Originally published on Stephen Bocking's blog Environment, History, Science.
There's a lot that can be said about the relations between environmental history and science. Historians often use scientific knowledge to figure out past environments – and science itself is a focus of historical study.
However the contributions of environmental history to science and environmental action get less attention. At least, historical insight is certainly useful in guiding ecological restoration – figuring out how to bring back vanished landscapes or species implies knowing something about what came before.
By encouraging growth of native grasses, they help lock up vast amounts of carbon in the soil.
But I just came across an interesting example of environmental history being useful in dealing with the future and with the climate change challenge. My original source was the Gallon daily environmental newsletter, which led me to the University of California alumni magazine. It turns out that compost can turn grasslands into effective machines for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. By encouraging growth of native grasses, they help lock up vast amounts of carbon in the soil. It's no panacea – definitely not outweighing fossil fuel burning – but it's a help.
But the interesting historical thing is that environmental history provided the clues that this might actually work. California's rangelands used to have huge herds of elk and other ungulates, that by harrowing and fertilizing the soil (with their manure), encouraged abundant native grasses, which then sequestered tonnes of carbon. Composting is, in a way, a return to that earlier kind of ecosystem. And environmental history also shows how this could be applied elsewhere: Bringing bison (and the grasslands ecosystem that they were part of) back to the Great Plains could probably make a serious dent in climate change.
Climate change research tends to be dominated by scientists – atmospheric physicists and energy engineers among them – but perhaps historians can play a bigger role than we might think.
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