Dr Emily Brownell

Senior Lecturer


Affiliated research centres

Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History, Edinburgh Centre for Global History


I was born in Corvallis, Oregon and spent my childhood there until leaving for college. I did my PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in environmental history and African history and finished in 2012. I then went on to join the faculty of history at the University of Northern Colorado as an assistant professor and also spent time in Berlin as a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. In 2018, I joined the staff of HCA as a lecturer in environmental history. 

Useful Links


Undergraduate teaching

Global Connections since 1450

The Global Economy since 1750

Historical Skills and Methods

History of the World in 9 Things

Place and Displacement: Histories of Refugees and Humanitarianism in 20th Century Africa

Postgraduate teaching

Global Environmental History

Introduction to Contemporary History

Research summary


  • Africa, Transnational


  • Environmental History
  • Science and Technology Studies
  • History of Technology
  • Urban
  • Commodity Histories


  • Twentieth Century & After

Research interests

My work sits at the intersection of environmental history, history of technology, and African history. My book, Gone to Ground: An Environmental and Infrastructural History of Dar es Salaam, explores the dramatic material and environmental transformations of Tanzania’s largest city. The core of my book is focused on the decade in between the oil crisis in the early 1970s and the end of a prolonged economic crisis in the 1980s. This was a period marked by severe commodity shortages and persistent infrastructural failure forcing urbanites to develop a repertoire of skills and strategies to confront their new reality. Organized thematically, Gone to Ground explores such topics as how building materials reflected national ideologies of a socialist utopia, how waiting for the bus became a national conversation about workplace productivity, what happened when the state ordered urbanites and parastatal factories to farm, and how conversations about urban pollution doubled as attempts to control Dar’s expanding informal economy.

Current research activities

My new project, Stories from the Substrate, aims to narrate East African history through a variety of case studies of how people, animals, and plants have made and remade the region in the last century through their engagements with the soil. 

 I also have an ongoing project on histories of colonial and postcolonial planning that came of my time at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. 

Current research interests

Read more about my current project here: https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FW007568%2F1

Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure in Dar es Salaam. (2020, University of Pittsburgh Press in their series, “Intersections: Histories of Environment, Science, and Technology in the Anthropocene”). 

“Scholarly Review Essay: The African Anthropocene” African Studies Review, May 2022

“From Crisis to Context: Reviewing the future of Sustainable charcoal in Africa” in Energy Research and Social Science, Vol 87, May 2022

“Refugee Shelter” in Boxes: A Field Guide. (Eds.) Susanne Bauer, Maria Rentetzi, and Martina Schleunder. Mattering Press, 2020.

Comment on Jacob Doherty, “Maintenance Space: The Political Authority of Garbage in Kampala, Uganda.” Current Anthropology, February 2019.

“Growing Hungry: The politics of food distribution and the shifting boundaries between urban and rural in Dar es Salaam.” Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences, Special Issue: The Country and the City, Issue 9.1, 2016.

“Seeing Dirt in Dar es Salaam: Urban Citizenship and Waste in Postcolonial Tanzania,” in The Art of Citizenship in African Cities. (Eds.) by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalind Fredericks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

“International Trash and the Politics of Poverty: Conceptualizing the Transnational Waste Trade,” in Nation-States and the Global Environment. (Eds.) Erika Bsumek, David Kinkela, and Mark Lawrence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

“Cropped Out: Considering Environmental History Through My Car Window.” The Appendix: A New Journal of Narrative and Experimental History. Issue 1.4, October, 2013.

“Negotiating the New Economic Order of Waste.” Environmental History 16 (April 2011): 262-289.

Edited Volumes:

Landscape, Environments, and Technology in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. (Eds.) Emily Brownell and Toyin Falola. London: Routledge African Studies Series, 2012.

Africa, Empire and Globalization: Essays in Honor of A.G. Hopkins. (Eds.) Toyin Falola and Emily Brownell. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.