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School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment

Faculty and Staff Directory

Thomas Lekan

Title: Professor, History
Associate Professor, Earth, Ocean & Environment
Department: History; Earth, Ocean & Environment
College of Arts and Sciences
Phone: 803-777-5928
Office: Gambrell Hall, Room 135

Curriculum Vitae [pdf]
Department of History 
School of Earth, Ocean and Environment
Walker Institute of International and Area Studies

tom lekan


  • B.A. Carleton College
  • M.A. University of Washington
  • Ph.D. University of Wisconsin


  • Professor Lekan splits his undergraduate and graduate teaching responsibilities between classes in modern European history and courses in environmental studies.  In modern European history, he offers an undergraduate survey of European civilization and intermediate and upper-level courses in German history, the urban experience in modern Europe (focusing on Manchester, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin), and everyday life under Nazism.  In environmental studies, he offers a history of global conservation since 1800, a seminar exploring local environmental history, a capstone seminar for environmental studies and environmental science majors focused on conservation policy and public outreach, and a graduate seminar on the Anthropocene.  He is a recipient of the Golden Key Award for the Creative Integration of Research and Teaching and the Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award.

    Lekan’s research examines European environmental history and the legacies of green imperialism, particularly the frictions between global and local wildlife conservation and the uneven effects of tourism as a lever of sustainable development in East Africa during the decades of decolonization and early independence (ca. 1950-1980).  He recently published Our Gigantic Zoo: A German Quest to Save the Serengeti (Oxford, 2020), which investigates the work of Bernhard Grzimek, Germany’s most important twentieth-century conservationist. The book examines the tensions between global ambition and local place-making during the mid-century expansion of national parks, nature tourism, and wildlife television. 

    He has also published histories of conservation science and landscape planning and written about images of the global environment in the Anthropocene, including Imagining the Nation in Nature: Landscape Preservation and German Identity, 1885-1945 (Harvard, 2004) and the co-edited anthologies Germany’s Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History (Rutgers, 2005) and Whose Anthropocene: Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses” (Rachel Carson Center, 2015).  He also co-edited a theme section for the journal Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space on “Baselining Nature: Explorations of Futures-Past in Environmental Science” (January 2020).

    These projects have received generous fellowship support from several institutions, including the American Council of Learned Societies, the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, NC, the U.S. National Park Service, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.


    I am currently working on two book projects.  With the support of a Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society fellowship in Spring 2020, I began drafting “Conservation by Slaughter: Wildlife Utilization and the African Origins of Sustainable Development.”  This book is the first history of a now largely forgotten IUCN/FAO effort to integrate soil conservation and agricultural development by “cropping” African game animals for bushmeat during the period of decolonization and the Green Revolution. Here I cast doubt on market-based conservation schemes to make “pay for themselves” by showing how such development projects severed pastoral and hunting communities’ existing dietary relationships to animals and other non-human life. 

    With political scientist Dr. Carol Hager of Bryn Mawr College, I am also working on Green Germany, an undergraduate-focused book that explores Germany’s uneven quest to create a sustainable industrial society by shifting to renewable energy, promoting public transportation and green infrastructure, developing sustained-yield forestry, and expanding urban green spaces and rural nature parks.  We argue that Germany’s sustainability strategies emerged from local networks of tinkerers and grassroots activists rather than state bureaucrats’ top-down initiatives. 


    • Modern Germany
    • Environmental History
    • Urban History
    • Global Studies

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