History for a Sustainable Future

I’ve been grumbling under my breath instead of typing on a number of topics, recently. Or typing, but in book manuscripts rather than this blog. I should get back to writing/thinking here. But a sort of placeholder in the short term.

Along with Benjamin Cohen, Adam Sowards, and Peter Alagona, I edit a book series at MIT Press under the title “History for a Sustainable Future.” The fourth book in the series will be published in April. We aim to stress the importance of historical context when addressing current environmental problems. From our series statement:

The series takes as its primary mission the dissemination of accessible historical information and resources for scholars and teachers, policy makers, activists, and concerned citizens.  The driving theme behind this series involves making environmental history more relevant to 21st century concerns about the environment.

More to the point, we are still soliciting manuscripts. Please feel free to contact any one of us (or our partner in crime at MIT Press, Beth Clevenger) to discuss projects that you think might fit the series. Our proposal summary and guidelines are listed at the top of this page under the hamburger menu, but I also link to them here.

Book Series Update

As I let this blog slide over the past several months, I realize I also failed to report on the “History for a Sustainable Future” book series, which published its first titles in 2014. Editing the series is a new experience, but I have been especially grateful for the support and behind-the-scenes work of friends and colleagues Peter Alagona, Benjamin Cohen, and Adam Sowards, who make up the series’ editorial board. Acquisitions editor Clay Morgan retired from the MIT Press in January, but he was instrumental in getting the series off the ground, and he has left us in Beth Clevenger’s very capable hands. We look forward to growing the series, and remain open to inquiries and book proposals.

The first book, by Derek Wall, was published in March. Wall is an English politician and member of the Green Party of England and Wales. He is also an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Among his books areThe No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics and The Rise of the Green Left.


According to the MIT Press site’s overview:

The history of the commons—jointly owned land or other resources such as fisheries or forests set aside for public use—provides a useful context for current debates over sustainability and how we can act as “good ancestors.” In this book, Derek Wall considers the commons from antiquity to the present day, as an idea, an ecological space, an economic abstraction, and a management practice. He argues that the commons should be viewed neither as a “tragedy” of mismanagement (as the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968) nor as a panacea for solving environmental problems. Instead, Walls sees the commons as a particular form of property ownership, arguing that property rights are essential to understanding sustainability. How we use the land and its resources offers insights into how we value the environment.

After defining the commons and describing the arguments of Hardin’s influential article and Elinor Ostrom’s more recent work on the commons, Wall offers historical case studies from the United States, England, India, and Mongolia. He examines the power of cultural norms to maintain the commons; political conflicts over the commons; and how commons have protected, or failed to protect ecosystems. Combining intellectual and material histories with an eye on contemporary debates, Wall offers an applied history that will interest academics, activists, and policy makers.

The second book is from Frank Uekötter, a reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham. It followed hard on the heels of Wall’s book, and appeared in May. In addition to the book in our series, Uekötter is the author of The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany and The Age of Smoke: Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880–1970.


Again, from MIT Press:

Germany enjoys an enviably green reputation. Environmentalists in other countries applaud its strict environmental laws, its world-class green technology firms, its phase-out of nuclear power, and its influential Green Party. Germans are proud of these achievements, and environmentalism has become part of the German national identity. In The Greenest Nation? Frank Uekötter offers an overview of the evolution of German environmentalism since the late nineteenth century. He discusses, among other things, early efforts at nature protection and urban sanitation, the Nazi experience, and civic mobilization in the postwar years. He shows that much of Germany’s green reputation rests on accomplishments of the 1980s, and emphasizes the mutually supportive roles of environmental nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and the state.

Uekötter looks at environmentalism in terms of civic activism, government policy, and culture and life, eschewing the usual focus on politics, prophets, and NGOs. He also views German environmentalism in an international context, tracing transnational networks of environmental issues and actions and discussing German achievements in relation to global trends. Bringing his discussion up to the present, he shows the influence of the past on today’s environmental decisions. As environmentalism is wrestling with the challenges of the twenty-first century, Germany could provide a laboratory for the rest of the world.

And there’s more to come. A few titles are in the pipeline and some stimulating conversations with prospective authors promise more in the near future. On a personal note, I am finding nice satisfaction from indirectly contributing to my field by playing a (very) small part in bringing these works to press. And I look forward to announcing more new titles soon (and more promptly).

For more on Derek Wall’s history of the commons, see the MIT Press link.

Similarly, for Frank Uekötter’s history of German environmentalism, link here.