Teacher's Guide

Environmental Humanities: History, Justice, and Education

A curving line of rocks in a lake with a row of trees in the background.
Photo caption

A photograph captured by Jim Peaco in 1987 of a fish trap in Yellowstone Lake.

This Teacher's Guide provides information and resources to help K-12 educators integrate the field of environmental humanities into their classrooms. Environmental humanities gives students opportunities to critically examine the environment as part of their investigation of the humanities and the world around them. The resources provided include an overview of the field of environmental humanities, essays on the history of environmental studies that include work done by President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Rachel Carsons, and activity and research ideas to explore in history, literature, art, and civics classrooms.

Guiding Questions

Why is it important to study the environment?

How has environmental studies influenced history, literature, and art?

What does environmental justice entail?

To what extent do environmental humanities and civic education intersect?

Studying Environmental Humanities

What is Environmental Humanities?

Environmental Humanities is an interdisciplinary field that promotes the examination of the environment through a literary, historical, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, technological, and/or political lens. The foundation of the field can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s when scholars cultivated sub-fields dedicated to studying the environment within their respective humanistic disciplines. In the early 2000s, environmental humanities evolved into a prominent academic field that acts as a nexus for disparate debates and approaches to environmental scholarship. Integrating discussions of history, ethics, and politics, among others, with environmental studies, will challenge the public to recognize the overlaps between environmental and social crises and consider how to invigorate research on these topics across the humanities. 

Researchers and educators of various subjects can use a variety of EDSITEment and NEH resources to integrate environmental humanities into the classroom.   

BackStory: Environmentalism and Earth Day  

The BackStory podcast episode Environmentalism and Earth Day examines how the long-term impacts of grassroots environmental activism and federal policies enacted in the 1980s shaped environmentalism.

Between the Waters

The NEH-funded Between the Waters project allows viewers to take a virtual tour of Hobcaw Barony, a 16,000-acre reserve in South Carolina. This project includes resources that help students understand how this natural landscape has shaped local history and culture. 

The Founder of the Appalachian Trail Imagined Something Even Grander 

The Humanities magazine article, The Founder of the Appalachian Trail Imagined Something Even Grander, discusses the history and development of the Appalachian Trail. It also delves into how Benton MacKaye, the man recognized as the founder of the trail, created a hiking route that forged and connected communities. 

Humanities Guåhan Taking Root: Growing Youth Empowerment for Island Sustainability 

In 2018, Humanities Guåhan launched Taking Root to help students engage with the environments and cultures of Guam and Micronesia. The project encouraged students to work collaboratively to identify challenges and solve problems around the environment.   

Indiana Humanities Council Indiana Campfires 

The Indiana Humanities Council’s Indiana Campfires program couples nature and literature to facilitate conversations about the future of Indiana. These programs occur at sites across the state and have included hiking and paddling trips. 

2012 Jefferson Lecture: Wendell Berry  

Our media resource on Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture provides access to the full text of Wendell Berry’s lecture on the importance of place in cultivating responsible relationships to the world. This page also includes information on resources for students that explore the influence of the environment on the works of artists and writers. 

The National Parks and History

Our Closer Reading, The National Parks and History, provides an overview of the origins of the National Park Service. It also includes links to resources to help students learn more about the agency.  

Picturing America: Bierstadt & Diebenkorn 

Picturing America: Bierstadt & Diebenkorn uses the works of Albert Bierstadt and Richard Diebenkorn to encourage students to analyze how industrialization transformed California’s natural landscape.     

Picturing America: John James Audubon 

Picturing America: John James Audubon provides links to a video that discusses one of Audubon’s famous prints, American Flamingo. It also includes comprehension questions to help students think about the different elements of Audubon’s work.   

Sustainability in Practice: Preventive Conservation at the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum 

This NEH Blog post, Sustainability in Practice: Preventive Conservation at the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum, provides an overview of the efforts of the Division of Preservation and Access to support projects in the field of preventive conservation through the Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections grant program. It also discusses the work being done by the Mohegan Historical and Cultural Museum to study and determine the environmental issues that could impact the collections housed by the museum. 

The Wild All Around 

The Wild All Around digital feature provides an overview of the environmental humanities discipline and the programs humanities councils across the country are organizing to offer state residents the opportunity to partake in an experience that intersects literature with the environment. 

What Can We Learn from Trees?

The Humanities Magazine article, What Can We Learn from Trees?, includes an interview with scholar Jared Farmer. Farmer discusses his experiences examining the modern history of California through the history of its treescape.

History and Justice

Through the lens of history, students will be able to understand the origins and evolution of the modern environmental movement. At the beginning of the twentieth century—in response to the effects of mass industrialization and urbanization—some Americans advocated regulation and protections for public lands and these reformers formed two camps: preservationists and conservationists. Preservationists, such as John Muir, promoted the idea that nature and the environment should be protected from abuse. His preservation efforts throughout the 1890s and early 1900s culminated in the establishment of YosemiteGrand Canyon, and Sequoia national parks. His vision served as an impetus for the eventual establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.  

A black and white panoramic photograph of Yosemite Valley and the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Photo caption

This photograph taken by George Fiske sometime between 1890 and 1900 captures the Yosemite Valley and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Conservationists argued that there are proper and responsible ways that federally owned lands can be used for recreation and industrial purposes. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service, were prominent proponents for conservation. Conservation influenced the management of national forests and transformed them into vehicles for economic growth. Across the country, ski resorts, campgrounds, and hiking trails are located in national forests, and lumber from federal lands have been used to construct homes and furniture. While it appears the preservation and conservation movements are incongruous, both underscore the need to restore and protect public lands for posterity. 

Indigenous Land Rights

Early reformers of the environmental movement, however, failed to acknowledge the continued existence and land rights of Indigenous tribes across the nation. The disregard for the connections Native Americans retained with their homelands resulted in the federal government forcibly removing or refusing to acknowledge the presence of tribes to establish new national parks. The history of Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s first national park, elucidates the violence perpetrated against Native American tribes under the guise of preservation. Members of the Crow, Shoshone, and Bannock tribes inhabited the land enclosed within the park’s boundaries and surrounding areas. They used the land to hunt for animals and conduct controlled burns. By 1879, government officials forcibly removed all of the remaining Native inhabitants from Yellowstone. Sects of different tribes, such as the Bannock tribe, returned to Yellowstone on a seasonal basis to hunt. The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 authorized the right of the Bannock and Eastern Band of the Shoshone tribes to hunt within Yellowstone, park managers pursued measures to terminate the tribes’ use of the land. This behavior stemmed from the federal government’s idealized interpretation of the state in which Yellowstone should be preserved. 

A line of tipis located amidst hills and mountains.
Photo caption

A photograph captured in 1871 of a Shoshone encampment on land that is now part of Yellowstone National Park.

The prohibition of low-intensity fires by Captain Moses Harris, the first military superintendent of Yellowstone, and the passage of the Yellowstone Hunting Act of 1894, which prohibited the hunting of all wild animals, threatened the cultural ties tribes retained with the land. The 1896 Supreme Court case, Ward v. Race Horse, ruled that when Wyoming became a state in 1890 the hunting rights granted to the Shoshone and Bannock tribes in the Fort Bridger Treaty were effectively terminated. Through military force and aggressive legislative tactics, government officials constructed a façade and initiated a practice implemented in other national parks around the country. The legacy of this policy is an issue that has yet to be completely rectified.  

Post-WWII Environmentalism

In the years following World War II, white middle-class families that fled to the suburbs took interest in the consequences of environmental hazards to their health. This awareness combined with an increase in the use of nature as a source of recreation spurred a new wave of environmentalists who spearheaded grassroots efforts to combat issues such as pollution. 

During the 1960s, leaders of the Chicano and Civil Rights movement raised concerns about the consequences of public health hazards on local communities. Cesar Chávez mobilized farmworkers to protest for better working conditions, specifically protection from harmful chemicals, in the early 1960s. On May 16, 1967, Black residents in Houston picketed a city landfill that caused the death of an 8-year-old Black child. In February of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to provide support to Black sanitation workers protesting against polluted and dangerous work conditions. 

A diorama of strikers holding signs that say I am a man.
Photo caption

A diorama of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike at the National Civil Rights Museum featuring the strikers' slogan "I AM a Man."

Public outcry in the wake of environmental crises such as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill forced Congress and President Nixon to address the severity of human impact on the environment. Within the span of four years, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969The Clean Air Act of 1970The Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and the inaugural Earth Day occurred on April 22. 

Environmental Justice

The roots of the contemporary environmental justice movement can be traced back to the 1980s when African Americans, Hispanics, Latinx, Asian Americans, and Indigenous communities, among others, highlighted the intersections between social justice and environmentalism. They brought to public attention how industrial facilities that contaminated the air and water supply were disproportionally placed adjacent to marginalized and low-income areas. 

In September of 1982, African American residents of Warren County, NC mobilized to protest against the dumping of PCB, a chemical that can cause birth defects and damage to human organs, contaminated soil in their community. When the dump trucks arrived at the site, community activists blocked the entrance by lying down on the roads that led to the landfill. For the next six weeks, residents of Warren County organized multiple protests and marches. More than 500 environmentalists and civil rights activists were arrested. While their efforts proved unsuccessful, this protest captured the nation’s attention and served as an impetus for the modern environmental justice movement.

Environmental historians continue to ask questions and conduct research about the relationship between humans and the environment, and consider debates regarding the proper role of government in addressing injustices related to climate, land, water, and air. Below are some questions to encourage students to think about the environment through a historical lens: 

  • How does environmental history intersect with other fields such as the history of politics, industrialization, immigration, and labor, among others? 
  • To what extent is environmental justice a civil rights issue? 
  • How does examining environmental disasters and crises build upon other forms of historical research? 
  • Why would environmental disasters be remembered and memorialized? 
  • How can studying changes in the environment throughout history inform us about contemporary issues? 
Literature and Place

The early development of the conservation movement was partially shaped by the literature published by Henry David Thoreau, a famous poet, philosopher, and a leader in the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism emerged during the 1830s and promoted the philosophical belief that rejected formal institutions and materials in favor of intense spiritual connections with nature. In 1851, Thoreau delivered a public speech in Concord, MA advocating for the preservation of wildernesses. In 1854, Thoreau published Walden, one of his most famous works, in which he recounts his experiment of maintaining a self-reliant lifestyle for two years, two months, and two days by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The NEH-funded interactive digital project, Walden, A Game, allows players the opportunity to simulate living a self-reliant life by finding food, creating a shelter, and making your own clothes.  

During the late 19th century, popular interest in conservation influenced a genre of literature that sought to connect people with American scenery. For example, in the 1870s the Appleton Company published a two-volume work titled Picturesque America. To appeal to families that saw nature as a source of recreation spurred, magazines such as Scribner’s Monthly published articles that promoted the benefits of spending time outdoors. The intersection between sports and conservation also manifested through the publication of magazines such as Recreation.  

Throughout the turn of the 20th century, conservationists and preservationists continued to promote their causes through magazines, books, and other forms of literature. The sketches of scenery included in John Muir’s 1901 book, Our National Parks, captured the public’s attention. Throughout the early 20th century, early conservationists and preservationists used literature to promote different environmental practices and bring attention to the need to save public wildernesses. In the early 20th century, prominent conservationists, such as Gifford Pinchot and Mary Huston Gregory,  supported conservation’s rise in popularity by publishing books that outlined the issues the movement sought to address.  

Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book, Silent Spring, catalyzed the modern environmental movement. Through her book she brought awareness to the harmful effects of DDT, a chemical used to combat insects in agricultural and livestock production. As a result of Carson’s endeavors, environmentalism emerged as part of a larger counterculture movement during the 1960s. 

Novelists, poets, and essayists use literature and literary genres to reflect on and respond to pressing environmental issues. Below are some questions to encourage students to think about the environment through a literary lens: 

  • How does literature engage with conflicts that involve people vs. nature? 
  • How does ecocriticism inform how we read and analyze texts?
  • What does nature writing entail?
  • How does literature provide insight to relationships between people and the built environment?
Arts and Land

Across time and place, art has remained a constant vehicle of expression for political, social, and cultural movements. Art has also been used to capture the natural world. During the mid-nineteenth century, the famous Hudson River School popularized the painting of natural landscapes. These paintings, however, reflected the painter’s interpretation of nature and failed to reflect the influence of humanity on the environment. The rise of conceptual art in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a new approach to depicting nature. During the 1960s and 1970s, land art emerged within the larger conceptual art movement. Land art, also known as earth art, entailed creating artwork using natural materials directly within a natural landscape. However, some of the famous artists who created these works were criticized for neglecting the impact of their interference on nature. 

A landscape painting of a river, green hills, and trees.
Photo caption

Referred to as The Oxbow, this painting by Thomas Cole captures the Connecticut River Valley in the wake of a storm.

Since the 1960s, art has frequently been used to depict the impact of climate change and global warming on the environment and has become an essential aspect of protests. Indigenous environmentalists incorporate art into their protests against pipelines. During the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest in 2016, Indigenous activists created resistance posters that encompassed traditional and cultural motifs to express their motivations for continuing their fight against pipelines. The Haskell Indian Nations University preserved and digitized some of the art created in response to the pipeline.  

Below are some questions to encourage students to think about the intersection between art and environmental humanities: 

  • How has art been used to reflect environmental movements? 
  • What can art tell us about the relationship between humans and nature that words and literature cannot? 
  • Why is it important to preserve posters used during protests? 
Civics and Environmentalism

Students can learn about how federalism operates and the role of civics and civic action in society by examining an issue related to the environment. Through the lens of civics, students can consider examining the federal, state, and local agencies involved in making decisions that impact the environment. Some examples of federal agencies include the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services. On a state level, students can research the work being conducted by the environmental agency of their respective state. Students can also conduct research to see what their town is currently doing to address environmental issues.  

Students can also learn about the impact of civic action by examining the environmental movement. Marches, petitions, and displaying signs or buttons are some of the methods people have used to become engaged within the environmental movement. Within the past decade, students have become more actively engaged in the environmental movement by spearheading protests and operating national organizations. During the September 2019 climate strikes, students around the world mobilized to demand more action on the part of world governing bodies to combat climate change, illustrating the significance of civic action regardless of your age. 

Below are some questions to encourage students to think about the role of civics and civic action within  environmental humanities: 

  • How do different levels of government address environmental issues? 
  • How can individuals get involved in advocating for their position in relation to environmentalism? 
  • How is your local community connected to environmental issues?