The most influential contribution to environmental history came from the field of history. The Annales school, which flourished at the University of Strasbourg, France, agglutinating a first generation of scholars around the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, founded in 1929 by the medievalist historian Marc Bloch, and modern historian Lucien Feb-vre. This approach, a reaction to the dominant history of political events and the function of leaders, minimized the role of individuals and economic factors by interpreting the processes of innovation as a result of the intervention of social forces. Scholars were interested in identifying the latent and slow-changing social, economic, and political structures at the various scales of analysis, hence favoring the long-term processes over time. Following this interpretation, environmental history is then concerned by a long course of action.
Their proposal for a comprehensive study of society induced historians to collaborate with other social disciplines, such as economy, sociology (such as Marc Bloch); and anthropology and particularly geography (such as Lucien Febvre), and to adopt their methodologies, composing a global history. Questions concerning this approach focus on their disregard of the role of abrupt technological or social changes and the underestimation of the phases previously identified in economic history. Also, an examination of the application of this method to contemporary issues, with technology rapidly and deeply modifying the environment, is necessary as, according to Braudel, technology shapes civilization.
Marc Bloch challenges the idea of an escalating innovation and technological progression throughout history with his analysis of the history of the water-mill in Europe, an instrument of feudal dominance and taxation. Lucien Febvre, who proposed to study human history within the framework of the natural environment, supported the contribution of geography to history. This influence is noticeable in his book La Terre et L'Évolution Humaine (1922).
Fernand Braudel, a disciple of Lucien Febvre, in his major work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), adopted the approach of his mentor when he placed the space itself, the Mediterranean area, as the main actor. He contemplates the Mediterranean as an environmental unit, with a specific character, and studies how it shapes the social processes of Mediterranean history. However, opposing Febvre, he goes back to determinism when he recognizes the environment as an actor of long duration playing a decisive function in history.
Braudel identifies three layers when using separate resolutions and frameworks of analysis, which allows him to recognize hidden structures. The three layers are: events with a short duration, such as those reflected in the media, mid-term conjunctures of an economic nature, and longue durée (long-lasting) cycles of history that extend for centuries. The three classes of events are stable foundations of civilizations, driven, respectively, by the individuals, social phenomena, material flows, and the environment. As to the mid-scale processes, Braudel emphasizes the function of long-distance exchange, the result of productive imbalances, a phenomenon that stimulates advance and innovation. After its consolidation as a school of thought with Braudel, a third generation of scholars contributed to the fragmentation of the Annales, by putting a greater emphasis on anthropological methods.
Alfred Hettner (1859-1941), the German geographer, used a chronological approach, focusing on the understanding of regional identity. Studying the distributions of the physical and cultural geofac-tors through history, he considered geography could explain origin and process, and supported the adoption of a genetic perspective. Otto Schlüter looked at landscape as the essential object of study, as a space for the integration of factors where changes are identifiable, and particularly focused on the transition between natural and cultural landscape. A key concept in the study of landscape change is sequential occupation, proposed by the geographer Derwent Whittlesey in 1929. The term designates the process of consecutive and accumulative modification of the land by subsequent generations, so that each culture produces a distinct landscape at each time frame. Dewey was interested in the evolutionary and dynamic nature of the landscape, adopting, together with Sauer, Hettner's genetic approach.
Carl Ortwin Sauer, the cultural and historical geographer, emphasized the mutual influence between landscape and culture through history at the regional scale, in order to fully understand the interactions. He thought of landscape as the single object of study of geography. Sauer's early focus was on the reconstruction of past cultural landscapes, using the empirical recollection of narratives as a method and the elaboration of very detailed descriptions. In his work The Morphology of Landscape (1925), he identifies people and culture as agents, the natural area as the medium, and the humanized cultural landscape as the result, reshaped and renewed by incoming new cultures, agreeing with Whittlesey. Sauer distrusts technology for its detachment of land, and identified it as the causal factor of the destruction of values.
Henry Clifford Darby belongs to the school of British historical geography and local history. He studied and published the geography contained in the Domesday Book, a survey of 13,418 English settlements completed in August 1086. Darby adopted a close scholarly relationship with history for the study of the course of landscape construction by humans as agents, as shown in his book, The Draining of the Fens (1940). His earlier works are seen in the with landscape history, anti-modern, disclaiming technology (like Sauer), while in later works he advocates development over the preservation of hostile wilderness.
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