Brian Lander joined the Brown History department in the fall of 2017. Professor Lander also holds an appointment as a fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Undergraduates looking to fill their course shopping carts for spring 2018 can find Professor Lander teaching "The Environmental History of East Asia," and "Histories of Global Wetlands." Below, Professor Lander talks about why environmental history is an exciting field.
Environmental history is a relatively new subfield of history. What does the lens of environmental history offer to its students?
BL: By putting human history back into its ecological context, environmental history teaches us that humans are not the center of the world, which thus turns our attention to all the other life forms and their histories. It also provides us with a new angle on old questions, so that we can find new things to say about events and periods that seemed to be well understood.
What subjects and issues do you explore in "The Environmental History of East Asia," the course you are teaching in spring 2018?
BL: This course will cover the environmental history of East Asia over 8000 years, extending from the prehistoric domestication of rice and pigs through the classical civilizations of each region to modern topics like the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, and China's rapid urbanization. Major themes of the course include agriculture, deforestation, animal extinction, state power, industrialization, and the integration of East Asia into global capitalism. As in my fall course, "From Fire Wielders to Empire Builders: Human Impact on the Global Environment before 1492," we will also pay considerable attention to the types of sources available for studying these questions.
How did you come to work on ancient China?
BL: I was initially interested in modern world history, but then I got a job as an interpreter in Kluane National Park [in Canada] where I learned about geology, glaciers and ecology, and this helped me realize how environmental history could go beyond the standard historical focus on human timescales to think about much longer periods of time. When I learned that China has over 3000 years of written records, not to mention archeology and paleoecology, and that there were no historians in the West studying the environmental history of ancient China, I decided to study Chinese. Over subsequent years I have come to realize that there is an enormous amount of information available for studying the human impact on the environments of premodern China, so it is a very exciting field to be in.
What is your favorite work of history?
BL: Robert Marks’s book Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China recounts the amazing story of how humans transformed Southeast China from a region of subtropical forests with tigers and elephants to a densely populated agricultural landscape over a few centuries. The reason it’s so good is that it doesn't emphasize one factor, but shows how things like farming, climate change and political power interacted with commerce at various scales, from local rice markets to the global trade in cotton, sugar and silk.