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Historical Approaches: Environmentalisms Rich and Poor


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

None required, but Birth of the Modern World is recommended.


This course offers a broad historical introduction to a set of social movements and intellectual traditions that have come to be known as “environmentalism.” After making brief acquaintance with the interdisciplinary subfield of environmental history, we will investigate a series of questions about the ways that humans have conceptualized, and organized politically in relation to, the more-than-human natural world. A sampling: How did the expansion of the Spanish, French, British and Dutch empires shape early European ideas about ecological conservation? What explains the late nineteenth-century emergence of (inter)national organizations devoted to urban smoke abatement, migratory bird protection, vegetarian diets, and national parks? How did environmental movements evolve (and proliferate globally) after the “ecological revolution” of the 1970s? And how has the climate crisis shaped environmental activism in recent decades?

By attending to environmentalisms both “rich” and “poor,” we will compare mobilizations that arose among middle-class activists in countries like the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan, with those that have been led primarily by indigenous, peasant, and pastoralist communities in places like Brazil, Nigeria, and India. But we will also examine differences and conflicts within particular societies, as disparate groups have vied across social hierarchies to define the terms of “environmental protection,” “environmental health,” and “environmental justice.” Finally, we will keep our eyes open to the fascinating routes by which activists and ideas have circulated transnationally, sometimes in ways that will surprise us.

The overall aim is to develop a historical perspective for understanding the environmental politics of the current moment, so that we might approach our own predicaments with patience, curiosity, compassion, and resolve. No prior knowledge is presumed or required.

Course Objectives

By successfully completing this course, students will be able to:

  • Describe and compare the main traditions of environmentalist thinking and practice in Europe and North America.

  • Explain the origins and trajectories of select environmental movements of the Global South.

  • Periodize the most important developments in environmental movement-making since the late nineteenth century.

  • Write clearly reasoned historical analyses based on primary and secondary sources.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2023-2024 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

This course will offer a mix of lecture- and discussion-based sessions. It is reading-intensive and will demand quite a lot of informal writing, in addition to a final essay. While this sometimes feels daunting at the outset, students regularly report that the rhythm of frequent informal writing makes writing easier and more fun -- and prepares them well for the final essay.

Assessment Method

  • Participation 10%

  • Reading Notes: 15%

  • Reflection Portfolio: 30%

  • Final Exam: 45%

Reading list

All readings will be made available digitally.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Ann Marie Wilson,