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Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche # Posted on December 29, 2015 at 20:17

Current Debates in Environmental History – Final assignment
Seminars attended
1. February 17th 2014, Jason Moore
Moore J.W. 2012. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism, Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center 33(2-3).
Moore J.W. 2011. Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation and Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology, Journal of World-Systems Research 17(1), 108-147.
Moore J.W. 2010. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010, Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3), 389-413.
2. Alf Hornborg March 4th 2014

Reading: Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.

3. Carolyn Merchant (led with Mirabel Joshi) Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature
Reading: The Death of Nature Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution 1980 Harper one. Preparation: Before the seminar watch the lecture by Carolyn Merchant “Environmentalism from the Control of Nature to Partnership” UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures 7/26/2010 (58 mins)
Attended from abroad:
4. Libby Robbins, Australian environmental history, September 8th 2014: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia
5. October 6th 2014 Science and Poetry Mary Midgley
6. October 20th 2014 Kenneth Worthy (organised from abroad) Invisible Nature 2013
7. Joseph Tainter, November 3rd 2014, The collapse of complex societies
8. Mentorship in environmental history (Sept 22nd 2015)
Complementary assignments:
9. October 28th 2015, From natural to cultural landscapes: agriculture, co-evolution and change perspectives from the middle east. Reading: From Natural Environment to Human Landscape: New Archaeobotanical Data from the Neolithic Site of Nahal Zippori 3, Lower Galilee_Neo-lithic 1, 2014, pp. 33-41 Valentina Caracuta, Max Planck-Weizmann Center,
10. December 1st 2015, William Cronon, The trouble with wilderness & The uses of environmental history

My reflection about the course
Current debates in Environmental History

In April 2013, Harry Kreisler of the University of California Berkeley interviewed Professor William Cronon, a leading figure in environmental history, in order to discuss the life and work of an environmental historian. Cronon, a fascinating academic figure emphasised the importance of the narrative in history in which captivating the reader is paramount. A story can be narrated through many ways, Cronon emphasised, and each way can help us understand it differently. When Kreisler asked Cronon to summarise what environmental history is, the latter explained that environmental history is the narrative of the interactions between humans and nature, the history of nature but also of men’s ideas about it. Because environmental history can be told through many different ways, using different narratives, it is no surprise that it is subject to debate. Indeed, several versions of the same story may coexist.
It is undoubtable that in the midst of an unprecedented ecological crisis, the history of man’s relationship towards nature is subject to debate. Cronon actually reminded in this same interview the coexistence of two opposite narratives: the history of the frontier progress, told by Frederick Jackson Turner in which the civilisation gradually conquered the savage wilderness, a Hegelian narrative, praising men for their progress in material matters, and the opposite narrative told lately by a flock of environmentalists, the narrative of the fall. This latter narrative recounts the story of humanity’s divorce from nature and the gradual destruction of it and finally of itself through industrialisation and colonisation of the five continents. In this narrative, men are the guilty species to be eliminated from the surface of the Earth if the planet is to recover.
Eventually, Cronon concludes that both narratives are overly simplistic and that we need a more in depth kind of environmental history in order to understand the relationship between human societies and nature.
The seminars offered through the course “Current debates in environmental history” enabled us as aspiring environmental historians to understand more closely the sophistication and subtleties of environmental history. Here, I will review what I have learned from those seminars and from my colleagues’ reactions in 2014-2015.
I- The end of capitalism
The very first seminar I attended as part of this course was about the American sociologist Jason Moore and his ideas of capitalism as world-ecology. I really enjoyed reading Moore’s articles and fondly agree with the idea that capitalism has been relying on unsustainable parameters, what he names the four cheaps (cheap food, cheap raw materials, cheap labour power and cheap energy). As Anna Shoemaker stated, Moore questions whether the neoliberal world system will be able to re-establish the conditions for an additional wave of accumulation. Is more accumulation possible, despite the depletion of most of the world’s resources? Kristina Berglund rightfully wonders what could replace capitalism. Moore emphasises that we stand at a turning point in which we must make decisions. Like Sabbath Sunday, I contend that capitalism is simply shifting into financial hegemonies which continue to degrade the environment by causing agro-ecological exhaustion, crop diseases, climate change, and chronic indebtedness among the poor states.
American economist Jason Moore is not the only one to point out capitalism’s shortcomings. In Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2012), Alf Hornborg highlighted the social inequalities concealed behind the capitalist veil. As Nick Hirschstein emphasised, current technology has driven us to an unsustainable globalised economy. I agree with Nick that if we are to use technology sustainably we should switch to a local system because a global system of exchange appears profoundly unequal. Indeed, although as Morag Ramsey reminded technology is imagined as politically innocent (quoting Hornborg 35), it actually conceals many social inequalities.
It was emphasised in this seminar that “technology”, “economy” and “ecology” are cultural categories that should not be thought as separate entities. Hornborg indeed conceives them as profoundly intertwined. Kristina reminds us that a central component of Hornborg’s argument is the concept of “machine fetishism”, the faith in machines without the understanding of their social and ecological impact.
I believe that the debate around technology is crucial within current debates in environmental history. Indeed, technology takes such an important place in our lives today that questioning the origin of the machines we rely on is a very touchy subject. But we cannot obliterate the egregious truth: technology is a modern form of slavery, saving somebody’s time and energy at the expense of another’s time, energy and environmental resources. As Kristina Berglund wrote drawing on Hornborg, modern society is based on an unequal exchange which has benefited to a small part of the world’s population at the expense of the less privileged people’s space and time. Hornborg highlights that we must acknowledge connections between areas and places in the world, and thus adopt a holistic view of environmental history.
The issues of capitalism and unequal exchange appear paramount to me, and should be examined in depth and narrated with the subtleties Cronon encouraged us to adopt. Nothing is black and white in environmental history. Both Hornborg’s and Moore’s analysis pertinently illustrate how environmental history can help dismantle capitalism and foretell its destruction.

II- Overthrowing dichotomies
The course CDEH has enabled me to overthrow the dichotomies that resided in my mind. Cronon, Merchant, Worthy, all unabashedly denounced the illusory idea of a pristine wilderness. There is no frontier between wilderness and humans. We are Nature. Many scholars have written about the harmful consequences of the gap between nature and humans. Among them, the ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant argued that the Scientific Revolution has brought a new worldview, the mechanistic worldview. According to Merchant, in pre-modern times, the Earth was considered as a living organism, a nurturing mother that needed to be cared for, but the Scientific Revolution with its close-contained experiments, has instituted the idea that the world is made up of dead matter, like a clock-governed machine. According to Merchant, the mechanistic worldview and Francis Bacon’s philosophy have prevailed in the Western world and still rules today, leading us to a global ecological crisis. As Kristina Berglund wrote, Merchant contends that the rise of industrialism saw the destruction of the environment paralleled with the worsening of women’s oppression in an unprecedented manner. I am also intrigued by this relevant parallelism.
But by pointing out at the dichotomist thinking, aren’t environmental philosophers actually displaying a dichotomist thought pattern? Indeed, I am interested in Mirabel Joshi’s opinion for whom the division between an organic and mechanistic worldview represents an oversimplification that is not helpful. Mirabel suggested that this type of generalisation remains useless in an academic argument.
Another scholar who shares similar opinions than Merchant is Kenneth Worthy. Indeed, Worthy comes from a similar education background. Both scholars teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Worthy also repeatedly condemns Western thinking for its dichotomist patterns. I was particularly impressed by Nisa Dedic’s reflection on Kenneth Worthy’s book. Nisa wrote honestly about her dismay while reading Worthy’s book that his reflection mainly relies on the assumption that “Western” relates to the birth of philosophical inquiry in ancient Greece which seems totally unfair to her. Nisa points at the numerous times when we have been told that Descartes constitutes a milestone in history of ideas, when the sharp divisions of mind and body and spirit and matter have emerged. As Nisa wrote, many of us gained prejudices against him as a philosopher and maybe we should avoid being so critical towards such philosophers.
Although I agree with Nisa that oversimplifications between Western and non-Western modes of thinking are not helpful to environmental historians, I do agree with Kenneth Worthy that the dissociation between nature and us has led us to harm nature and thus threatens our very survival on Earth. I found the reference to Israel Orbach extremely spot on. Orbach advanced that an individual is more prone to hurt himself if he has been disconnected from his own body. Similarly, Worthy suggested that we are more susceptible to harming nature if we live in total disconnection from it.
I was also impressed by Michael Deflorian’s analysis of Worthy’s book. Michael suggested that we cannot go back in time, in the era prior disassociation. Rather, Michael argues for a re-association between people and the consequences of their lives. And this is precisely what environmental history leads us to. As Michael wrote, it is most obvious that we stand detached from the consequences of our actions, more than any generation or civilisation before us.
Finally, another scholar who criticises the destructive divide between spirit and matter is the British philosopher Mary Midgley. Midgley’s reflection brings us a lot by illuminating that the divisive mentality which tends to put disciplines into hermetic boxes cannot enable us to make sense of our environment. The world must be approached in a holistic manner. Midgley helps us to gain a sharp approach to environmental history.
I really relish re-reading my colleagues’ analyses and comments. Markus Nystrom for example wrote about his childhood’s contemplations, wondering whether other people were really subjects and not just matter. I reckon we are many to ask those metaphysical questions. Midgley criticised the idea of atomism/ reductionism which has permeated all levels of understanding and how it has reduced the importance of the larger levels of reality. Midgley counteracts Richard Dawkins for whom the only real thing is the gene. As Markus emphasises drawing on Midgley, atomistic thinking hurts our understanding of the world and ourselves.
Eventually, debunking dichotomies lead us to a refreshed way of looking at the world.

III- Perceiving the world through a different lens
Like many other scholars of the humanities, British anthropologist Tim Ingold inspires us to look at the world with fresh eyes. Tim Ingold’s work inspires us today as environmental history students to adopt a different way of looking at the world. As Nik Petek wrote we all dwell in the landscape, we cannot be disassociated from it. ‘No one floats above it and you cannot escape it’. We both shape the landscape as we dwell in the midst of it, and are shaped by it. This is, I think, one the most important points environmental history teaches us: as nature changes, so do we. We are mutually interdependent with every other species and with the environment as a whole. Thus, as Nik reminds us, phenomenology is an important discipline for environmental history. Phenomenology highlights how humans relate to the world, and how they construct the world around them.
Eventually, environmental history provides us with a post-modern and post-structuralism way of understanding History. It helps us understand colonial history, settler societies, the rise and demise of civilisations. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, American anthropologist Joseph Tainter argues that by becoming too complex, societies eventually collapse. Tainter illustrates his point with the example of the Roman empire. Obviously, Tainter’s analysis opens the debate regarding whether our current society, being too complex, is doomed to collapsing. This debate is indeed relevant in a course entitled ‘Current debates in environmental history’. Nick Hirschstein questions Tainter’s view and his pessimistic view of sustainability. According to Nick although contemporary collapses can be related to the collapse of the Roman empire for instance – which had a thirst to keep growing like modern corporations – sustainability is not about growth; it is about being responsible. Nick questions Tainter’s pessimistic view of sustainability.
The student organiser to this seminar had asked whether human nature was unethical for increasing complexity in societies, which brings dire consequences but seems unavoidable. I reckon that environmental history can provide a fresh look upon philosophical questions of this kind, and agree with Ellen Lindblom that it is impossible to talk about ‘human nature’ per se. Ellen astutely pointed out that many human societies and communities do not strive for complexity, such as hunter-gatherer societies. I also contend with Ellen that the larger the system is, the more difficult it becomes to grasp the effect of our actions. Markus N also suggested that increasing complexity is not human nature but simply a social construction. As Markus accentuated, civilisation has to do with cities, with urbanisation which itself depends on imports, in other words distancing between production and consumption. Markus wrote that centralisation brings with it the idea of separateness which allows ecological depletion, but this separateness is avoidable.
Yet again, environmental history enables us to find new ways of living. As Michael Deflorian wrote, it is possible to envision a society in which complexity stops growing. I contend with Michael for a society in which the word ‘enough’ will take more important a place.
Finally, ‘CDEH’ also enabled me to question apparently innocent words such as ‘conservation’ and ‘biodiversity’. Indeed, in the seminar “History, Conservation and Politics, the example of Australia”, it was pointed out that such words carry political connotations. Nik Petek underlined how political the concepts of conservation and protecting biodiversity are; a point raised by Libby Robins throughout the seminar.
The very idea of wilderness carries a political agenda. Hence, in Ecology and Empire, Tom Griffiths reminded us that there was a form of proto-agriculture practiced by Aboriginal Australians and that the first inhabitants of the Australian continent had much more impact on the landscape than the White settlers first assumed. This piece of information reminds us that there is not such a thing as wilderness. And definitely, ‘conservation’ and ‘biodiversity’ are White words, as Nik emphasised.
Kristina Berglund stated that one of the things she has learnt in this program is that concepts such as ‘environment’, ‘empire’ and ‘biodiversity’ shall not be taken for granted as universal. Conservation itself cannot be a universal concept. For instance, Bill Mollison one of the founders of the permaculture movement described Aboriginal Australians as models for current conservationists but surely Aboriginal Australians were not thinking about conservation when they were interacting with their environment.
Eventually, Nisa advanced that an empire is not solely a geographical entity, it is a political and philosophical construction relying on power schemes. And environmental history is such an important discipline to help us question power relationships. When we examine the history of ecology and conservation in the world, we realise that a lot of it relies on power relationships between civilisations. Indeed, environmental history teaches us as much about men than it teaches about nature.
The cycle of seminars allowed to frame theories, not just learning facts but analysing them. Even the most ‘technical’ seminar attended – From natural to cultural landscapes with Valentina Caracuta which related to her archaeological research on middle-eastern agriculture – drew analytical reactions from my colleagues. Indeed, as Miguel Nunez pointed out, the discussion mainly explored the topic of the interdisciplinary nature of the archaeological scientific practice and its relationship with social sciences. As Josefin Heed highlighted, Valentina addressed the need of social science in her work, in order to analyse the meaning of the findings. Environmental history is really about making sense of facts, as testified by Ghide Habtetsion and Lauri Jokinen who discussed whether landscape is the upshot of cultural practices or vice versa. Hence, the seminars attended revealed that environmental history is a discipline of questioning, in which mere facts cannot stand still.
This cycle of seminars has enabled me to understand the place of environmental history in today’s world. The seminars helped me to question the current economic system on which the world relies, capitalism and the unequal exchange which lies behind the commodities market. I particularly appreciated the analyses of Jason Moore and Alf Hornborg on the current economic system.
The cycle of seminars also helped me to understand that the world cannot be described in black and white terms. Dichotomies must be swatted away. Science cannot be set apart from the humanities. Wilderness cannot be distinguished from humans.
Environmental history helps me to look at the world differently and to question every concept. Conservation, empire, power, biodiversity, complexity, sustainability, science… All those concepts have been dissected through those seminars.
It has been such a great joy to re-read my colleagues’ reflections for the purpose of this exercise. Everyone brought something compelling and alluring to the rest of this group. I am very grateful I have been able to partake in this program of global environmental history and will continue to crave more readings and more seminars in environmental history; maybe more fact-oriented because I am becoming increasingly curious about the scientific aspect of environmental history. Wait, am I still enmeshed in dichotomist thinking?!