Environmental history and related courses

To get a sense of the breadth of Yale teaching related to environmental history, please find below a sample of graduate and undergraduate courses from the past few years, including classes offered in anthropology, literature, and other related fields.

For the most up-to-date course listings, please consult the online course catalog by searching under faculty last name or by reviewing course offerings listed under the history major.  Note that you need to search each semester separately by name or keyword.

Undergraduates interested in specializing in environmental history through the History Major can find guidance on an Environmental History Pathway here. Graduate courses at Yale are open to advanced undergraduates at the discretion of the instructor.

Please note: Faculty members with strong interests in environmental history may not regularly offer specialized courses in the subject due to other teaching obligations, but they are still available to supervise graduate orals fields and research projects.


American Culture and the Rise of the Environment  

Michael Warner

U.S. literature from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War explored in the context of climate change. Development of the modern concept of the environment; the formation and legacy of key ideas in environmentalism; effects of industrialization and national expansion; utopian and dystopian visions of the future.

American Environmental History

Paul Sabin

Ways in which people have shaped and been shaped by the changing environments of North America from precolonial times to the present. Migration of species and trade in commodities; the impact of technology, agriculture, and industry; the development of resources in the American West and overseas; the rise of modern conservation and environmental movements; the role of planning and impact of public policies.

Global Catastrophe since 1750

William Rankin

A history of the geological, atmospheric, and environmental sciences, with a focus on predictions of global catastrophe. Topics range from headline catastrophes such as global warming, ozone depletion, and nuclear winter to historical debates about the age of the Earth, the nature of fossils, and the management of natural resources. Tensions between science and religion; the role of science in government; environmental economics; the politics of prediction, modeling, and incomplete evidence.

Disaster, Degradation, Dystopia: Social Science Approaches to Environmental Perturbation and Change

Michael Dove

This is an advanced seminar on the long tradition of social science scholarship on environmental perturbation and natural disasters, the relevance of which has been heightened by the current global attention to climate change. The course is divided into three main sections. The first consists of central questions and debates in the field: social dimensions of natural disasters; the discursive dimensions of environmental degradation, focusing on deforestation; and the current debate about the relationship between resource wealth and political conflict, focusing on the “green war” thesis. The second section focuses on anthropological and interdisciplinary approaches to climate change and related topics, encompassing canonical anthropological work on flood and drought; cyclones, El Niño, and interannual cycles; ethno-ecology; and risk. Additional lectures focus on interdisciplinary work. The final section of the course consists of the classroom presentation of work by the students and teaching fellow. Three-hour lecture/seminar. Enrollment limited to twenty.

History of Food and Cuisine

Paul Freedman

The history of food from the Middle Ages to the present, with a focus on the United States and Europe. How societies gathered and prepared food; culinary tastes of different times and places. The influence of taste on trade, colonization, and cultural exchange. The impact of immigration, globalization, and technology on food. Enrollment limited to freshmen. Preregistration required; see under Freshman Seminar Program.

Rivers and Civilization

Joseph Manning and Harvey Weiss

The appearance of the earliest cities along the Nile and Euphrates in the fourth millennium B.C. Settlements along the rivers, the origins of agriculture, the production and extraction of agricultural surpluses, and the generation of class structures and political hierarchies. How and why these processes occurred along the banks of these rivers; consequent societal collapses and their relation to abrupt climate changes. Includes a week-long field trip to Turkey. Enrollment limited to freshmen. Preregistration required; see under Freshman Seminar Program.

The Global Crisis of Malaria

Frank Snowden

The global crisis of malaria examined in comparative and historical context. The mosquito theory of transmission and other developments in scientific understanding of the disease; World Health Organization strategies to eradicate malaria since 1955; the development of tools such as insecticides, medication, and bed nets; the attempt to create an effective vaccine.

Agriculture: Origins, Evolution, Crises

Harvey Weiss

Analysis of the societal and environmental drivers and effects of plant and animal domestication, the intensification of agroproduction, and the crises of agroproduction: land degradation, societal collapses, sociopolitical transformation, sustainablity, and biodiversity.

Environmental Anthropology

Michael Dove

History of the anthropological study of the environment: nature-culture dichotomy, ecology and social organization, methodological debates, politics of the environment, and knowing the environment.

Human Ecology

Brian Wood

Introduction to ways in which people use and relate to their physical and social environments in both the past and the present. Adaptations underlying humanity’s unique ecological niche; cultural diversity in subsistence and resource use; population growth and regulation; anthropogenic evolutionary and ecological change.

Oil and Empire

Rosie Bsheer  

The political and social history of oil since the late nineteenth century, including global trends and processes. Oil’s impact on the rise and fall of empires and the fates of nation-states; its role in war and its impact on social and cultural life. Focus on the Middle East, with some attention to Venezuela, Indonesia, and the Niger Delta. Enrollment limited to freshmen. Preregistration required; see under Freshman Seminar Program.

Rivers: Nature and Politics

James Scott

The natural history of rivers and river systems and the politics surrounding the efforts of states to manage and engineer them.

Sustainability in the Twenty-First Century

Daniel Esty

Sustainability as an overarching framework for life in the twenty-first century. Ways in which this integrated policy concept diverges from the approaches to environmental protection and economic development that were pursued in the twentieth century. The interlocking challenges that stem from society’s simultaneous desires for economic, environmental, and social progress despite the tensions across these realms.

The American West

John Mack Faragher

The history of the American West as both frontier and region, real and imagined, from the first contacts between Indians and Europeans in the fifteenth century to the multicultural encounters of the contemporary Sunbelt. Students work with historical texts and images from Yale’s Western Americana Collection.

Urban Life and Landscape

Elihu Rubin

The built environment as a text tool for constructing narratives of human activity, aspiration, and struggle. Methods of viewing the ordinary landscape of the twentieth-century American city: pulling apart its historical layers, examining social meanings, and observing its function today. Modes of inquiry include video, public presentations, field trips, photography, and writing.

Abrupt Climate Change and Societal Collapse

Harvey Weiss

Collapse documented in the archaeological and early historical records of the Old and New Worlds, including Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Europe. Analysis of politico-economic vulnerabilities, resiliencies, and adaptations in the face of abrupt climate change, anthropogenic environmental degradation, resource depletion, “barbarian” incursions, or class conflict.

Anthropology of the Material World

Douglas Rogers and Anne Underhill

Current research on the material world by sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists. Interpretations each subfield of anthropology makes about the cultural meanings of objects and the built environment. Issues include beliefs about the value of goods, theoretical approaches to consumption, organizations of production, the roles of objects in rituals, and cultural heritage. Attention to collections in the Division of Anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Archetypes and the Environment

Paul Draghi

This course explores the mythologies, literatures, arts, and folklore of a variety of cultures in search of archetypal characters whose role is to mediate between nature and society. Beginning with sources as early as The Epic of Gilgamesh and ending with contemporary film and media, the course seeks to examine and understand the ways in which diverse peoples integrate an awareness of their traditional and popular arts and cultures. The course makes use of works from a variety of languages, including Akkadian, Greek, Tibetan, Bhutanese, Chinese, German, French, and Italian, but all readings are available in English; students with reading abilities in foreign languages will be encouraged to examine primary sources wherever possible. The course includes visits to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Yale Art Gallery. Three hours lecture/discussion.

Introduction to American Indian History

Ned Blackhawk

Survey of American Indian history, beginning with creation traditions and migration theories and continuing to the present day. Focus on American Indian nations whose homelands are located within the contemporary United States. Complexity and change within American Indian societies, with emphasis on creative adaptations to changing historical circumstances.

Documentary and the Environment

Charles Musser

Survey of documentaries about environmental issues, with a focus on Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Food, Inc. (2009), GasLand (2010), and related films. Brief historical overview, from early films such as The River (1937) to the proliferation of environmental film festivals.

Energy in American History

Paul Sabin

The history of energy in the United States from early hydropower and coal to present-day hydraulic fracturing, deepwater oil, wind, and solar. Topics include relations between energy producers and communities; political resistance to energy projects; labor struggles; environmental transformations; the global quest for oil; and changing national energy policies.

Environmental Politics and Law

John Wargo

Exploration of the politics, policy, and law associated with attempts to manage environmental quality and natural resources. Themes of democracy, liberty, power, property, equality, causation, and risk. Case histories include air quality, water quality and quantity, pesticides and toxic substances, land use, agriculture and food, parks and protected areas, and energy.

Feminist Science and Technology Studies: Porous Bodies

Vanessa Agard-Jones

An interdisciplinary reading seminar on how the body is made and remade in and through its environment and via its relationship to the material world. Theoretical engagements with studies of biopower/biopolitics, new feminist/queer materialisms, and critical science studies. Possible topics include colonial climatological theories, environmental toxicities, biomonitoring, viral infection, chemical contamination, the pharmaceutical industry, food technologies, somatechnics, and epigenetics.

Gender, Justice, and the Environment

Vanessa Agard-Jones

The intersection between feminist theory and environmental justice. Relationships between gendered beings, both human and nonhuman, and the environments in which they live. Feminist theories of nature and materiality; bodies and environmental toxicities; reproductive rights and population impact; gendered conflicts over the meaning of “sustainable development”; interspecies connections; the sociopolitical contexts of environmental disasters.

Global Environmental Governance

Benjamin Cashore

The development of international environmental policy and the functioning of global environmental governance. Critical evaluation of theoretical claims in the literature and the reasoning of policy makers. Introduction of analytical and theoretical tools used to assess environmental problems. Case studies emphasize climate, forestry, and fisheries.

Inventing the Environment in the Anthropocene

Michael Warner

Two important benchmarks in dating the concept of the Anthropocene are the beginning of industrial production in the late eighteenth century and the uptick in carbon dioxide emissions from the mid-nineteenth century (petroleum came into use during the Civil War). The period between these two moments is also that in which the modern language of the environment took shape, from Cuvier’s discovery of extinction and Humboldt’s holistic earth science to the transformative work of Thoreau and George P. Marsh. This course shuttles between the contemporary debate about the significance and consequences of the Anthropocene and a reexamination of that environmental legacy. We look at the complexity of “nature,” beginning with the Bartrams, Jefferson, Cuvier, and the transatlantic literatures of natural history; georgics and other genres of nature writing; natural theology; ambiguities of pastoral in American romantic writing (Bryant); the impact of Humboldt (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman); westward expansion and Native American writing about land; Hudson School painting and landscape architecture; etc. We also think about the country/city polarity and the development of “grid” consciousness in places like New York City (not just the famous grid plan of 1811 but, more tellingly, the new relation to resources that followed the Croton Aqueduct and gas lighting). One aim is to assess the formation and legacy of key ideas in environmentalism, some of which may now be a hindrance as much as a foundation—for example, the idea of nature as a primordial equilibrium from which the human is estranged. Secondary readings include classic works by Leo Marx, Henry Nash Smith, and William Cronon, as well as more recent attempts to reconceive environmental history (Joachim Radkau), ecocriticism (Lawrence Buell), and related fields, as well as science journalism (Elizabeth Kolbert). We attend and discuss Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Tanner lectures in February. Students explore a wide range of research projects, and one assignment is to devise a teaching unit for an undergraduate class on the same topic.

Political Ecology

Amity Doolittle        

Study of the relationship between society and the environment. Global processes of environmental conservation, development, and conflicts over natural resource use; political-economic contexts of environmental change; ways in which understandings of nature are discursively bound up with notions of culture and identity.

Anthropology of the Global Economy for Development and Conservation

Carol Carpenter

The seminar explores topics in the anthropology of the global economy that are relevant to development and conservation policy and practice. Anthropologists are often assumed to focus on micro- or local-level research, and thus to have limited usefulness in the contemporary, global world of development and conservation policy. In fact, however, they have been examining global topics since at least the 1980s, and very little current anthropological research is limited to the village level. More importantly, the anthropological perspective on the global economy is unique and important.

Agrarian Societies: Culture, Society, History, and Development

Alan Mikhail, Peter Perdue, Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan

An interdisciplinary examination of agrarian societies, contemporary and historical, Western and non-Western. Major analytical perspectives from anthropology, economics, history, political science, and environmental studies are used to develop a meaning-centered and historically grounded account of the transformations of rural society. Team-taught.

American Literature: Regions, Hemispheres, Oceans

Wai Chee Dimock

How does the choice of scale affect our understanding of American literature: its histories, its webs of relations, the varieties of genres that make up its landscape? Through three interlocking prisms—regional, hemispheric, and oceanic—we explore multiple permutations of immediate and extended environments; the size of events; causal connections and input networks; and the changing patterns of labor, food distribution, linguistic practice, religion, and war. Fiction and poetry by Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Bowles, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Dave Eggers, Monique Truong, Junot Díaz, Amitav Ghosh; and theoretical writings by Sheldon Pollock, Arjun Appadurai, Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and Walter Mignolo.

Built Environments and the Politics of Place

Dolores Hayden

Call it the built environment, the vernacular, everyday architecture, or the cultural landscape, the material world of built and natural places is intricately bound up with social and political life. This seminar introduces research methods involving the built environment. It includes readings from urban and suburban history, geography, anthropology, and architecture as well as readings on narrative and graphic strategies for representing spaces and places. Participants present papers; chapters from longer projects are welcome. Limited enrollment.

Cartography, Territory, and Identity

William Rankin

Exploration of how maps shape assumptions about territory, land, sovereignty, and identity. The relationship between scientific cartography and conquest, the geography of statecraft, religious cartographies, encounters between Western and non-Western cultures, and reactions to cartographic objectivity. Students make their own maps. No previous experience in cartography or graphic design required.

Environmental History of Africa

Robert Harms

An examination of the interaction between people and their environment in Africa and the ways in which this interaction has affected or shaped the course of African history.

Climate and Society from Past to Present

Michael Dove

The history of scholarly thinking on the relationship between climate and society, focusing on the social sciences in general and on anthropology in particular. Historical theories about climate and society since the beginning of human civilization; the importance of such theories for understanding contemporary debates about climate change. Special attention to current debates regarding climate politics and science denial.

Society and Environment: Introduction to Theory and Method

Michael Dove

An introductory graduate core course on the scope of social scientific contributions to environmental and natural resource issues. Section I presents an overview of the field and course. Section II deals with the way that environmental problems are initially framed. Case studies focus on placing problems in their wider political context, new approaches to uncertainty and failure, and the importance of how the analytical boundaries to resource systems are drawn. Section III focuses on questions of method, including the dynamics of working within development projects, and the art of rapid appraisal and short-term consultancies. Section IV is concerned with local peoples and the environment, with case studies addressing myths of tropical forest use and abuse development discourse, and with the question of indigenous peoples and knowledge.

Landscapes in Southern Asia

Tamara Sears  

From prehistoric cave paintings to recent performance art, landscape has been the site and subject of artistic creation throughout the history of Southern Asia. As sites, landscapes have been carved into monumental complexes and fashioned into sacred geographies and practical cartographies that have been mapped by pilgrimage, commerce, agrarian expansion, and conquest. As subjects, they have been urban and rural places filled with wonder, longing, power, and danger. As imagined spaces, landscapes held the potential to collapse mythic and historic time, to facilitate new encounters, and to cultivate a range of social relations and human emotion responses. This seminar explores the representation and reshaping of landscape in South and Southeast Asia across a range of historical periods and through a variety of media. We experiment with different theoretical frameworks from a variety of fields, both from within art history, as well as within literature, religion, anthropology, and environmental science. As much as possible, we work with Yale’s museum collections, which house a wide diversity of photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, maps, and textiles.

American Cultural Landscapes: An Introduction to the History of the Built Environment

Dolores Hayden

Introduction to land use, transportation, urban planning, and vernacular architecture in the United States. After a brief review of Native American and colonial settlement patterns, the first half of the course deals with the development of cities from 1800 to 1920. The second half emphasizes suburban growth that transformed traditional downtowns and created diffuse metropolitan regions between 1920 and the present.

Space, Place, and Landscape  

Laura Barraclough

Survey of core concepts in cultural geography and spatial theory. Ways in which the organization, use, and representation of physical spaces produce power dynamics related to colonialism, race, gender, class, and migrant status. Multiple meanings of home; the politics of place names; effects of tourism; the aesthetics and politics of map making; spatial strategies of conquest. Includes field projects in New Haven.

Urban Public Spaces

Laura Barraclough

The production, representation, use, and transformation of urban public spaces, with a focus on the contemporary United States. Relations to evolving practices of citizenship, the workings of democracy, and dynamics of power. Meanings of public space for community and everyday life; power and resistance; art, theater, and performance; the work of community organizations. Includes field projects in New Haven.

Readings in Environmental History

Paul Sabin

Reading and discussion of key works in environmental history. The course explores major forces shaping human-environment relationships, such as markets, politics, and ecological dynamics, and compares different approaches to writing about social and environmental change.

Readings in Energy History

Paul Sabin

Readings and discussion of key works in energy history.

Geography and History

William Rankin

A research seminar focused on methodological questions of geography and geographic analysis in historical scholarship. We consider approaches ranging from the Annales School of the early twentieth century to contemporary research in environmental history, history of science, urban history, and more. We also explore interdisciplinary work in social theory, historical geography, and anthropology and grapple with the promise (and drawbacks) of GIS. Students may write their research papers on any time period or geographic region, and no previous experience with geography or GIS is necessary.

Advanced Readings: Social Science of Development and Conservation

Carol Carpenter

An advanced seminar on the social science theory of sustainable development and conservation, designed as an M.E.M. capstone course and to give M.E.Sc. and doctoral students a wider theoretical context for analyzing and writing up their research. The course traces the conceptual history of the social science theory of sustainable development and conservation, focusing on theories of power, governmentality, and capitalism. It examines relations between these theories, alternative theories, and how this history influences the field. The course covers the works of Michel Foucault most relevant to development and conservation, important social scientists who have used Foucault’s ideas (e.g., James Ferguson, Timothy Mitchell, Tania Li, Donald Moore, David Mosse), alternative theories of power (e.g., James Scott, Bruno Latour), applications of Foucault’s ideas to development (selections change every year), applications of Foucault’s ideas to the environment (especially Arun Agrawal, Timothy Luke, Bruce Braun), theories of resistance (Michel Foucault, James Scott), and Foucault-influenced views of the economy and capitalism (Mitchell, Ferguson, Aiwa Ong, Li, Anna Tsing, among others). Students are expected to use the course to develop, and present in class, their own research and writing. Three hours lecture/seminar. Enrollment limited to twelve.