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Department of History

Environmental History of Asia

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 2

The field of Asian environmental history has been burgeoning since the 1990s. A growing and increasingly diverse literature has been produced in recent years, in particular on China and India, but also on Japan and the Southeast Asian region. The aim of this course is to provide an introduction to this material and the issues and questions it raises. These include, but are not limited, to the impact of colonialism on environmental change, resource use and development, disasters and vulnerability, migration and conflict, environmental dynamics of cities, and the impact of climate change on human societies and vice versa. The chronological focus will be on the early modern and modern periods. Apart from getting acquainted with existing scholarship, the course will also ask about the significance of this body of work for the historical discipline more generally and the ways in which it relates to contemporary environmental concerns.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate:

  • 1. that he/she is able to critically assess the notion of ‘Environmental History’ as an explanatory framework, and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of environmental models of human societies and their transformations in the different regions of Monsoon Asia;
  • 2. a good command of the state of the field and awareness about historical debates in the field of Asian environmental history and their significance;
  • 3. the ability to formulate and critically assess historical and historiographical questions arising from a corpus of literature;
  • 4. that he/she has developed a range of skills relevant to focused discussion, analysis, writing, and presentation of research results.


12 weeks, with two hours of seminars per week.

Scope and syllabus

1. Approaches to environmental history: the emergence of a field and its multi-disciplinary orientations
2. Asian landscapes
3. Environmental thought and environmentalism
4. Colonialism and environmental change (environmental imperialism)
5. The politics of resource control and extraction (forests)
6. Territorial expansion, agricultural change, migration, and conflict
7. Water politics
8. The city and its environment
9. Disasters and vulnerability
10. Livelihood security and climate change

Method of assessment

1 Essays 2000 words (40%), and 1 Essays 4000 words (60%)

Suggested reading

  • Arnold, David and Ramachandra Guha, eds. Nature, Culture and Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Bankoff, Greg. Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazards in the Philippines. Richmond: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
  • Boomgaard, Peter, ed. Paper Landscapes: Explorations in the Environment of Indonesia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1997.
  • Burke III, Edmund, and Kenneth Pomeranz, eds. The Environment and World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Elvin, Mark. ‘Three Thousand Years of Unsustainable Growth: China’s Environment from Archaic Times to the Present. East Asian History 6 (1993): 7–46.
  • Grove, Richard and Vinita Damodaran. 'Historiography of Environmental History.' In Does Environmental History Matter: Shikar, Subsistence, Sustenance and the Sciences , ed. by Ranjan Chakrabarti. Kolkata: Readers Service, 2006.
  • Walker, Brett. Toxic Archipelago: a History of Industrial Disease in Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.