The Literature of African Environmental History: An Introduction,
By Robert Munson
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Introduction. The terms "African environmental history" may conjure up images of herds grazing in the savanna or nomads in the desert. They may bring to mind images from news media stories of environmental disasters, deforestation, infectious disease, or even famine. Each of these images certainly has some basis in reality, but they obscure the complexity of the underlying environmental and cultural processes that are involved in African history. The task of understanding African environmental history must begin not in the popular press but in the library. African environmental history, while a fairly young area of study compared with the discipline's more traditional fields such as American or Western European history, is blessed with a rich and wide range of literature in terms of its geographical and temporal coverage. At one end of the spectrum fall studies explaining how now-vanished societies adapted to and changed their environment, while at the other end are works dealing with current developmental problems set in a historical perspective. In order to partition this topic into manageable units for discussion, we will begin by asking "what is African environmental history?" From this basis we will focus on nine general themes within the discipline, generally moving from a broad to a narrow focus within each theme. The narrow focus will often train our lens on East Africa and Tanzania in particular, which are among the best-researched areas of Africa and home to some of the first remarkable works of environmental history. In this way, we get a glimpse of how African environmental history has evolved over the last fifty years, and the changing range of questions that researchers continue to pose. This stroll through the literature is necessarily selective and cannot review all important works or research questions. It will, however, serve as an introduction to important elements of African environmental history and provide a springboard for further inquiry.