Monday, June 17, 2013

Environmental history and law—a new research agenda?

As noted here last Friday, Paul Sutter's recent JAH essay on the state of American environmental history lacks any mention at all of law as a factor in environmental history or historiography. Linda Nash's "Furthering the Environmental Turn", one of the responses published alongside the essay, advances some interesting views on the future of the field that seem to also hold promise for bringing environmental history and legal history closer together. Nash writes that
it is possible to read Sutter’s review as evidence that the field has (still) not advanced strong claims or methods that other kinds of historians must engage. Unless a scholar is already interested in environmental change or fish or birds, environmental history is a subfield that, while capable of producing great books, is not necessarily of larger consequence. Perhaps, then, it is time to reframe the issue. Perhaps environmental historians should acknowledge that theirs is less a coherent “field” of study structured around key archives, topics, or questions... than an orientation. Though in some ways the concern with bringing environments into history is similar to an earlier effort to bring in race and gender, “environment” is not exactly a category of analysis if only because environments are surely more than (social) categories. As the field has become more diverse, what binds it together is a strongly held belief that material environments—for all their sociality, historicity, and constructedness—always matter to history. In Ellen Stroud’s apt phrase, environmental historians “follow the dirt.”
Later, arguing that "success of the field is measured most effectively in works that are not self-consciously environmental", she writes:
environmental historians might now turn away from obviously material/environmental topics such as forestry, farms, mines, birds, and even cities and toward topics such as law, art, politics, and economics. If the second generation of environmental history successfully demonstrated how what was presumed natural was already intertwined with culture, now is the time for scholars to return to the material—to show how what is presumed to be social or cultural is thoroughly intertwined with the natural.
This research agenda for legal history would be quite ambitious, particularly if applied to areas of law outside of environmental and natural resources law (in which the intertwining of the cultural and social with the environmental is conventional). How might we "follow the dirt" to explore how material environments have mattered to the history of law without falling into the trap of determinism or buying into some kind of pre-modern natural law? Can anyone think of examples of this kind of work (since Montesquieu)?

Please share your thoughts.


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