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Historical Approaches: The Environment


Admission requirements

Recommended course:

  • Birth of the Modern World

PLEASE NOTE: First-year students may sign up for this class, but should note that third and second-year students will be prioritized for enrollment in this course.


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 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 against a backdrop of the “great acceleration” in human population growth, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions? And how has the concept of the Anthropocene affected environmental activism in last decade?

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. And while the course is rooted in the historical discipline, it will invite (and reward) expertise from across LUC’s majors, including those in the sciences. All are welcome.

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.

  • Develop skills in analyzing (and writing about) both scholarly historical works and primary source material.

  • Construct a clearly reasoned historical essay about an environmental movement of their choosing.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2020-2021 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

This course will proceed as a reading seminar, where students will engage with both primary historical documents and works of historical scholarship. We will also plan to make certain elements of the course coincide with the American Society for Environmental History’s [“Environmental History Week”] (, planned for April 19-26, 2021.

Assessment Method

Reflection Notes 20%
Reflection Portfolio 40%
Group Project 40%

Reading list

Readings will be made available digitally, and will include a mix of scholarly historical works and first-hand accounts written by environmental activists.


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,