Review of «Surroundings: A History of Environments and Environmentalisms» by E.Benson.

Environmental rhetoric in the present-day society is quite common, in such an extent the terms environment and environmentalism are and always have been self-evident. E. Benson in his brilliant effort with “Surroundings”, tries to show the easily unnoticed complexity of the origin of the environmental concepts.

The author uses a series of case studies spanning from naturalists in Napoleonic France in the 1790s to global climate change activists today, in a way that challenges most of what we think of the environment, our part in it, and how we can protect it.

Benson’s approach in his book is the intersection between history of science and environmental history, and that allows him to see/understand the fundamental questions: What was/is/can be an environment?

The author tries to answer that question through various chapters and case studies and additionally seems to be close to ideas of the environment, expressed by Bruno Latour and radical environmentalists. With his instances the author tries to reveal that nature should not be perceived as an inert background from which resources are extracted for human activities; rather we (environmentalists, citizens, climate change warriors etc) must understand and explain its role as an active agent in the fate of the planet.

In this sense it is important to notice that Benson is not trying to depict his own idea of the environment and prove it with historical references- he is trying to show when, why, how the term has manifested, and the social/material context. As the author states:

concepts come to matter because people put them in use.

In our everyday life, the terms environment and environmentalism are considered self-explanatory and specific (while we see that it began being used in the mid 19th century- like the term technology). With his book, the author reflects critically on that idea and shows us that our environmental past is far more complex, ambiguous and dynamic than we think. Through contextualized examples, Benson reveals different forms that environmentalism has taken over the last two centuries (focusing on “western world” and begins to picture the new possibilities of current and emerging environmentalisms.

With his historical episodes over time, we see the gradual replacement of the century-old concept of nature with the terms environment and climate.

With the example of Post- Revolutionary Paris (C1: The World in the Museum: Natural History and the Invention of Organisms and Environments in Post-Revolutionary Paris), we see how environments were being “invented” and understood as not connected with the natural surface but with different factors that can be potentially (de)constructed in other places and surroundings — with tools, structures, instruments such as hothouses, seedling plots, modifies soils etc.

At the same time, the climate begins to be limited to atmospheric conditions, and that remains its “place at the natural order”, until we see the emergence of climate change when it begins being linked with sea levels, cities, and their surroundings.

With his second episode (C2: Environments of Empire: Disease, Race, and Statistics in the British Caribbean), the author examines the relationship between medicine and the formulating concepts of the environment by showing how a new idea of environment came to existence at the same time that biologists made a “leap forward” from the neo-Hippocratic physicians by the emergence of germ theory. But neither one was constructed by the other, their emergence coexisted and can be attributed to many factors and this differentiates the author from the “established” idea that naturally after germ theories, scientists had to talk about environments.

Benson shows an environmental perspective on health among British physicians was co-developed and merged together by “the nineteenth-century expansion and reorientation of the British Empire toward the tropics, as well as to the racial politics that accompanied it”.

In his third episode (C3: The Urban Milieu: Evolutionary Theory and Social Reform in Progressive Chicago) regarding progressive thought and urban transformation in Chicago, we see how the thinkers we now see as environmentalists of the time were not using the term — while they were speaking about concepts we now consider part of the environment. The ones that were talking about the environment at that period, were discussing urban landscapes, the transformation of cities, the problems they were facing, the working-class settlements, the infrastructure, and factories, etc.

Benson makes an example to show what this means and additionally what we are overlooking when we remove progressive thought from the picture:

“By reframing social problems in terms of the relationship between the social organism and its environment rather than in terms of the moral failings of individuals, Addams hoped to convince other elites that such problems were indeed social in nature and therefore demanded social solutions, while also avoiding casting blame on the poor and powerless”.

After these (and more) episodes, Benson concludes by examining the new ways that contextualize the environment in science, technology, arts, and even activism. The environment is a concept that has a rich diverse tradition and is continuing to be reinvented- Benson invites us to meet old traditions and repurpose them to meet new needs and circumstances.

The most interesting of his remarks, in my opinion, is the idea that the environmental movement should also think beyond its own tradition about the environment, and in this sense, it could generate a more holistic perception about what we consider to be the manifestations of environmental/climate changes.

II. Personal ideas on the book

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many scientists argue, has been related to our consumption patterns (for example animal exploitation). In scientific papers and in mass media articles, we see a claim that COVID has had a positive impact on the environment — due to lockdowns and a general decrease in industrial activity. In this paradigm, to put it in philosophical terms, environmental results are identified without being corresponded to environmental reasons.

Can we use the language of the environment in order to shed light on this antithesis? And if yes, we should try to understand if the definition of environment is present in the scientific debate regarding COVID-19 and/or how it is being reconstructed.

Additionally, our surroundings are becoming more “technological”, we see the emergence of the concept of technological environment. Is it a new concept and what are its characteristics? I think it is interesting to see the intersection of technology and the environment when we see people expecting technology to be the main agent for facing climate change. This is a new manifestation of techno saviorism- — the promotion of technology as a panacea and not simply a technique of intervention.

Finally, the book leaves us with a more theoretical task:

If environmentalism is the common reconceptualization of problems that used to be separate, we need to find and insist on the already identified concepts of it that contribute to the environmental movement and their efforts to help and improve our lives.


Book Contents

Introduction: What Was an Environment?

1 The World in the Museum: Natural History and the Invention of Organisms and Environments in Post-Revolutionary Paris
2 Environments of Empire: Disease, Race, and Statistics in the British Caribbean
3 The Urban Milieu: Evolutionary Theory and Social Reform in Progressive Chicago
4 The Biosphere as Battlefield: Strategic Materials and Systems Theories in a World at War
5 The Evolution of Risk: Toxicology, Consumption, and the US Environmental Movement
6 The Human Planet: Globalization, Climate Change, and the Future of Civilization on Earth
Conclusion: What Might the Environment Become?

You can find the book at:

Technology Manager and Researcher, Member of, MA Business Administration and Management, AUEB, MSc Science, Technology and Society, UoA