History 256 / Environmental Studies
Interpreting Nature: Environmental Thinking in Europe
from the Seventeenth Century to the Present

Mr. Schwartz

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Lac de Chèdre (Switzerland)
by Birmann, 1826

Interpreting Nature, a course in history that is also part of our growing and rather unique program in Environmental Studies, explores the new terrain of environmental history. In it we study the varied and shifting ways Europeans have regarded nature and the natural world since the Middle Ages, focusing particularly on the development over time of two opposing conceptions.


The first conception, which took its modern form during the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and remains dominant today, views nature as a machine and a resource that is subject to human understanding and control. Man, in this perspective, is, or aspires to be, the master of nature.

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An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1769
by Joseph Wright

The Falls, ca. 1780
by Hubert Robert


The second conception is in many ways a critique of the first. It regards nature not as a resource to exploit but as a web of interrelationships in which humans exist as one part of a complex whole. Instead of seeking mastery over nature, the role of humankind is to coexist in harmony with the ecological system that surrounds them.

The conflicts between these two conceptions was brought together dramatically by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein (1818). We'll read and analyze the novel with the help of two, marvelous CD ROMs on the cultural history of this work that Mount Holyoke Students created in History 257 during the spring semesters of 1997 and 1998.









Frankenstein Meets Multimedia (CD Cover)
History 257, Spring 1997
Film cuts


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Frankenstein Meets Multimedia II (CD Cover)
History 257, Spring 1998


Computing enters our investigation when we turn to the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth-century England to examine three aspects of environmental history: 1) the interrelated study of past natural environments, 2) their transformation by technology, and 3) the results for society and nature.

In their lab work students learn to use the analytic mapping techniques now available on desktop computers that are transforming research methods in a growing variety of academic, governmental, and commercial areas, ranging from the geoprocessing of satellite images to the marketing of the latest widget. With these techniques [called Geographic Information Systems], students analyze geographic and statistical data for nineteenth-century England to identify environmental changes that can be linked with the development of the factory system, the expansion of iron and steel production, and the growth of the railway system.

The specific example for this semester will be the impact of the railway system on the human and natural environments. Some of the historical materials for this investigation can viewed at the course web site: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/ind_rev/indrev.html

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Gare St. Lazare, ca 1870
by Claude Monet

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