About

Etienne Benson, historian of science, technology, and environmentI am a historian of science, technology, and the environment with a focus on the history of environmental science, policy, and activism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

My most recent book is Surroundings: A History of Environments and Environmentalisms (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Surroundings describes some of the wide diversity of ways in which people have come to understand themselves and the worlds around them in terms of “environments” since the late eighteenth century. It traces long term continuities in the history of this concept while also arguing for the necessity of reinventing it for today’s emerging challenges.

My first book was  Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife, a history of wildlife radiotracking. Reviewers have described Wired Wilderness as an “important addition to an emerging picture on how and why efforts emerged to keep a pulse on the planet” and “a gripping tale of wildlife research in the face of constant aggravation.”

In addition to these book projects, I have also published articles on the urbanization of gray squirrels, conflicts between birds and power lines, the regulation of endangered species research, and a number of other subjects.

My current book project, tentatively titled Rivers of Data, focuses on the history of fluvial geomorphology, the study of rivers and their interactions with the landscapes around them. This understudied scientific field was crucial to many of the major water development projects of the twentieth century; its history also sheds light on the emergence of the modern earth sciences in relation to the political and economic developments of the mid-twentieth century. For more information, see the project website.

I received my PhD in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology & Society from MIT in 2008. I have been a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, a research scholar in Lorraine Daston’s department at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, a visiting lecturing at New York University-Berlin and the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. I taught for nine years, first as assistant professor and then as associate professor, at the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2022, I have been director of a department at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.