues and conflicts that shaped the original concept of wilderness, this also explains people’s romance with the idea,” she said. “I always felt understanding history would make a difference.”


For Greene, the only way truly to get people to think differently is to incorporate the themes into discourse so that it becomes something that is always being discussed.


“If you want to make people think differently about the power structures of society it needs to be woven into a lot of different courses,” she said. “Sustainability is about power in some ways. It’s about altering the terms of power, it’s about altering the terms of consumption, and it’s about altering the terms of energy production, consumption, and the structure of energy systems. Those are all power systems.” 


As environmental history has changed conceptions of how we got where we are, Greene believes environmentalism and views on the environment took a parallel course. She herself came to appreciate the environmental movement and gain more respect for environmentalism.


“Environmentalism has become more realistic in taking more interests and points-of-view into account,” she said. “It’s no longer a simple minded ‘nature good, people bad.’”


The ideas that environmental historians have been teaching regarding the role of human beings as a part of nature rather than separate has taken hold. Humans are important actors in determining the environments that surround us and that enable continued vitality. We are far from separate from nature, but rather a product and shaper of it.


“We are the ones moving and know how to take root and flourish under conditions of scarce resources or different resources,” Greene said. “We are like dandelions — we know how to put down those roots.”



Buzz Round Q&A with Dr. Greene:

Allison Bart: There are two ways to approach environmental history:

Ann Greene: One is through events that can be easily labeled environmental. The other is reading environmental history into event that would not be normally seen as environmental.

AB: What are your favorite environmental events to teach from the first category?

 One of Greene's books,  Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America.

One of Greene's books, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America.

AG: I’ve always liked teaching about the creation of the parks because it allows me to be classically subversive. You take this feel good story from the past ‘look we’ve created the parks’ and then you say ‘yeah, but there are a few problems here.’ I always like talking about the Adirondacks because you have wilderness preservation but you also have mining companies and timber companies involved. You have rich people carving out fiefdoms. You have the dislocation of the local population. You have the imposition of laws and regulations, which tend to cut against some classes and groups more than others. That’s a way of unpacking that complexity.


AB: And the second?

AG: In terms of reading environment into events — that’s even more fun. Probably the way I did that in my book (read: War Horses: Equine Technology in the Civil War and Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America) is through the Civil War — looking at the Civil War environmentally.

AB: Dream Course?

AG: I’d love to teach a course on mobility. Thinking about mobility of stuff, people, information, ideas. This partly started because I noticed a connection between environmental change and mobility, even back with the Erie Canal, for example, which changes the landscape, the flora and fauna … and opens up more extractive industries.