Bathsheba Demuth is one of four new faculty members who joined the History department last year. Professor Demuth also holds an appointment as a fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. While undergraduates looking to fill their carts with one of Professor Demuth’s environmental history courses for shopping period this fall will be out of luck, students should look for two courses — “The Anthropocene: The Past and Present of Environmental Change” and “From the Columbian Exchange to Climate Change: Modern Global Environmental History” — in Spring 2018.
Environmental history is a relatively new subfield of history. What does the lens of environmental history offer to its students?
Many people think of the subjects covered in a history class as being different from what they would learn in an ecology class or and environmental studies course. I think that, generally speaking, when people take history classes, they are interested in things that people have done in the past — that’s what a lot of people think history is. Taking an environmental history course shows that the separation between what you study in a history class and an ecology class is kind of false.
There are a lot of things that are happening because of the way that human societies are organized that have real impacts on the environment, and vice versa. One example is thinking about the development of fossil fuel use. The industrial revolution is usually told as a story of technological change or workers’ rights emerging out of terrible factory conditions. But it’s also a story about a very new relationship between human influence and climate, as well as other sorts of environmental impacts. I think that history is a way of understanding how we’ve produced contemporary environmental conditions and also how the environment has helped shape the results of historical processes.
Having been an undergraduate here, what has returning to Brown as a professor been like?
The students here are really good. It’s fun to teach here because students are so enthusiastic about the subjects and everyone prepares really thoroughly. I can have these great discussions that are enriching for me and I’m not just feeling like I’m doing some sort of brain dump to inform students. It’s really a pleasure to work with students here.
But it’s sometimes weird. When I went to the Rock for the first time since I was an undergraduate, it was like I was having déjà vu. It’s changed, but it hasn’t changed. That can sometimes be kind of bizarre. For a lot of places around campus, the exterior looks the same to me, but the interior has completely changed.
What subjects and issues do you explore in “From the Columbian Exchange to Climate Change: Modern Global Environmental History,” the course you are teaching this semester?
It’s a survey course of global environmental history from what historians call the “Columbian Exchange,” basically when Europeans arrived to the Americas and the exchange of people and other biological organisms, to climate change. We have case studies. One example is the Columbian Exchange. We look at indigenous societies in North America prior to Columbus and their sophistication and then what happens after Columbus’ arrival, particularly with the exchange of disease. But then also looking at all the plant organisms of the Columbian Exchange and how they change society. Like the sweet potato. It is important to China because it actually really changes social relationships there and it had never been there prior to Columbus. Another case study is about oil development in the Middle East.
So it’s about 500 years of global history, which means that we move relatively quickly and do not really land in any place for long. But I intend for the class to be an introductory course to the field of environmental history. We think about the questions that environmental historians ask. How can we think about forms of non-human agency in the past? What are some things that are not human beings that have shaped how our society is today? In the class, we think about relationships between environmental change and the development of global capitalism and how that has fed into systems of inequality.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s not a comprehensive history of the world — there’s just not enough time for that in the semester — but it offers a way of getting familiar with a lot of the big problems within environmental history as a field and looking at some interesting case studies.