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The Crisis of Nature: Issues in Environmental History

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM20092
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Exploring a series of modern environmental crises - from pollution to overfishing to extinction to climate change - this unit will investigate the origins, nature and future of environmental thinking and its socio-economic consequences. We will work to untangle the narratives that led to the emergence of the 'environment' as an object worth protecting and will ask questions: who speaks on behalf of the environment, who acts on its behalf, and what matters in the attempts to solve environmental issues? Rather than diagnosing the crisis, the unit will instead challenge you to discover the deep-seated sources of human actions that resulted in a shattering of global ecological balance as well as the birth of environmental stewardship.

You will be asked to think locally and globally, working to understand how different scales of problems and magnitudes of risks determine the availability of policies.

The unit encourages you to think creatively and you will be encouraged to produce original analyses and challenge preconceptions. 


This unit aim is to familiarise you with the fundamentals of environmental history and to provide an introduction to environmental activism and policy, using case studies that include ocean crisis, plastic pollution, environmental health, climate change, disasters and food security.

The unit explores key environmental issues and trends during the last two hundred years, examining the cultural and economic histories of 'nature', and their relation to the emergence of risk society and the politics of environment. It investigates the origins of key environmental crises and analyses how societies define risk and sustainability, produce waste and conceptualise cleanliness.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit, a student taking this unit will be able:

  • Explore environmental issues in the light of their historical, scientific, economic and ethical background.
  • Understand the connections that link environmental changes and how culture and technology have influenced our relationship with nature globally.
  • Analyse the political and cultural origins of the environmental movement and environmental regulation.
  • Interpret the ideas and ideology that underpin environmental politics and use this knowledge to analyse a local environmental issue.
  • Prepare a written report integrating a range of viewpoints.


Content may vary from year to year in response to contemporary events and students interest, but will typically address the following broad topics:

  • What is ecology?
  • What is pollution?
  • The rise of risk
  • Climate crisis
  • Food security
  • Ocean's decline
  • Disasters
  • Plastics
  • Urban sprawl
  • E-Waste
  • Limits to Growth?
  • Crises in Fiction

Teaching and learning methods

12 Lectures

10 Seminars

Online support through clinics on reading, writing and fieldwork.

Occasional guest speakers.

Knowledge and understanding

Students should/will be able to:

  • Understand and analyse environmental issues in the light of scientific, economic and ethical issues.
  • Understand the global connections that link environmental changes and the role of global economy in changing our relationship with nature on a worldwide scale.
  • Become critically aware of the origins of environmental movements and environmental politics.
  • Connect knowledge gained in the unit with the observed evidence of local environmental change.

Intellectual skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Gain confidence in critically evaluating historical constructions of 'nature' and the 'environment'.
  • Develop interpretive skills through reading, discussing and writing about the history of environmental thought and politics.
  • Enhance creativity in identifying local environmental problems, behaviours and policies.
  • Improve the critical reading of scholarship and ability to develop own point of view.

Practical skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Enhance reading skills through focused study of course readings and research literature.
  • Learn to assess arguments presented in unit's readings and during seminar sessions.
  • Find and critically assess sources for research and writing assessments.
  • Increase fluency and confidence in seminar discussions.
  • Apply knowledge gained in the unit in a short fieldwork in local area.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

The unit requires that students critically read and analyse select academic and media materials, research original topics, prepare for and participate in seminar discussions, argue opposing views. Skills include:

  • Preparation and presentation of research.
  • Analytical, critical and policy-minded thinking.
  • Writing skills: academic and for specific audiences.
  • Verbal communication skills.
  • Organisational and time management skills.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Develop analytical skills and ability to translate academic arguments into practical action.
Group/team working
Work in teams and collaborate on providing answers to specific, ad-hoc, questions raised in the readings, lectures and seminars.
Develop ability to identify problems and think creatively in the solution process development.
Project management
Research project management.
Oral communication
Improve presentational skills and oral communication.

Assessment methods

Essay: 50%

Field Report: 50%

Feedback methods

Feedback will be available via Blackboard.


Recommended reading

  • J R McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York, 2000).
  • M Armerio, A History of Environmentalism: Local Struggles, Global Histories (London, 2014).
  • R Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge MA, 2011).
  • W Cronon (ed), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York 1995).
  • R Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History (London, 2000).
  • M Rowlands, The Environmental Crisis: Understanding the Value of Nature (New York, 2000).
  • M Douglas, Purity and Danger . London, 1984.
  • J Sheail, An Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2002).
  • J Hollander, The Real Environmental Crisis (Los Angeles, 2003).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 12
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 78

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Vladimir Jankovic Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) offers a range of 'free choice' units, see The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate teaching . Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as a part of human culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine.

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on HSTM units you should contact your School Programme and Curriculum team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit.

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

The unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able to choose the version appropriate to their programme.

10 credit - HSTM20092

20 credit - HSTM20592