Environmental History and the History of Emotions

By Andrea Gaynor
The University of Western Australia

Emotions pervade environmental histories, from John Muir’s passion for nature, to the renowned (if overstated) colonial Australian fear and hatred of trees. Some works in the broad area, from Keith Thomas’s seminal Man and the Natural World to Grace Karskens’ brilliant ethnographic-environmental history of early Sydney, The Colony, and Thomas P. Slaughter’s postmodern psycho-histories, highlight the role of emotions in shaping the ways in which people in the past have understood and interacted with nature. But environmental historians are yet to make emotion a central focus of analysis; to explain how emotion has shaped human relationships with nature and environments over time.

Lost 1886 oil on canvas
Lost 1886 oil on canvas 115.8 x 73.9 cm. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1940 1077-4

To me this is surprising, given that emotions clearly play an important role in shaping historical relationships between people and nature or environments. As anthropologist Kay Milton puts it, ‘without emotion there is no commitment, no motivation, no action’.[1] We have flourishing anthropologies, geographies and histories of emotion, and emotion figures as a key concern in ecocriticism and the interdisciplinary environmental humanities, but for most environmental historians, emotion remains a black box.

As Grace Moore has pointed out, bringing the history of emotions together with environmental history and ecocriticism can provide useful context for understanding contemporary affective responses to our environments.[2] I would add that now, more than ever, as we plough headlong into both the sixth great extinction and uncharted climate territory, we could really use a sense of what is enduring about human emotions of nature, and what is unique to the present. We need long histories that chart the rise of ‘rationality’ as a form of emotional hardening against the aesthetic and moral appeals of nature, and intimate histories of frustration, fear and delight in encounters with nature in the home.

Proximity would seem to be a particularly rich vein for exploring the role of emotions in environmental history. The way in which the middle classes of the global north during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so assiduously sought distance and insulation from the emotional affronts of environmental exploitation, in an era of increasing sympathy for a beleaguered nature, is surely a big story for environmental historians to tell. On the other hand, we could also use more intimate stories, similar to those told by geographer Franklin Ginn, of how embodied, emotional engagements with everyday, proximate nature in different times and places provide hope for more ethical and sustainable dealings with the non-human world.[3]

As I am discovering, engaging with historical emotions in a rigorous way is not an easy task. For a start, there is still considerable debate over what emotions are: a biological response involving sensory and endocrine systems, or a cultural product? Or, as Monique Scheer would have it, are they somewhere in between: learned practices that become embodied and habitual?[4] Then there is the question of how emotions work. Here there are a range of theories to navigate, from emotives and emotional regimes to emotional communities. While most in the social sciences and humanities see emotions as operating primarily through social relations, Kay Milton emphasises the role of the total environment – social, physical and ecological – in shaping emotions. In any event, to establish where emotions come from and how they operate in any given time and place requires a firm grasp of multifaceted historical contexts over considerable timespans.

To investigate historical emotions one must also read sources differently, and sometimes read different sources. As an environmental historian I am accustomed to interpreting scientific data and other observations of ‘nature’, and setting these up in a dialogue with pertinent features of the social and cultural context. Reading emotion in historical sources requires a more ethnographic sensibility, attuned to gestures and glances as well as articulated responses. It requires constant vigilance and effort to make historical emotions strange and not assume that emotional expressions mean precisely the same thing then as now.

A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil painting by Emile-Edouard Mouchy. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.
A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil painting by Emile-Edouard Mouchy. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

And so, I keep grappling with my research on emotions around ‘incidental nature’ in twentieth-century Australia, trying to understand how people felt upon encountering frogs in a changing urban environment, and explain their responses. So far I have found emotions conditioned by life within an increasingly controlled urban environment, and expressed in relation to a well-cultivated capitalist instrumental rationality. It appears that an enduring sympathy for small, wild things likely formed an important emotional basis for local conservation action among suburbanites, in response to emerging evidence of environmental crisis. This is a fragile and elusive subject, that I have so far followed to an imaginary encounter with crabs at a seaside resort near Glasgow, and a dissection board in a 1930s Perth school room. Yet I suspect that the journey is just beginning.

Andrea Gaynor is an Associate Investigator (2017) with CHE, and an Associate Professor in History at The University of Western Australia (UWA), where she researches and teaches environmental history, and convenes the Ecology, People, Place research network (https://ecopeople-uwa.org/). Her research seeks to use the contextualising and narrative power of environmental history to solve real-world problems. She has published on topics as diverse as landscape art and feral cats, and her current environmental history research interests encompass Australia’s southern mallee country, urban water, comparative conservation, urban agriculture, and nature in urban modernity. Some recent publications include:

Andrea Gaynor and Joy McCann, ‘“I’ve had dolphins … looking for abalone for me”: Oral history and subjectivities of marine engagement’, Oral History Review, vol. 4., no.2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1093/ohr/ohx023

Andrea Gaynor, ‘Lawnscaping Perth: Water supply, gardens and scarcity, 1890-1925’, Journal of Urban History, first published online 16/2/2017 https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217692991

Andrea Gaynor, ‘Self-sown crops, modernity and the making of mallee agricultural landscapes’, Agricultural History, vol.91, no.2, 2017, pp.171-186. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3098/ah.2017.091.2.171


[1] Kay Milton, Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion, (London: Routledge, 2002), p.150.

[2] Grace Moore, ‘Nature’, in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. by Susan Broomhall (London: Routledge, 2017), IV.51.

[3] Franklin Ginn, Domestic Wild: Memory, Nature and Gardening in Suburbia (London: Routledge, 2017).

[4] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220.

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