Prof. Rome’s work spans decades of history
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013 22:09
The lush forest retreats into the background until it is barely visible. Rugged wood morphs into white asymmetrical fences. The fences barricade animals that used to inhabit the land. Civilization ultimately overtakes the forest.
This “taming of the forest” is one example of artwork English and history professor Adam Rome shows his class to demonstrate man’s conquering of nature.
Currently, Rome is working on his third book that explores the question of why we have environmental problems. The “we,” Rome says, relates to the American public.
Rome examines recent as well as ancient ideas and practices to answer this question. Part of humanity’s problem, Rome says, is we believe we are entitled to conquer the wilderness.
“The idea that the earth is made for us is not one that everyone has always had,” Rome says.
“It’s ultimately a religious idea — a powerful force — for people to feel entitled to use the world in whatever way suited them. This is really important in American history. People felt it was their religious and civic mission to turn the wilderness into productive domestic landscapes.”
Americans enforced structure upon nature, inadvertently ruining it. The reasons we have environmental problems now are not necessarily the same reasons we had them 100 years ago, Rome says.
As an environmental historian, Rome blends American history with environmental discussion to demonstrate the change and influence of the environment on the world.
Green to the university but ripe in the field, Rome’s work spans decades in environmental history.
After graduating summa cum laude in 1980 with a B.A. in history from Yale University, Rome continued his studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Rome earned his Ph.D. in history with emphasis in American environmental history from the University of Kansas in 1996.
While studying in college, Rome says he was mainly interested in the reform movements of history. Four years after graduating, Rome moved to work on a grant project about historic places in Kansas.
It wasn’t until Rome read fellow environmental historian and future mentor, Donald Worster’s book “Dust Bowl:The Southern Plains in the 1930s” that he discovered his true passion. That book, paired with a serendipitous reading of “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” by William Cronon, led Rome to think about environmental history.
“The two of them together made me realize this is a new and important field in history,”
Rome says. “They [Worster and Cronon] were writing about how history might shed light on contemporary environmental problems, but they were also showing a lot of things that people thought they always understood about history but, in fact, didn’t.”
Rome was fascinated by the story of English settlers in Native American land, he says. He quickly saw how environmental effects have always been in motion in America but were never fully realized, he says.
“That story has always been told as the settlers had guns and a powerful sense of mission, but they also benefitted from ecological change that they set in motion, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident, and no one had really paid attention to that before,” Rome says. “You can’t really understand how the English came so quickly to replace the natives without understanding ecological forces.”
Following his work in Kansas, Rome decided to become a journalist. However, he was always drawn back to environmental history, as it was unlike anything he ever studied, Rome says. After learning Worster was teaching at the University of Kansas, Rome decided to move back and pursue his Ph.D. there.
From 2002 until 2005, Rome edited Environmental History, the leading journal in the field. His editing experience overlapped with his next project — writing about environmental history. Since 2002, Rome has completed two non-fiction books about the subject.
Though it is now famous for starting a Go Green revolution, no one has ever told the full story of Earth Day. No one, that is, until Adam Rome. In his book, “The Genius of Earth Day,” published earlier this year, Rome describes the original event and the creation of “the first green generation.”
The first celebration of Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970 and sparked the environmental movement. Suddenly environmental concerns and efforts were being brought to the media’s attention by scientists, environmentalists, academics and students alike.
“Earth Day wasn’t just a powerful symbol,” Rome says. “It led to a creation of a whole set of institutions and career paths that hadn’t existed before. A lot of the people participating in Earth Day didn’t care about nature per se. They were interested in survival. The survival of human communities and human societies and whether they’d be a good life in the future for people.”
In addition to “The Genius of Earth Day,” Rome has written one other book about environmental history. His first book, “The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism,” received national acclaim in 2002 when received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given by the Organization of American Historians, and the Lewis Mumford Prize, awarded by the Society for American City and Regional Planning History.
Although his next book focuses on why Americans have environmental problems, Rome would like to study the environmental history of China because of its contrast to the United States. Americans don’t realize, Rome says, that China is as physically large and as geographically diverse as the United States but also much older.
“If you really wanted to pick one place that you could study pretty much the whole of the human experience with nature in a microcosm, that would be where to go,” Rome says. “They’re going through this massive industrialization and massive urbanization that we went through 100 years ago. China is now beginning to think about how much pollution they’re willing to put up with as they try to expand their economy.”