Centre for World Environmental History


Although global in its expertise and aims, the CWEH specialises in the environmental history of the tropics. It is the only Centre in Britain and Europe with the capability to do so.

As a distinctive named discipline Environmental History is a relatively young subject, which has roots in historical geography, historical ecology and the history of material culture. It draws widely from the sciences, social sciences and the humanities. The first course in "Environmental History" taught as part of a history syllabus appears to have been at Strawberry Hill College in London in 1969 by Henry Bernstein, a Californian who specialised in research on forests and shipbuilding in the Indus-Ganges basin. Much of the subsequent growth in the subject took place in the United States.

In the last decade, however, the centre of gravity of the discipline has started to move eastwards to Africa, South Asia, Australia - all regions where environmental historians have become increasingly active and productive. The environmental history of the tropics and subtropics is an area of growing interest to scholars, many of them resident in in these regions. It is to date, a research area in which American and European expertise is extremely limited, but which we believe is a vital research priority.

CWEH aims to reflect these academic shifts. Its advent is part of a recognition that the new discipline is especially relevant to acquiring perspectives on the growing environmental crisis and analysing the serious impact of that crisis in the tropics, particularly in terms of the connected problems of soil erosion, salinisation, water deficit, deforestation, species losses, pollution and climate change. There are clear policy implications resulting from this type of research.

CWEH runs a programme of workshops and conferences. Past meetings include a workshop in June 2002 on Science, Empire and the Environment and a major conference on the Environmental History of Asia in Delhi in December 4-7 2002.

CWEH Projects currently planned or in progress include:-

  • A long-term ongoing study commenced in 1991 on the environmental history of South Asia. This has been associated with two major conferences on the environmental history of South Asia and Southeast Asia in February 1992 and December 2002 run in collaboration with the Indian CSIRO National Institute for Science, Technology and Development Studies in New Delhi, the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun (Uttar Pradesh) and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  More recently, a conference on Nature and the Raj in 2006. Papers from these conferences have recently been published as a volume in 2010: The British Empire and the Natural World [PDF 1.27MB]
  • A research project on water, disease and history. This study is especially concerned with the connections between extreme climate events (especially El Nino episodes) and malarial episodes in South Asia, and with the comparative history of colonial irrigation projects in India, Australia and the Sudan. The main researchers on this project initiated by Dr Richard Grove.are A.T. Grove and Dr Rohan d'Souza.
  • A five-year micro-study of the environmental and ethnological study of the Chotanagpur plateau in Jharkhand State, northeast India. Main researchers: Dr Vinita Damodaran and Dr Felix Padel.
  • A research project on the environmental history of Tobago funded by the Leverhulme Trust
  • A research project on the biophysical and socio-economic consequences of planting trees in the grassland ecosystems of Lesotho, Southern Africa.
  • A major study of the environmental history of the British Empire and Commonwealth entitled The British Empire and the natural world. This project is running in collaboration with a number of partner institutions including the Jawaharlal Nehru University, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Oxford Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine. Some component parts of this project are already the subject of pilot studies while other parts are related to work. We focus particularly on the forest, water and botanical history of the empire, together with a substantial commitment to understanding artistic and literary representations of the colonial environment.
  • The British Academy has funded part of the project on the East India Company and the Natural World
  • We are currently collaborating with Kew on a project to digitize the Indian correspondence of William and Joseph Hooker, directors of Kew Gardens from 1846 - 1906