Friday, September 26, 2008

Hurricane Katrina, the Environment, and World History

Hurricane Katrina and the chaos that resulted stand as a dark time in the history of the United States. Unlike the time period immediately after 9/11, when the citizens of the United States, along with the government, came together with a spirit of unity that was almost unprecedented, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seemed to push people even further apart and left much of the country to wonder why we weren’t able to effectively deal with a crisis in New Orleans that, from a casualty standpoint, was at least the equal of 9/11. Furthermore, the lack of a unified and successful response to this tragedy which left thousands dead brought to light some massive inequalities in this country (based on both social class as well as race) that this country is going to have to deal with over the coming years. More than a few people wondered how the response (and preparedness in the first place) may have been different if the affected area consisted of wealthy residents as opposed to the poor that lived in New Orleans and Mississippi. These types of questions, crystallized by Hurricane Katrina, are going to linger in our national consciousness for a very long time.

In another way, the discussion of the tragedy that occurred in 2005 helps us lay out the core concepts of this unit. There was an environmental crisis that forced people to react, adjust, and attempt to solve the problems. In doing so, social relationships were formed (and broken), the government attempted to solve the crisis, and (most importantly) many of the divisions that existed in the United States (social, political, economic) that were living just under the surface of our society were exposed and highlighted in a way that should make every observer a little uncomfortable. In understanding the manner in which an environmental crisis contributes to the evolution of human history, a few major questions are raised.

1. How does the interaction between man and the environment shape world history?
2. In what ways does mankind have a reciprocal (“Back-and-Forth”) relationship with the environment?
3. In what ways does that reciprocal relationship result in larger questions about the nature of our society and history as citizens of the world?
4. How do we balance the question of human needs against the dangers of environmental instability?

These questions should remain in your head as we progress through the timeline of world history. As the unit progresses, be sure to look back at these questions on a regular basis. You may find that your answers to these questions may not remain constant throughout this unit. In fact, I hope that you struggle with these questions throughout the next few weeks and, at the conclusion of the unit, can make a solid, cohesive argument in favor of a number of potential answers. Good luck.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Introduction to Environment Unit

Balance.  When considering the issues of environmental use by humans throughout history, the principle of balance plays an enormous role.  As time has progressed, the balance struck between human needs and environmental necessity helps determine the most essential elements of human history.    Much of history can be seen as an attempt to continually redefine the balance struck between these two realities, while both the greatest gains and most dramatic setbacks can, in many ways, trace themselves back to the relationship between humans and their environment.  

This breaks down very clearly.  Humans and their environment live in a constantly changing state of flux.  As human needs change, they make adjustments that impact the environment in which they live, allowing people to thrive.  As the environment responds and changes, humans either adapt to the new condition, move away, or die.  This relationship is continual and in a constant state of adjustment.  Every human advancement, be it social, economic, political, or cultural, has an environmental impact.  The adjustments to the environment made by humans go a long way towards determining whether or not civilization (in some form) can continue in that region.

As we will see in this unit, humans constantly have to adapt to their changing environment, and while it is usually a very subtle process, there are plenty of times throughout history in which the relationship between humans and their environment became so unbalanced that a massive correction took place, usually devastating the human population.  What makes the history of environmental interaction so interesting is that usually you can see direct historical progress between the actions of civilization and the resulting environmental reaction.  The give-and-take of the relationship between man and his environment is very clear and allows for students to develop some significant historical skills.  As the unit progresses, the key will be to be able to identify the causes (and effects) of human use of the environment and how that use brings about a specific and significant environmental response.  

One note: Although this is a unit that revolves around the relationship between humans and their environment, do not assume this will be a 100% pro-environmentalism, Al-Gore-could-have-written-this-whole-thing unit.  We are studying the historical relationship between man and his environment.  The conclusions you draw from this study are yours.  As long as you can back up your opinions with factual evidence, the position you take on environmentalism is up to you.  The events of history are meant to be analyzed and should result in an understanding of how things have worked in the past.  This unit will address how this relationship has evolved over time.  You should let the historical evidence guide you to your opinion on this issue.  Good luck.