Date of Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
James M. Shields
environmental history, comparative humanities, nature, climate change, China, America
Environmental history is at the most basic level an exploration of changing relationships between people and the environment or nature. Additionally, environmental history observes the human reshaping of nature, which then translates into culture, philosophies, and policies, and vice versa. A close examination of the ecological themes of history uncovers patterns and long-term changes. According to environmental historian Louis S. Warren, "At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as concerns about global warming and other ominous threats trouble many, the discipline of environmental history provides key insights into environmental relations and problems of the past." Ultimately, these insights can lead not only to a better understanding of current problems but also to better solutions. America has a long history of transforming environmental identities; its wealth of environmental history has been analyzed and extrapolated to have an impact on contemporary culture and beliefs. In contrast, despite a much longer recorded national history, environmental analysis in the People's Republic of China lags behind. By comparing the environmental histories of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China through the lenses of philosophy, religion, literature, and art, I will demonstrate that, despite their differences, these two powerful countries share a significant commonality in valuation of nature, and this is crucial to building cross-cultural consensus towards real environmental solutions. The world's environment has experienced rapid degradation by human activities, which, according to scientific consensus, has manifested in global climate change. In this dire state, two countries, the People's Republic of China and the United States of America, have a unique role as two of the most developed and influential global powers. Whether consciously or not, their actions provide examples for the rest of the world to follow. China's rapid economic growth in the past several decades has set a precedent for other developing countries to follow. It is for this reason that it is imperative that a full understanding of China's environmental history is taken into consideration by Chinese and global policy makers. China's extensive recorded history provides an insight to how the country has understood, transformed, and adapted to the environment. This recorded history is the foundation for understanding the country's response to environmental challenges and allows insight into the motivations behind policy decisions. However, this information requires careful analysis. America's developed environmental history has translated into a number of deeply held values and ideals, some of which seem to stand in direct contrast to those of contemporary China. However, differences in historical development do not mean that analysis is impossible. Rather, these provide an opportunity to both further analyze and interpret China's environmental history in light of similar trends in the United States, with an eye to using America's development as guide for China to improve their own process of industrial development. The current body of environmental history in China is limited. However, there is a wealth of recorded history dating back at least two thousand years available for humanistic environmental analysis. Understanding the shared environmental histories of the two countries gives us insight into motivations that are not primarily economic or political but rather rooted in culture, religion, or philosophy. I have chosen to focus my research on China and the United States because there has never been a comprehensive comparative analysis of the environmental histories of the two countries, and by drawing comparisons I believe this work can facilitate dialogue towards wider environmental solutions and increased cross-cultural understanding. While both countries are making internal efforts to combat environmental degradation, collaboration could have profound impact at the cultural and political as well as environmental levels.
Lac, Elaine, "A Comparative Environmental History of America and China: "Nature" and Climate Change" (2016). Honors Theses. 350.