Environment and Human History

Kerry Woods, Fall 2003

LINKS TO: Reading assignments; General bibliography

The General Point


Our purpose is to explore how human cultures have been shaped by and given shape to their environment. The overarching questions:

            - Can differences among cultures be understood as consequences of environmental differences?

            - Do trends and events in human history emerge from human-environment interaction?

            - Has human-caused environmental change influenced the course of human history?

            - How has all of this been shaped by cultural perceptions of environment?

We will approach these questions in a range of manifestations and examples, through reading and discussion of a range of literatures. There will be a good deal of reading. Primary readings that will serve as the vehicle for class discussions will be from books available in the bookstore and a wide range of smaller selected readings on reserve.


We meet Monday and Thursday, 10:00-(about)11:30. Make sure your alarm clock works and set it to get you to class on time. My office is Dickinson 149, and I am there most of the time during the week; in particular, I try to have regular office hours 10:30-12:00 Tues. and Wed, and most Friday mornings. My office phone is 440-4465. My home phone is 518-677-5430; feel free to call me there, but not after 9:00 pm. There are books in the bookstore, and additional readings will be made available at the Library reserve desk and in the Dickinson reading room (you may make your own photocopies of these; it’s both cheaper and more legal to do it this way than to have readings made up in packets at the bookstore). Some will be available on the web. The books are:

            Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land. Hill and Wang

            Crosby, Alfred. 1986. Ecological Imperialism. Cambridge.

            Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel. Norton

            McNeill, William. 1998. Plagues and Peoples. Updated ed. Anchor

Expectations and Requirements

There will be a lot of reading, and it is absolutely essential that participants in the course keep up with assigned readings and be prepared for critical discussion. I will occasionally offer informational background, but the classroom undertaking will revolve around our discussion of the readings, the questions and arguments they raise, and their contributions to the questions listed above. I may call on individuals for responses to or comments on readings.

There will also be two kinds of written assignments of three kinds:

1) The weekly ‘page’: This is a vehicle for reflection on all readings for the class (including ones that we don’t necessarily discuss that fully in class). These papers will be handed in each Thursday in class, and they must be SHORT (one single-spaced page is the target; I will not read more than two). Pages should NOT be used to simply summarize readings; rather, the journal should emphasize your reactions to the readings, connections and implications that you draw from the readings, and, especially, emergent questions that you would like to ask or pursue. Get to the point; these need not follow formulaic “introduction-background-development-conclusion” structures. The point is to make a focused, concise statement or development of some question, idea, theory that may have emerged from your reading (and related class discussion). DO make connections to the readings clear. Think of the abstracts as riffs on your personal reactions and inspirations; it would be appropriate, also, to consider them as substrates for class discussion – include a question or two that you could bring before the class if asked.

2) Critical reviews: These will still be relatively short (say 5-6 pages), but more fully developed essays that present a critical analysis of and response to some piece of independent reading (beyond those assigned for class reading). These may be journal articles (ranging from popular magazines to technical or primary journals), book chapters, essays, or comparable web-based publications. ONE of these essays should address a book-length work OR a collection of shorter works addressing a particular theme (and may be a bit longer if you wish). Your analysis should take into account the source and nature of the publication (for example, web-publications may be subject to very different constraints and motivations than essays in commercial magazines or papers in academic journals), and it is essential that you give full and clear citations. More on this in class. There will be FOUR of these essays, and they will be due in class on 6 October, 27 October, 24 November, 15 December.

Tentative Course Outline

NOTE: This is only a general outline of readings, chapter numbers for assigned books and more precise assignments from other readings will be clarified as we go, and additional readings will be inserted along the way (especially for latter part of the term).

I. Introduction: Scientists, Historians, Human Nature, and the Cultural Origins of Nature

Week 1: A. Crosby, “Of Twits and Nerds”; G.Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”; D. Botkin, chapters from Discordant Harmonies

II. Natural Origins of Culture: BIG Patterns, Correlation and Historical Explanation

Climate, geology, and evolutionary background; Patterns in origins of agriculture, technology, empire

Weeks 1-4: Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

III. Episodes: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (and whether it matters to us)

Mesopotamia, classical Mediterranean cultures, Mayans, Anasazi, Polynesia/Easter Island

Weeks 5-7: Diamond continued; others

IV. Globalization of Culture: Environmental Imperialism and the Homogeocene

Spread and contact of cultures: environmental determinants and effects 

Weeks 8-10: Crosby, Ecological Imperialism; Cronon, Changes in the Land;

V. More Globalization: Evolutionary processes and human culture

An evolutionary perspective on parasites and disease, and implications

Weeks 11-12: Mcneill, Plagues and Peoples; Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

VI. Return to the Cultural Origins of “Nature”: Gilgamesh to John Muir

Week 13-14: more from Botkin, Cronon; R. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind;