Business History and Environmental History

10 07 2012

I recently presented at the Association of Business Historians conference in Birmingham. It was a brilliant success, which attests to the organizational skills of Stephanie Decker, the chief planner. I always find business history conferences to be immensely stimulating because of their interdisciplinary nature and the commitment of the presenters to research that is both archive-based and theoretically informed.
There were many great papers at this year’s conference. However, there was one in particular that got me thinking about some of the fundamental issues that face business history as a discipline. That paper was by someone who wouldn’t describe herself as a business historian. I’m speaking of Jessica van Horssen’s piece, Medical Risk vs. Financial Reward: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Global Asbestos Trade, 1930-1977, which focused on the history of the Canadian asbestos industry, which she argued was basically the antithesis of ethical capitalism. The paper is based on her PhD research, which is described here.

Driving home after the conference, I got thinking about the relationship between the sub-disciplines of business history and environmental history. I would say that these two sub-disciplines are currently thriving: more and more people want to be associated with them, attend their conferences, publish in their journals, etc.

These two sub-disciplines are thriving, in part, because they are interdisciplinary in a way that, say, diplomatic or gender history are not. Business and environmental history conferences attract scholars based in a range of disciplinary departments. At a typical business history conference, one will find people from such departments as public policy, political science, marketing, strategy, accounting, economics, as well as history. These scholars are drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks, ranging from Foucault to hardcore statistical analysis. Environment history conferences are equally inter-disciplinary, as they attract a range of scholars from the social and physical sciences.

Environmental and business history are quite similar in a lot of respects. It is sad, therefore, that there are isn’t more overlap between these two sub-disciplines. Logically, these two sub-disciplines should be engaged in an extensive dialogue, since for-profit entities have had a major impact on the environment over the last few hundred years.

In an article that appeared in the Business History Review in 2000, Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers called for more engagement between the two sub-disciplines. They told business historians to do more research into the impact of companies on the environment and they told environmental historians to pay more attention to business and familiarise themselves with the secondary literature on business history. They wrote:

Oddly enough, however, despite this broad conception of their field, our colleagues in environmental history have shown almost as much reluctance to tackle business’s environmental relations as business historians have. Both fields have sorely neglected the borderlands between them. Pathbreaking environmental historians have launched a harsh critique of capitalism that has entailed surprisingly little scrutiny of managers or corporations.  Early on, most environmental historians concentrated on the history of wilderness, agriculture, the conservation movement, or modern environmentalism, where they believed nature and its defense were most obviously found.  Preoccupied with setting out a distinctive field of historical endeavor in relation to frontier and Western history as well as environmentalism itself, most assumed that they knew the history of the large corporation all too well—its inner workings as well as its outwardly impacts. They envisioned a monolithic nineteenth¬ and twentieth¬century economic system that offered little entry point or incentive for closer study of individual companies, businessmen, or even industries as a whole. A 1990 Journal of American History roundtable presenting the views and agendas of major environmental historians offered virtually no discussion of the shift to corporate capitalism that had become the central preoccupation of business history.

Obviously there has been some improvement in the last twelve years. Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers have continued to publish work that lies on the interface between environmental and business history. Richard White springs to mind as an example of a historian whose research speaks to both environmental and business history. In 2007, Enterprise and Society, a leading business history journal, published Pierre Desrochers’s fascinating article “How Did the Invisible Hand Handle Industrial Waste? By-Product Development Before the Modern Environmental Era”. However, I think that it is still safe to say that the amount of cross-over research on business and environmental history is very limited, especially in view of the enormous importance of the topics involved. In their 2009 piece in the Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Hartmut Berghoff and Mathias Mutz showed that the situation hadn’t changed that much since 2000.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think there has been much improvement in the last three years either.

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