In order to understand and moderate the effects of the accelerating rate of global environmental change land managers and ecologists must not only think beyond their local environment but also put their problems into a historical context. It is intuitively obvious that historians should be natural allies of ecologists and land managers as they struggle to maintain biodiversity and landscape health. Indeed, ‘environmental history’ is an emerging field where the previously disparate intellectual traditions of ecology and history intersect to create a new and fundamentally interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Environmental history is rapidly becoming an important field displacing many older environmentally focused academic disciplines as well as capturing the public imagination.
By drawing on Australian experience I explore the role of ‘environmental history’ in managing biodiversity. First I consider some of the similarities and differences of the ecological and historical approaches to the history of the environment. Then I review two central questions in Australian environment history: landscape-scale changes in woody vegetation cover since European settlement and the extinction of the marsupials in both historical and pre-historical time. These case studies demonstrate that environmental historians can reach conflicting interpretations despite using essentially the same data.
The popular success of some environmental histories hinges on the fact that they narrate a compelling story concerning human relationships and human value judgements about landscape change. Ecologists must learn to harness the power of environmental history narratives to bolster land management practices designed to conserve biological heritage. They can do this by using various currently popular environmental histories as a point of departure for future research, for instance by testing the veracity of competing interpretations of landscape-scale change in woody vegetation cover. They also need to learn how to write parables that communicate their research findings to land managers and the general public. However, no matter how sociologically or psychologically satisfying a particular environmental historical narrative might be, it must be willing to be superseded with new stories that incorporate the latest research discoveries and that reflects changing social values of nature. It is contrary to a rational and publicly acceptable approach to land management to read a particular story as revealing the absolute truth.