about

Etienne Benson, historian of science, technology, and environmentI am an associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. My research and teaching focus on the intersection of the history of science and environmental history; much of my published writing concerns the history of relationships between humans and animals and on the history of environmentalism and the environmental sciences.

My latest book is titled 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 concludes by arguing for the necessity¬† of reinventing the concept for today’s emerging challenges, and by giving some examples of how people are already doing so.

I am also the author of ¬†Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife, a history of wildlife radio-tracking. 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.” I have also published articles on the urbanization of gray squirrels, conflicts between birds and power lines, the regulation of endangered species research, and other subjects. Many of these publications are available for download on the publications page.

While I retain a strong interest in animal history and the history of environmentalism, my current research (supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation) focuses on the history of fluvial geomorphology: the study of rivers and, more broadly, of how flows of water shape the Earth’s surface. 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 environmental sciences and the ways of understanding the Earth and shaping its future that they have promoted. For more information, see the project website Rivers of Data. Work on this project has also led me into a collaborative research network focused on developing interdisciplinary methods for studying water across the humanities and social sciences.

Before arriving at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment and a research scholar in Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. I have also lectured at New York University-Berlin and the University of Chicago and have been a visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. I received my PhD in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology & Society from MIT in 2008.