We always need to think historically when we think about environmental issues. What I'm trying to do is reveal historical patterns and make them relevant to our environmental problems today."
When Andrew Stuhl thinks about the environment, he considers the many layers of the past that a particular place can reveal to students. He believes researchers need to explore the interactions between people and nature over time to obtain a full understanding of environmental impact.
"The phrase 'hindsight is 20/20' is really telling because our present moment is very complex," says Stuhl, an environmental humanist, who holds degrees in both environmental science and the history of science. "With a historic perspective, we can pick things apart. We can pose and answer questions like 'Why did this environment change in the way it did? How did society respond to those environmental changes?'"
For Stuhl, history comes alive when it is directly experienced. "I find no better way to learn with students about the intersections of environment, history and culture than to investigate what's right in our own backyards," Stuhl adds. Take the western edge of Lewisburg as an example. When driving west on Route 45 out of town, a person encounters unending stretches of rolling hills and farms. The pastoral scene of barns, tractors and rows of crops appears natural and idyllic. Yet, Stuhl says the landscape is actually a product of a long history of human interactions with that environment.
"The specific plant and animal species we see on local farms have been placed there because of individual and societal choices – about what foods to eat, how to make a livelihood from farming, and how to keep the soil productive year after year. These choices have changed dramatically over time. If we visited the farm 100 years ago, would it look the same? When students visit these farms and see, touch, and feel the things I describe, they can really understand what an 'environment' is, what a 'culture' is and what 'history' is."
Such an exploration has the potential to connect the campus and off-campus worlds. "I place value on working outside the boundaries of the university and developing real relationships with individuals and communities. I am a firm believer in the notion that the products of the academy should be directed at helping strengthen local organizations, economies and cultures," he says.
This type of investigation, of course, can extend beyond our own backyards, says Stuhl, who spent a year in the Canadian Arctic examining how the region's complicated history figures in contemporary issues of climate change, globalization and sustainable development. "If we continue to think about the Arctic as having no history and just now experiencing environmental change, how can we possibly build sustainable and ethical relationships with the region and the people who call it home?" he says.
"We always need to think historically when we think about environmental issues. What I'm trying to do is reveal historical patterns and make them relevant to our environmental problems today," he says.
Posted October 10, 2013