Various approaches on how to focus the study of the discipline are found in contemporary environmental history that can be ascribable to the principal authors. Donald Worster proposes three levels, suggesting an analysis agenda for environmental history: the review of past environments and the role of key species; the analysis of modes of production resulting from the invention of technologies and type of organization; and the study of the perceptions, ideologies, and values that led to environmental decisions and guided the interpretation of change. William Cronon, adopting a postmodern point of view, considers the perspective of Worster a simplification, for he claims for a more complex understanding of the concept of nature and the modes of production.
Alfred Crosby elaborated the concept of ecological imperialism associated with the ecological catastrophe derived from the biological invasion caused by the European colonization of the world. Settlers conveyed their own genes, diseases, weeds, varmints, crops, and livestock during their 500 years of expansion. After the colonial encounter, America suffered a demographic collapse followed by a repopulation with European and African immigrants and their accompanying species, while Africa saw a dramatic depopulation and resettlement caused by the slavery system. Those areas also experienced a process of predatory appropriation of natural resources (minerals, forests, and land) by companies and settlers, greatly reducing wildlife and partially displacing local populations into reduced areas.
Carolyn Merchant embraces a pessimistic view of the relationship between scientific advance and the environment, and identifies the roots of present ecological problems in the early 16th century with the introduction of modern science and technology. According to Merchant, the change from an organic to a mechanical view of nature, as the result of the use of technology, led to a disruption in the relationship between nature and people and, ultimately, to its destruction. Merchant introduces the phrase ecological revolution when referring to the periods, during which societies change their relationship with nature, once essential discordances between the system of production and the environment materialize. Keith Thomas adopts a more optimistic view of the role of technology, because it implies the detachment of humans from a risky position of dominion over nature, as defined in religious texts. Thus, scientific discovery brought nature back to a living condition and saved it from the effects of an anthropocentric conception.
When confronting environmental issues, it is difficult to separate science from ideology and political compromise. The dual character of the scientist, as a producer of knowledge and individual, leads to a conflict in the personal domain. However, the question is if environmental history has any moral or political agenda as a discipline. The contact with other close social sciences, particularly with environmental ethics and political ecology, favors the osmosis of approaches. Some historians within the framework of New Left history, adopt a bottom-up perspective and, embracing a Marxist methodology, judge that nature is an exploited subject, like workers in the capitalist industrial system of production.
Some authors claim that the model of politically innocent science broke down (and the public confidence in science with it) in the 1960s when the role of the scientist shifted. The non-political scientist evolved into a scientist committed to causes in his or her community and a political activist. William Cronon fights the application of environmental history to the practical solution of social problems and claims it only can be useful to society by providing stories that help people to think about those problems.
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