Are public and environmental history connected? Naturally.

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"One Sky" by cobalt123.

Photo credit:  “One Sky” by cobalt123

How are public history and environmental history connected?

As this year’s liaison between the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting in Monterey and the annual Conference of the American Society for Environmental History in San Francisco, I am tasked with this question. And how appropriate—this year’s theme for the NCPH meeting is “Sustainable Public History,” the ASEH’s is “Crossing Divides.” If the environmental historians will pardon my flippant use of the term, to me the connections seem “natural.”

Of course there are the obvious connections. Many public historians are employed in various facets of public land, resource, and environmental management in national and state parks and with regulatory agencies. Those of us working in historic preservation recognize the connection between preserving historic structures and economic development and how this process can improve urban environments.

But as I sat down to consider the relation between public and environmental history, I thought of a more basic connection. I was reminded of a quote from environmental justice activist and scholar Robert Bullard in the recently released documentary A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet: “There’s no Hispanic air. There’s no African American air. There’s Air! And if you breathe air—and most people I know do breathe air—then I would consider you an environmentalist.” As historians, the environment is present in all that we do whether we admit it or not. And for the various publics we serve as public historians, air, water, landscape, food, and health are tangible realities. Much of our work is tied to and centrally concerned with “place.” What is “place” without geography? More, perhaps, than any other facet of history, people can relate to the environment. We all breathe air. Because of this fact, environmental history is inherently public. And as environmental history has grown as a field, the possibilities for engaging the public have expanded.

Take, for instance, the recent post on [email protected] by Nancy Zak, “Project Showcase: Ironbound Environmental Justice History and Resource Center,” about the exciting new archive of one of the nation’s oldest and most well-known environmental justice organizations. The Center demonstrates how environmental and public history intersect at a basic level. Like grassroots activists confronting environmental threats around the world, residents of Newark involved in protecting their families and communities understood pollution of their water, air, and land as being intertwined with other concerns. For these activists—everyday people asserting their rights to a healthful environment and to take part in the decisions that affected their lives—righting environmental wrongs was part of the fabric of daily life. The Ironbound Environmental Justice History and Resource Center preserves their stories so they may by studied by researchers contemplating the integral role of social justice in achieving sustainability. But, equally, if not more importantly, and in the activist tradition of public history, it provides resources for contemporary activists looking to learn from the past and contribute to a usable history for local residents.

This is just one of many exciting projects that make a natural connection between public and environmental history. Glancing over the programs for both conferences, I see many more.

Before the ASEH program officially gets underway in San Francisco, environmental and public historians and digital humanists are gathering for a workshop to explore how digital technologies are changing the way we research our topics and engage the public. The workshop is followed by two roundtables focused on the possibilities of digital humanities for environmental history and about implementing digital environmental history projects. A roundtable titled “Crossing Intellectual and International Divides: Environmental History as Public History,” will undoubtedly continue the dialogue on Saturday.  A few days later, just down the road in Monterey at NCPH, panel sessions dealing with environmental sustainability, teaching sustainability through digital projects, and exploring public history of the environment will complement conversations begun in San Francisco.

These are just a few of the numerous panels and roundtables that explore the exciting intersections of environmental and public history.  As liaison between the annual meetings of NCPH and ASEH this year, I’m excited to share and experience them with you.

~ Cody Ferguson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental/Public Humanities at Arizona State University.

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