A history of environmental history in New Zealand

In 2003, Paul Star, an Otago-based environmental historian, published a paper outlining developments in the field of environmental history in New Zealand, how it fits in to the international context, and some thoughts about the areas in which the field would most benefit from further research (“New Zealand Environmental History: A Question of Attitudes”).

It is a great little article, written in Star’s characteristic reader-friendly, jargon-free style, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this field.

In it, he explains that while the field of “environmental history” per se only emerged in the 1970s with the work of Donald Worster and other pioneering environmental historians, scholars (both within academia and without) had been exploring New Zealand’s environmental history for some time before that.

Indeed, “Tutira: The Story of  a New Zealand Sheep Station”, by Herbert Guthrie-Smith, published in 1921 (see: Tutira: desecration of God’s earth dubbed as improvement?), is promoted by leading American environmental historian William Cronon and others as an early classic in the field. And geographers have been pursuing research into New Zealand’s environmental past for decades, but under a now rarely-used name, “historical geography”.

Star makes the point too, that for international scholars of environmental history, New Zealand is an intriguing “case study” of environmental history, and therefore of great interest, given its unique combination of characteristics: a once almost entirely forested archipelago, only relatively recently colonised by Europeans, with a population of only 4.3 million people and 12 times as many sheep.

He also points out how, historically, in a nation with only a small population, individuals made a significant difference in terms of environmental developments and indeed, New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the environment. Examples of such individuals are ecologist Leonard Cockayne and politician and prime minister Julius Vogel.

Looking toward the future, one of the points Star makes is the importance of regional environmental histories, given the diversity of responses to the environment at the regional level in New Zealand. To illustrate, he points out that legislation to encourage forest tree planting in Canterbury in the 1870s or enthusiasm for Arbor Day in the 1890s, did not strike a chord with people on the West Coast, where their economic survival appeared to depend on the suppression of the forest. He further suggests that: “All environmental studies, unlike most historical studies, are more about ecosystem than nation, and the regional study of environmental history can produce valuable insights that a national study might miss.”

From a personal perspective, it is comforting to have such a ringing endorsement of the regional environmental history approach, given that I am about to embark on one! (see: Manawatu’s environmental past to be documented)

Source/further reading: “New Zealand Environmental History: A Question of Attitudes” (2003) by Paul Star, in Environment and History, 9: pp. 463 – 75

See also: Tutira: desecration of God’s earth dubbed as improvement?

Photo top: Group of children and adults outside Rata School on Arbor Day, 1 August 1894, Ohingaiti district (Rangitikei). Taken by Edward George Child. Alexander Turnbull Library ref. ID: 1/1-011003-G. Above right: Dr Paul Star.

2 thoughts on “A history of environmental history in New Zealand

  1. Paul Star December 10, 2011 / 9:24 am

    Thank you for commenting on my article, and good luck with your environmental history of Manawatu, which is just the kind of local study that we need! Paul Star.

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