The misconception about the study of history is that it's something that has happened and is contained — that it's entertaining, but not relevant.

Claire Campbell

Environmental history drives Professor Claire Campbell's research. But for students interested in history, the environmental piece is often unexpected.

"No one suspects that historians get into environmentalism," says Campbell. "That you can study the past and how we've interacted with nature is very novel to students."

But the link is apparent in our everyday world from popular culture to political culture. And some of the great environmental challenges of our age have long been on the radar.

"People were talking about climate change in the 18th century. People were concerned about natural disasters and how to cultivate new species," she says. "There's historical precedence for a lot of issues we consider core to sustainability. When you're studying history, you're not studying it apart from the life you live."

In her latest research, Campbell turns her attention to Canada's Atlantic coastal regions and islands, an area that researchers tend to overlook in favor of its historically rich interior.

"I'm looking at the history of these islands in the political sense, but also in the environmental sense," Campbell says. "It will be a sweeping gaze over centuries of Canada's history and hundreds of thousands of miles of shoreline. What are the historical memories of the coastline — from the Vikings to the British Navy setting up ports in Nova Scotia? What are the important environmental lessons? How do we use this history, and can we learn something from history for environmental practice?"

Campbell says students don't always recognize the evidence in today's world of choices made decades, even centuries ago. In the classroom, she illustrates the critical link between the past and present so students understand how their decisions will shape our future world.

"The misconception about the study of history is that it's something that has happened and is contained — that it's entertaining, but not relevant," Campbell says. "We don't realize that the environmental changes we're so concerned about now are almost entirely the result of human action and choices.

"History matters," she says. "Working humanity into the story of sustainability is absolutely fundamental. We are inextricably linked to the natural world, and that relationship has to be central in our political priorities."

Posted Sept. 29, 2017

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Courses in history are designed to encourage reflection on the nature, advantages, and struggles of human societies in different times and places, and to invite cross-cultural comparisons. Moreover, they are intended to stimulate the historical imagination and to promote critical and technical skills in the comprehension and production of historical narratives.

Learn more about the Department of History
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