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Imperial Natures: Environments and Empires from the Little Ice Age to the Great Acceleration (c. 1450 to the present) (HI2K2)

Module Convenor: Thomas Simpson

Early modern and modern empires reshaped nature through extracting, planting, and building on previously unprecedented scales. In turn, changing concepts of nature and diverse experiences of particular environments moulded empires. Starting from a selection of written and visual primary source material, each seminar on this course examines a distinct environment, exploring how various empires (including non-European ones) changed and were changed by these surroundings.

Learning outcomes

  • Critically engage with, and appropriately deploy, theories and methods of environmental history.
  • Understand the historical co-constitution of empires and environments on large spatial and temporal scales.
  • Relate micro, local, and regional case studies to macro, continental, and global scales of analysis.
  • Gain expertise in relating historical analysis to audiences trained in a range of scientific and social scientific disciplines, and in turn learning and incorporating insights from these disciplines.
  • Identify how past human-environment interactions and past forms of environmental knowledge can inform and enrich understandings of present-day environmental concerns and priorities.

Outline Syllabus


Block 1: Introductory

  1. No seminar

  2. Empires and environments: an overview

  3. Thinking like an environmental historian

Block 2: Imperial environments

  1. Plantations

  2. Coasts

  3. Reading week

  4. Deserts

  5. Mountains

Block 3: Nonhuman life

  1. Microbes and insects

  2. Megafauna


  1. Plants

  2. Assessment skills: environmental history for an interdisciplinary audience

Block 4: Imperial interventions

  1. Canals and dams

  2. Fuels and energy

  3. Air and ocean

  4. Reading week

Block 5: Knowing natures

  1. Maritime and land empires

  2. Global visions

  3. Fears and environmentalisms

  4. Presentations to an interdisciplinary audience


Block 6: Summing up

  1. The Empireocene?

  2. Doing history in a crisis


  • Seminar contribution: 10%
  • 1500 word essay: 10%
  • Presentation and portfolio: 40%
  • 7 day take home assessment: 40%