Q&A with Sara Dant, Professor of History and Author of Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West
Sara Dant is Professor of History at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and author of the recently published book Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West. Her work focuses on environmental politics in the United States with a particular emphasis on the creation and development of consensus and bipartisanism.
We tracked Sara down to find out how she became an environmental historian, and why she finds history so meaningful. Read on to see what she had to say.
You’re a professor of history and published author. The first thing we want to know is: why history? How is history meaningful to you?
At its essence, history is the story of humanity, and I love a good story. History has epic battles, heroes, villains, intrigue, love, death, humor, sex, outrage, pathos, and valor…to me, it is irresistible. But history is also essential to making sense of the present; the past leads to the present and the present to the future. So how can we possibly move forward into the future if we don’t understand how and why we arrived at the present? History helps us understand how things change, the sources behind that change, what aspects of a society or culture endure despite change, and the costs and consequences of that change over time. Exploring what historians sometimes call “the pastness of the past” encourages cultural understanding and shapes national identity, providing the factual foundation for enlightened citizenship and stewardship. Historians also have to develop critical thinking and research skills, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information, and writing and public speaking skills. But for me, it’s still about the story…the story of us.
Was there any kind of defining moment for you that solidified your decision to become a career scholar in history?
I actually resisted a career in history for quite some time because I didn’t think it would be a realistic job choice. My undergraduate degree is public relations and journalism and my master’s degree is in American Studies, which combined history and literature. But after I got my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to teach at a small two-year college, where I was the entire history “department.” It was a great experience, because teaching history made me fall in love with it; it was fun, rewarding, and endlessly interesting. One of the classes I taught was an environmental studies course, which combined classroom learning with outdoor field experiences like backpacking, camping, and river-running. I was hooked. At that point, I was ready to return to graduate school, in history, and earn my Ph.D. It was the perfect fit for me and I have loved researching, writing, and teaching history ever since.
Some in academia believe that humanities need not have real-world applications. What do you think about this point of view?
I think that the humanities are what makes us human and helps us understand what it means to be human. The word “humanity” defines human beings collectively and without the insights of language, the arts, literature, music, and philosophy, we lack the tools to effectively understand the world around us and our own condition. That seems pretty “real-world” applicable to me. The renowned biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson writes that the humanities ought to hold a revered place in our lives as “the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage.” This field of study encourages us to think critically and creatively, to question, to reason, to strive for understanding. I can think of no “real-world” scenario in which a robust knowledge of the humanities acts as a detriment, but I can think of a nearly endless set of examples where humanities awareness makes one a better citizen, parent, entrepreneur, partner, leader, consumer, teacher, etc. As a species, we must do more than work, we must live. It is in the humanities that one finds joy and beauty.
Let’s dive into your work – will you tell us about environmental history, and what do you think is its value?
Environmental history is a relatively new discipline that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, during the heyday of the environmental movement. As “history,” it is the study of change over time, but instead of focusing on traditional topics like presidents and wars, environmental history examines the evolving relationship between people and nature – it is rooted in place. From this perspective humans exist within nature, not apart from it, and like all animal species, our survival depends upon the health of the habitat in which we live. We both shape and are shaped by the world around us.
For example, Columbus’ fifteenth-century voyages commenced a global redistribution of people, plants, animals, and diseases known as the “Columbian Exchange.” As a result of the re-flooding of Beringia approximately 10 000–15 000 years ago, the Americas’ isolation from the rest of the world had led to the evolution of unique flora and fauna. Europeans had never seen fish with whiskers, snakes that rattled, or shaggy bison; they had never tasted blueberries or vanilla or tomatoes or chocolate. The three main staples that would soon form the foundation of the modern European diet – beans, corn, and potatoes (both white and sweet) – also came from the Americas via the Columbian Exchange. Europeans also provided their own unique contributions to this environmental revolution in the Americas. Prior to Columbus, Native peoples throughout the Americas had only limited experiences with domesticated animals, but European immigrants brought their prolific livestock across the Atlantic with them: cows, pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits, and horses, which would transform the lives of Native peoples in the coming century. Many historians have argued that one of the main reasons that Europeans successfully colonized the Americas was because many of their plants and animals thrived there, too. In essence, these immigrants could easily and readily replicate parts of their former lives and landscapes in this new place without having to learn new life-ways. The other major factor in European settlement success in the Americas was the deadly array of diseases the immigrants carried with them across the Atlantic. The collapse of the Native populations in the Americas was stunning and helped pave the way for European conquest. In the end, the germs of the European invaders proved far mightier than their guns.
What are some opportunities and challenges you see in environmental history education, and in humanities education as a whole?
As Donald Worster, dean of environmental history, once complained, “there is little history in the study of nature and there is little nature in the study of history.” Incorporating the environment into the story of our past makes the past much more relevant to the present. Although many people take it for granted, nature is an active participant in human affairs, not just a passive stage upon which the human drama plays out. What makes environmental history “real” history? The answer is that history, “real” history, is more than just great white tales of great white males chasing great white whales; history has to happen somewhere, and that somewhere matters. A lot. Most people have been taught a relatively simple chronology of events that have shaped the world, but if our modern lives tell us anything, it’s that life and the people who live it are anything but simple. If we truly want a useful history, then we need a useful past – one that’s messy and complicated, sometimes contradictory, and terribly complex – and environmental history offers exactly that.
How can students take the first step in learning about environmental history? How can instructors integrate environmental history education into their classrooms?
The best way to learn about environmental history is to read books and, ideally, to take a class. The book that converted me to the field and demonstrated the importance of an environmental perspective on the past was William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. It is a brilliant discussion of the transformation arriving Europeans wrought on the landscape of the Americas and how essential that transformation was to their ultimate colonial success. Instructors can incorporate a book like this (or my book, Losing Eden) in a traditional US History survey course to add a new dimension and complexity to their current material that will engage students in exciting ways. Neither Cronon’s book nor mine requires prior special knowledge in environmental history to make it successful and enlightening.
Why did you decide to write your upcoming book Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West, and what kind of impact do you hope it has?
The American West has long been at the center of national debates about the relationship between the environment and the economy. My goal in writing Losing Eden is to promote sustainability by explaining the consequences of our past environmental choices. Sustainability’s objective is the creation of environmental stability and ecological health within the framework of economic development and political systems. It is essential to our survival. Ecologists and scientists have coined the term “Anthropocene” to describe the time period, roughly since the Industrial Revolution circa 1800, when human activities have increasingly defined the physical environments of the earth. As we move into the twenty-first century and confront the effects of our long-term exploitation of nature and the challenges of global climate change – undeniable in the West – we must learn the environmental lessons of the past or suffer the consequences. In the end, we care about what we know. Losing Eden endeavors to connect readers with this place, whether the West is “home,” a vacation destination, or merely a source of curiosity. No matter where we live, we all need clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment, which makes all of us “environmentalists.” Understanding the whole of the West’s environmental history can help and perhaps motivate us to move forward and sustainably create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can co-exist in productive harmony.
Do you have any advice for young people worldwide who are studying humanities and considering specializing in any of its disciplines?
There is one simple reason to study the humanities: they teach us what life might be for. Most jobs will train you in required skills and tasks, but they can’t teach you to critically analyze and interpret facts and information, construct a logical argument and presentation, interpret the world creatively and compassionately, develop a comprehensive cultural and social awareness, or think in innovative and pioneering ways. With a background in humanities, you are immediately more effective, advantageous, and attractive to potential employers. The ability to eloquently and accurately express oneself is a requirement for success at every level. But more importantly, the humanities give us context and help provide meaning in our lives.
More about Sara Dant:
Sara’s work focuses on environmental politics in the United States with a particular emphasis on the creation and development of consensus and bipartisanism. She is the author of several prize-winning articles on western environmental politics and co-author of theEncyclopedia of American National Parks (2004). Her recent articles cover a wide range of environmental topics, including “LBJ, Wilderness, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” “Going with the Flow: Navigating to Stream Access Consensus,” and “The ‘Lion of the Lord’ and the Land: Brigham Young’s Environmental Ethic.” An avid outdoor enthusiast and native westerner, Dant divides her time between northern Utah and the Galisteo River Valley outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Check out her latest book, Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West – out now!
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