Attitudes towards environmental history tend to be polarised, either glorifying the achievements of the past or damning them for their recent consequences; now a new course in history offers a balanced and analytical look at Australia’s chequered past.
Coordinator of the new Australian Environmental Histories topic at Flinders, Dr Carol Fort, said the introduction of the course reflects a global surge in interest in the environment and its place in human history.
European colonisation of Australia had profound and sometimes devastating effects both on the natural world as well as on Indigenous societies, Dr Fort said. The British did make some attempt to understand the natural systems of the countries they colonised, even if hindsight shows that their programs of urbanisation, agriculture and land management were sometimes environmentally damaging in their long-term consequences.
Dr Fort said it is true that modern environmental recovery often involves undoing the infrastructure of the British colonists in countries such as Australia and India.
Nevertheless, she said, it needs to be remembered that they were often driven by Utopian ideals and a sense of optimism, fuelled by the scientific revolution.
“It’s easy for us to look back now and say that they didn’t know what they were doing, but we need to understand who they were and why they thought the way they did,” Dr Fort said.
“The environment is used as a political playground and is highly contested – our students, as the educated people of the future, need better analytical tools and the discernment to make good decisions and to stand by them in difficult circumstances.”