History of ASEH
John Opie founded the American Society for Environmental History in 1977. “ASEH was very much [his] idea,” recalled past president Susan Flader, who had discussed it with him “while riding in the back of Estella Leopold’s jeep in Denver, where we gathered for an OAH conference.” Opie explained the formation of ASEH as follows:
“I was already teaching intellectual and cultural history at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I tried out a primitive environmental history [course] in the fall of 1970…My search in the literature from Rene Dubos and Lewis Mumford , through Ian McHarg to Clarence Glacken was rewarding, but revealed no focus in ‘environmental history.’ I devised AHA sessions in 1972, 1973, and 1976, and at the American Studies Association in 1975 that attracted interested audiences, including early contacts with Don Hughes, Sam Hays, and Don Worster. Rump sessions of fewer than 20 people at the AHA, OAH, and ASA suggested the need for a newsletter to find out ‘who was out there.’”
The environmental history newsletter, first published in April 1974, reached fewer than 100 people. Yet the response was so encouraging that within two years Opie considered publishing a journal devoted to environmental history. The March 1976 issue of the newsletter included a call for the establishment of a journal as well as an organization. [See “Early Newsletters” in this section of this website.] According to Opie, the “key players” in 1976 included Kent Shifford, Keir Sterling, Rod French, Michael Brodhead, John F. Reiger, Edward L. Hawes, Joe Petulla, Joel Tarr, Harold Pinkett, Tad Tate, Tom Cox, Susan Flader, Tom Dunlap, John Perkins, Will Jacobs, and Roderick Nash.
In April 1980 J. Donald Hughes and Robert C. Schultz organized a conference commemorating the tenth anniversary of Earthday at the University of Denver. Opie, who had attended, had asked participants for a list of about ten titles that had influenced them as humanists in environmental matters. Opie plus seven others were forthcoming enough to volunteer their lists, which ranged from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover to Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. But what was also remarkable about this was the existence of an already shared intellectual canon, for Opie had instructed that their lists were to omit Lynn White, Jr., Roderick Nash, Clarence Glacken, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Rene Dubos, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Edward Abbey, authors whose works Opie assumed his interlocutors had all already read (he had also assumed their familiarity with the volume edited by William L. Thomas, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, and with three other edited volumes).
Later, as editor of the journal, J. Donald Hughes penned an encomium to his predecessor, Opie, in the Spring 1983 issue (vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 3-4) and titled it “Charivari for an Editor.” Meaning a noisy celebration at a wedding, this charivari had none of the connotations of “rough music” of incidents studied by Natalie Zemon Davis. Indeed, it was the very title Opie used for his editor’s notes in the Environmental History Newsletter, the very first incarnation of the journal; the wedding he had in mind was that of two fields: Environmental Studies and History. It was a wedding in multiple ways, for not only were many founding members of our society such as Don Worster, Susan Flader, Alfred Crosby, and Opie himself marrying the two fields by acquiring a dual literacy in environmental science and ecology as well as history, but some were even crossing disciplinary lines, “brought together for a mutual labor of research that was to bear much fruit.”
The ASEH's quarterly journal, Environmental Review, began publication in 1976, continuing as Environmental History Review in 1990, and as Environmental History (with the Forest History Society) in 1996. Editors have included John Opie, J. Donald Hughes, Bill Robbins, Hal Rothman, Adam Rome, Mark Cioc, Nancy Langston, Lisa Brady, and Stephen Brain and Mark Hersey. Oxford University Press began publishing Environmental History in 2010. In 2022, Environmental History moved to the University of Chicago Press.
The newsletter began publication in 1974. Editors have included John Opie, Keir Sterling, Hal Rothman, Dennis Williams, Lisa Mighetto, and David Spatz. Quarterly issues from 2001 - present are available on this website under "Publications."
ASEH held its first conference at UC Irvine in 1982. “The Irvine conference turned out to be a real battery charge for lots of us,” recalled Donald Worster, ASEH president at the time. Organized by historian Kendall E. Bailes of UC Irvine’s History Department, the meeting featured 50 presenters and a long list of luminaries. John Opie delivered the keynote address, “Environmental History: Pitfalls and Opportunities,” with Wilbur Jacobs and Alfred Crosby commenting.
Among the other participants were the internationally known historian of technology Lynn White, Jr., and geographer Clarence Glacken, as well as the already widely known historians Samuel P. Hays, Alfred W. Crosby, and Carroll Pursell. There were also those who would later attain academic renown: Carolyn Merchant, Donald Worster, Martin Melosi, Thomas Dunlap, Calvin Martin, Margaret McKean, John Perkins, Peter Iverson, Richard Tucker, John Richards, Ronald Tobey, Joel Tarr, and many others.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the conference was in the way it began to identify and clarify the intellectual issues and questions of the field. In large measure, this was a result of the penetrating, at-time hard-hitting comments of extremely capable discussants at the various sessions. And of course, it was also shaped by Bailes’s grouping of papers and organization of panels in the first place. The main rubrics were: environmental values and history; environmental attitudes in preindustrial and industrial civilizations; climate and history; conservation and environmentalist movements in the U.S.; environmental history and Native Americans; non-Western perspectives on environmental problems; the U.S. government and environmental policy; urban environmental history; the impact of Western expansion on world ecosystems; and scientists and environmentalism. True, all the participants were able to fit on a modest sized terrace for lunch. Equally true, the entire (non-U.S.) contemporary world was shoehorned into all of two panels. Yet, in its basic outlines, the conference of 1982 is recognizable in today’s, even if it was only one-tenth the size.
Bailes published the conference papers in 1985 in a volume titled Environmental History: Critical Issues in Comparative Perspective (University Press of America) – an important early resource for the field.
So successful was the Irvine conference that ASEH began to hold meetings every two years after that point. By the year 2000 attendance had reached sufficient numbers to warrant the move to annual meetings. Our first annual conference as held in Tacoma, Washington. Typically, ASEH conferences attract from 350 – 450 attendees, and our speakers have included Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, and a scholar from The History Channel. In 2004 we met in British Columbia with the National Council on Public History – a conference that attracted more than 700 people. By 2011, our annual conferences routinely attracted an attendance of 600 people.
Recognizing and Funding Scholarship
The ASEH began recognizing excellence in scholarship in 1989, when the best book prize was established. Since that time, a prize for the best dissertation, article appearing in Environmental History, and article appearing in another journal were added, and beginning in 1999, all have been awarded on an annual basis. Our Executive Committee also awards prizes for distinguished scholarship and distinguished service.
In 2002, the ASEH established 11 travel grants for graduate students, low-income scholars, and international scholars to attend its annual meetings. A grant for minority scholars was also established – and these grants of $500 each are awarded annually. A research fellowship, named for Samuel P. Hayes, was founded in 2002, and several years later ASEH also began awarding the Hal Rothman Fellowship for dissertation research.
Douglas Weiner, Carolyn Merchant, and Lisa Mighetto. See Carolyn Merchant's Column, “From the President’s Desk,” in ASEH News, Summer and Winter issues, 2001.