Surroundings cover image

Given the ubiquity of environmental rhetoric in the modern world, it’s easy to think that the meaning of the terms environment and environmentalism are and always have been self-evident. But in Surroundings, we learn that the environmental past is much more complex than it seems at first glance. In this wide-ranging history of the concept, Etienne S. Benson uncovers the diversity of forms that environmentalism has taken over the last two centuries and opens our eyes to the promising new varieties of environmentalism that are emerging today.

Through a series of richly contextualized case studies, Benson shows us how and why particular groups of people—from naturalists in Napoleonic France in the 1790s to global climate change activists today—adopted the concept of environment and adapted it to their specific needs and challenges. Bold and deeply researched, Surroundings challenges much of what we think we know about what an environment is, why we should care about it, and how we can protect it.

Review quotes

Deborah R. Coen, author of Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale
“For over two hundred years, the idea of the environment has been the inspiration behind an assortment of scientific disciplines and political movements—and yet it has recently drawn sharp critiques from scholars and activists alike. Benson’s sharp-eyed and synthetic history makes a compelling argument for the enduring value of the concept, while simultaneously charting its shortcomings, as noted by generations of critics. Surroundings communicates the urgent need to reevaluate what we mean when we talk about the environment—and to do so in clear view of the concept’s checkered history. This is a provocative and accessible account, highly recommended for undergraduate and graduate classes in the environmental humanities.”

Angela N. H. Creager, Princeton University
“In this timely and erudite book, Benson offers a fresh perspective on how the environment became such a central category in the modern world. Surroundings excavates the chasm between humans and the natural world that often underlies ‘environment,’ exposing the notion’s inadequacy as well as its fruitfulness. An indispensable text for students, scholars, activists, and anyone interested in the history—and future—of environmentalism.”

John Tresch, The Warburg Institute, University of London
“In Surroundings, science historian Etienne S. Benson explores with vivid precision just what people have talked about—and what they have been collecting, analyzing, consuming, and otherwise altering—when they talk about ‘environment.’ This deeply informed and thoughtfully argued book explores past uses of ‘environment’ to help us grapple with the current crisis. Its illuminating case studies travel from imperial naturalists, urban reformers, and resource managers to state toxicologists, Aerocene artists, and indigenous activists. Not just the study of a concept but of the concrete practices, investigations, and intentions that have put that concept to work, this wide-ranging, dynamic, and urgent study reveals ‘environment’ as a powerfully mutable term with a conflicted past and a tense present—and considerable potential for the future.”

Surroundings is available for purchase from the University of Chicago Press.