John Cumbler

Through the Lens of Environmental History

Date:March 2017
Location:United States

John Cumbler, an environmental historian who explores the human impact on the natural world over long periods of time. His most recent book is a 400-year environmental history of Cape Cod. He’s also an historian of social movements from the abolitionists to the feminists and the activists working for today’s social and environmental causes.

John Cumbler is a social and environmental historian and retired professor from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. In this exclusive Green Interview, Cumbler speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about his latest of seven books, on the environmental and social history of Cape Cod, Massachusetts where he currently lives and serves as a trained rescuer of whales, dolphins and sea turtles. Cumbler argues that knowledge about the environmental and social history of a place can give us clues about what to do in the present and future. Cumbler, also an historian of social movements, discusses how the Abolitionists, who created the very first large altruistic social movement, ultimately produced movements dedicated to women’s rights, worker’s rights, the right to a decent living, decent housing, and a healthy environment.

Environmental history

In Cumbler’s 2014 book about Cape Cod, Massachusetts he puts his skills and formidable experience as a social and environmental historian to the test by telling the 400-year history of Cape Cod through the experiences of residents and visitors. In An Environmental History of a Fragile Ecosystem: The History of a Beautiful Yet Vulnerable New England Region, Cumbler describes how the three “regimes of resource utilization” led to the current situation on Cape Cod. The first regime, the “light” use by Native Americans was replaced by the much more intensive extraction phase practiced by the European settlers. This second regime led to the collapse of the fishery, forests, and farms in the second half of the nineteenth century and eventually led to the third and current regime of tourism. Cumbler explains how what many thought would be an environmentally benign form of development has turned out to have numerous environmental costs, many of which he discusses in the interview.

Abolitionists and successive reform movements

In his 2007 book From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century, Cumbler shows how after emancipation was achieved, the abolitionists didn’t end their activism but instead broadened their struggle. “The abolitionists were obviously fighting against slavery but in their fight against slavery they were creating a social movement and they were thinking in terms of how to create this large social movement to affect fundamental change,” he tells Cameron. Cumbler finds that instead of abandoning activism after slavery was ended, the abolitionists moved out in different directions. “They got involved in a lot of things and they used the networks that they had created during abolitionism to continue so that when the women got involved in the women’s rights movement they called their male friends from the abolitionists movement to be supportive and allies in that.” The social movements “created a basic understanding of rights,” such as freedom and liberty but Cumbler says that the more radical abolitionists went on to say that fundamental rights should be expanded to include “the right to a clean environment, clean air, clean water, clean soil. It involves housing, it involves the right to a decent wage and a decent job.”

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