Human history is fundamentally the story of how
have expanded over the Earth, how they have interacted with the natural systems of the Earth, and how they have interacted with each other. As a species we have populated, or at least visited, almost every environment on the surface of this planet. Our population has exploded to over 6 billion individuals, and is not predicted to not level off until well into this century. We are arguably the most well adapted and successful species on the planet. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that even with these evolutionary accomplishments, and with advent of incredible technologies, we still live in a world where our lives ultimately depend on how we use the land we live on. It is one of the great ironies of our species that along with the ability to do and create so much, we also have the unrivaled ability to change and destroy the world we inhabit. Indeed, the long run viability of our species depends to a large degree on how well we can manage the effects we cause on the natural systems of our planet.
The time period commonly held as the first global age or the "Colonial Era," provides an interesting case study not only in how human beings from different backgrounds have interacted with each other in the past, but it also provides us with a unique opportunity to examine how humans have affected the natural systems of our planet. Often when a unit on Colonialism is studied in the High School classroom, the learning centers around the political, economic, and social effects of the era. Teachers often focus on questions like, "Why the colonial system was chosen by the powers of Europe," or "Who profited and who lost out under the colonial system?" And students will almost always cover how European colonizers interacted with native inhabitants. Quite often little is mentioned of how land use in these areas changed after the migration of European mercantilists to these areas. Either because of time constraints, or because it is only obliquely connected to "World History," the affects on the natural systems of the Earth are usually glossed over. Unfortunately this leaves our students with an incomplete picture of what happened during this time, and ignores an important part of what history is. Without an understanding of how humans have changed the Earth, our students are less likely to actively work towards managing these changes. In an era of global climate change at unprecedented rates, understanding these changes in how the Earth works is not simply an academic endeavor, it is of critical importance to the future of our species.
This unit will introduce students to the Colonial period, specifically highlighting some of the environmental changes that occurred in New England and the Great Plains as Europeans visited and colonized these lands. Furthermore this unit is also designed to teach the ideals of conservation by having students examine examples of environmental change that have affected the planet negatively. By studying how European and native populations interacted in the past, students will come to more fully understand the historical themes of interaction between distant cultures.