This page lists environmental history research paper topics and ideas and provides links to example papers on history of environment and ecology.
Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. Some geologists believe that that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch—the interglacial state called the Holocene—and is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state, the Anthropocene. See Anthropocene Research Paper.
The anthroposphere—we humans together with our environment—addresses the degree to which we, as opposed to other life forms, have impacted and penetrated the biosphere. The concept, introduced in the late twentieth century, proposes that monopolies of human power throughout history, such as agrarian and industrial regimes, have deeply affected the relations between humans and the nonhuman world. See Anthroposphere Research Paper.
With few exceptions, the spread of plants, animals, and diseases was limited to geographically bound regions for much of the Earth’s history. Humans facilitated biological exchange, intentionally and accidentally carrying species across natural borders. As opportunities for human travel increased, so did the opportunities for biological exchange, often with dramatic consequences. See Biological Exchanges Research Paper.
The growth of a population in a given environment is theoretically limited by the availability of resources and susceptibility to disease or disaster, thus the maximum number or density of organisms an area can support is called the carrying capacity. The threshold for humans is unknown, because they respond to scarcity by moving to new areas, adopting new resources, or inventing technologies to increase capacity. See Carrying Capacity Research Paper.
Fluctuations in global temperatures throughout history have been accompanied by changes in sea levels and altered weather patterns, both of which have been linked to mass migrations, famines leading to disease, the collapse of some civilizations, and the growth of others. These cycles of warm and cold are affected by energy exchanges between oceans and the atmosphere, fossil-fuel emissions, and solar energy. See Climate Change Research Paper.
The early exchanges of life forms between Europe and America, which began in earnest with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, included disease germs, weeds, and vermin as well as medicines, crops, and domesticated animals. The effects were far-reaching for species that had developed in relative isolation on different continents of the Old and New Worlds. See Columbian Exchange Research Paper.
Humans have been felling, using, and burning trees for about half a million years, and the forests have receded as human populations have grown and spread. The clearing of woodlands for agriculture has been the leading cause of deforestation, but the harvesting of timber as a raw material and fuel has also played a significant role. See Deforestation Research Paper.
Experts disagree over the current rate at which arable land is becoming desert, to what extent human activities are responsible, and whether the process is reversible. Yet events such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the United States are compelling evidence of a link between desertification and human misuse of the land. See Desertification Research Paper.
Two types of deserts—tropical and temperate —occupy approximately one third of the planet. While thought to be vast areas of limited resources, the usefulness of arid climates throughout history has depended on the social interaction between the climate and a given society. Analyzing hunter-gatherer and nomadic pastoralist societies has given insight to the influence that desert regions have had on human development. See Deserts Research Paper.
Earthquakes are experienced as shockwaves or intense vibrations on the Earth’s surface. They are usually caused by ruptures along geological fault lines in the Earth’s crust, resulting in the sudden release of energy in the form of seismic waves. They can also be triggered by volcanic activity or human actions, such as industrial or military explosions. See Earthquakes Research Paper.
Ecological imperialism is the process by which colonizers carried the plants, animals, and diseases of their homeland to new lands, albeit sometimes unintentionally. Changing a new environment to more closely resemble a familiar one was often critical to the establishment and success of the imperialists, most prominently Europeans in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. See Ecological Imperialism Research Paper.
From simple mechanical muscle energy to the energy derived from radioactive materials, energy use has ebbed and flowed throughout history. The economic, social, and political consequences of these changes are great, correlating with the rise and fall of empires and eras. Energy use continues to evolve in tandem with humanity and will dictate which choices are available for future development. See Energy Research Paper.
Although the term environmentalism was not used until much later, the roots of environmental movements date back to the 1800s, when demands for cleaner water and air and the protection of wilderness became common. Industrialization and colonialism sparked the fi rst environmentalist voices. Though goals and intentions of the countless organizations vary, environmental movements as a whole remain an important aspect of modern society. See Environmental Movements Research Paper.
Erosion affects crop productivity and remains the largest cause of water pollution on Earth, depositing nutrients, sediments, pesticides, and fertilizers into water supplies. There are two types of erosion: natural and human-induced. Erosion prediction and the need for soil conservation became a focus in the twentieth century under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped spread the word about the threats of erosion. See Soil Erosion Research Paper.
Ethnobotany examines the cultural and biological relationships between plants and people, usually human populations organized into communities or linguistic groups. Ethnobotanists study how people use plants, modify habitats to benefit plant species, alter entire landscapes, and create new plants through genetic selection (domestication) and unnatural places to grow them (gardens and fields). See Ethnobotany Research Paper.
Extinctions have occurred throughout the history of the Earth; extinction is in fact a critical component in the theory of evolution and is attributed to natural selection, random factors, or catastrophic events. The Earth has survived five mass extinctions—including one that destroyed the dinosaurs—all of which have shaped the world as we know it today. See Extinctions Research Paper.
Famine is a complex social phenomenon and is distinguished from starvation by its social aspect. Individuals starve to death as a result of reductions in food supply, but societies experience a more complex response. Not all members of society suffer equally from food shortages. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, the poorer and less privileged sections of society, whose entitlements to food are least secure, suffer more than the richer, more privileged sections. See Famine Research Paper.
Humans learned to control fire at least 400,000 years ago. Cooking over fi re increased the variety of foods. Fire kept dangerous animals away from campgrounds and warmed living spaces so humans could leave tropical Africa and spread round the Earth; people burned dry vegetation as they migrated to improve hunting and thereby changed natural ecological balances. No single skill did so much to expand human power over nature. See Fire Research Paper.
In 1969 the British scientist James Lovelock postulated that life on Earth regulates the composition of the atmosphere to keep the planet habitable. The novelist William Golding, Lovelock’s friend and neighbor, suggested Lovelock call the hypothesis Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess. Although in its early exposition and in the popular press the Gaia hypothesis was understood as saying Earth itself was a living organism, the theory as Lovelock came to articulate it said rather that Earth acts like a living organism, with its living and nonliving components acting in concert to create an environment that continues to be suitable for life. See Gaia Theory Research Paper.
The successful development of higher-yielding hybrid strains of corn and wheat (“miracle seeds”) in the early 1960s led to the controversial Green Revolution: big businesses and governments see it as a breakthrough in agriculture and food safety, while small farmers and ecologists see it as ruining the environment, destroying agricultural productivity, obliterating indigenous cultural and agricultural practices, and creating even greater global inequalities. See Green Revolution Research Paper.
At least five prolonged ice ages—epochs when glaciers cover entire continents—have occurred throughout the Earth’s 4.6 billion–year history. These five ice ages represented unusual, relatively short episodes in the whole of Earth’s climatic record (spanning a total of 50 to 200 million years, only 1 to 4 percent), and yet they destroyed entire ecosystems, leaving behind tremendous piles of glacial debris. See Ice Ages Research Paper.
Islands are almost as diverse as they are numerous: large or small, rich or poor, inhabited or populated. From the earliest times, as populations settled ever farther around the globe, humans have coveted islands as stepping stones and colonies. Islands have served as trading posts, warehouses, naval bases, and refueling stations. They are still valued today for their often exotic environments and remote locales. See Islands Research Paper.
Mountains evolved as havens of bio- and cultural diversity and have long been associated with indestructibility, ruggedness, and characteristics hostile to human endeavors. Until the U.N. designated 2002 the International Year of the Mountain, environmentalists ignored the fragility of mountain regions. Poor, indigenous mountain peoples, victimized by central governments, often have little choice but to overexploit their environment, and are threatened by warfare ubiquitous in many mountainous lands. See Mountains Research Paper.
Natural gas consists primarily of methane. It is often located alongside other fossil fuels. Cleaner than other fossil fuels, gas is an important source of energy, both as a gas and in a liquefied state, used in heating, cooking, and powering automobiles. Before it can be used as a fuel, gas must be processed to make it near pure methane. See Natural Gas Research Paper.
All cultures depend on the natural world—plants and animals, the weather, the sun and the sea— for their sustenance. Likewise, each culture has creation stories that classify and provide ethical concepts about its place in the natural world. But not all cultures embody the multitude of universal laws, physical matter, and forms of life on Earth as Western culture does, and attempt to express it all as a single concept called nature. See Nature Research Paper.
Oceans and Seas
Oceans and seas comprise 98 percent of the biosphere and cover about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Water is circulated between the oceans and seas, the atmosphere, and the land by evaporation and precipitation, thus transporting chemicals and heat, determining the Earth’s climate, and fertilizing and eroding the land. Humans depend on ocean resources, harvesting marine life, for instance, and drilling the ocean beds for oil. See Oceans and Seas Research Paper.
Oil in myriad forms has been used for hundreds of purposes for at least six thousand years. Oil spills occur naturally and as a result of oil exploration, transportation, and processing. Several disasters have led to more stringent environmental standards, such as double-hulled ships. The drilling-platform explosion and subsequent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 has brought renewed global attention to the dangers of oil spills. See Oil Spills Research Paper.
Population and the Environment
Examples throughout history reveal that the simple formula—more people equals more environmental disruption—does not always apply. Nonetheless, in most circumstances, population growth has brought accelerated environmental change and continues to do so. Since the mid-twentieth century, as human population growth approached its maximum rate, the relationship between population growth and the environment has been the subject of popular and scholarly debate. See Population and the Environment Research Paper.
The geographer Lewis Mumford’s observation— that all great historic cultures thrived by traveling along the natural highway of a great river—is particularly resonant today, as the world’s rivers bear the brunt of human manipulation. Pollution and habitat loss (two main side effects of hydraulic engineering), as well as climate change, pose unprecedented challenges to agriculture, manufacturing, urban water supplies, and wildlife conservation. See Rivers Research Paper.
The first roads were built to facilitate the movement of armies over uneven landscapes. Paved road systems reached new levels of sophistication during Roman times but fell into disrepair with the fall of the empire. The dawn of modern road building began with the invention of the automobile, evolving into today’s intricate networks of street and highway systems. See Roads Research Paper.
Salinization, the process by which salts accumulate in soil, has long been (and continues to be) one of the world’s major challenges for sustaining agricultural production. In natural and managed ecosystems, salinization regulates plant and animal communities, and it determines the way in which water is circulated and distributed on and below the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere. See Salinization Research Paper.
Timber, or lumber, is wood that is used in any of its stages—from felling through to processing— in the production of construction materials, or as pulp for paper. Timber has been a resource around the world for many centuries in the craft and construct of all manner of objects and utensils, from dwellings to ships to tables to toothpicks. See Timber Research Paper.
Trees are vastly older than the human species, and the study of trees is itself a vast subject. With its focus on human/tree interaction through the ages, this article considers trees as objects of human veneration, as sources of food or obstacles to agriculture, and as wildlife whose “behavior” is affected by human actions. See Trees Research Paper.
Water is essential for life. In addition to consumption, water is used for travel, power generation, hygiene, recreation, agriculture, industry, ritual, and more. While water covers about three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, less than 2 percent of it is fi t to drink. Access to water continues to play a crucial role in the location and movement of peoples and communities. See Water Research Paper.
Mechanical (kinetic) energy of flowing or falling water was traditionally converted to rotary motion by a variety of waterwheels, and, starting in the 1880s, by water turbines that have been used to turn generators. Unlike fossil fuels, this form of electricity generation does not produce air pollution directly, but its other environmental impacts have become a matter of considerable controversy. See Water Energy Research Paper.
Water has many essential uses, including in agriculture, industry, recreation, and domestic consumption, most of which require fresh water (as opposed to saltwater). Only 3 percent of Earth’s water supply is fresh, and most of that is frozen. While fresh water is a renewable resource, supply is limited while demand is increasing. This requires careful management of existing water resources. See Water Management Research Paper.
Sails were one of the first inventions to convert wind energy into motion, and windmills have been used since the tenth century to harness the power of the wind for grain milling and water pumping. In the early twenty-first century, wind is the fastest growing renewable energy source, forecasted to provide 20 percent of the world’s electricity by the year 2040. See Wind Energy Research Paper.
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