Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on December 19, 2014 at 14:11

Seminars Attended:

17 February: World Systems, History, and Ecology with Jason Moore

3 March: Ecology, History, and Unequal Exchange with Alf Hornborg

14 April: Landscape, History, and Ethnicity with Tim Ingold

28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the Link with Environmental Policy with James Fairhead

15 May: Nationalism, Conservation, and Globalisation: The History of National Parks with Jane Carruthers

26 May: Globalisation, Environment, and Livelyhood: Ladakh, Kashmir with Helena Norberg-Hodge

8 Sep: History, Conservation, and Politics: The Example of Australia with Libby Robbin

22 Sep: The Role of Environmental History with Sverker Sorlin

17 Nov: The History of Ecology with Joachim Radkau

Complimentary Task:

31 March: Science, History, Ecology, and the Idea of Nature with Caroline Merchant

Seminars Hosted:

28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the Link with Environmental Policy with James Fairhead

22 Sep: The Role of Environmental History with Sverker Sorlin

In Jason Moore’s World Systems History and Ecology seminar he pronounced that our current neo-liberal world system cannot re-establish conditions for a new long wave of accumulation, as we have exhausted the four pillars of capitalist production (cheap energy, raw materials, labor power, and food). He went on to say that the Capitalpocene was going to come to an end, in my lifetime, and that we would have to re-conceptualize the world understanding that: nature is not external, time is not linear, and space is not flat. It has been a bit frustrating to try to capture everything I have learned and discussed during this course into a mere five pages of text. I have decided to organize my final reflection around Moore’s words, as they continued to resonate throughout the course of the year. However, there was one point that Moore didn’t discuss, which I find I gravitated towards in many of my reflections and that is societies are not systems.

Nature is Not External

The idea that the mind and nature are not separate is certainly a central tenant in this course. In my Libby Robin reflection paper I quoted her saying during her lecture ‘sometimes the nature is different because people are in it but sometimes humanity is just nature’. I thought this was actually a very simple and elegant way of expressing the dialectical phenomena that is the nature and society construct. Robin also said that ‘ecology is a necessary, but no longer sufficient expertise for biodiversity in the crisis of the sixth mass extinction’, and that the individuals most qualified to expound on this issue are not climatologists or ecologists, but social scientists.
I agree, because as has also been discussed in this course is that how we conceptualize nature is incredibly important when we take on the task of conserving it. Jane Carruthers talked with us about the history of Kruger National Park in South Africa, and I was really struck by how similar the situation was in Amboseli, Kenya. I was content to go on in that seminar about how we must carefully examine environmental protection initiatives which are so often accepted as inherently noble, but are in fact imbued with unequal class, power, and race relations. Carruthers challenged this criticism when she asked why National Parks must be scrutinized for their ability to benefit animal and human communities, and why their objectives must always be discussed as altruistic? Why for instance is mining in South Africa, another nationally important industry, not held to the same expectations? Her point I believe was that issues of morality always figure heavily in conservation, but determining whose standards to comply to is extremely difficult. I strongly believe that environmental research should be opening the debate about what exactly is it that we want of nature, who are we (and who are we not), and what are we prepared to sacrifice to get it?
Tim Ingold also brought this conversation to another level when we discussed his book Perception of the Environment. Ingold challenges conflating indigenous identity with descent, and the conflation of the longevity of land occupation with culture. He sees identity formation as a dual process wherein people “pass along lives of movement and exchange substance at the places where their respective paths cross or comingle” (Ingold 2000:145). What I take from this is that we are conceived not only by our inter-personal relations but also through our relations to our environment, our living landscapes. The point being that not only do we decide what nature is, but nature also decides us.

Time is not linear

Stories, particularly ones involving the synthesis of long and convoluted narratives, seem to be disseminated most comfortably in chronological sequence. Those interested in discussing global history are faced with the task of imposing a singular timeline of events in order to make sense of the complexities. Unfortunately, archaeologists and historians often lack the high-resolution data necessary to make this leap, and need to deal with the disconjunctions. Yet some still manage to discuss the past by shifting the focus from a linear trajectory of history to the phenomena connecting us throughout time and space.
Alf Hornborg is certainly an individual interested in global ecology, though he also proclaimed during his lecture that it is misleading to think of humanity as having one common environmental history. His focus was not a linear synthesis but an examination of the patterns. We discussed how core-periphery inequalities have been recurring among societies for thousands of years. Hornborg also used examples from Inca Peru and England during the industrial revolution to get us to examine how concepts such as landesque capital are fundamentally similar. He is using case studies across space and time to think about cultural mystifications of unequal exchange, all so we can begin to understand capitalism as a cultural phenomenon. At the same time Hornborg also wanted us to think of environmental history as political ecology by taking a world systems approach. He didn’t want to us to compare the environmental history of China, or Amazonia, or Africa, but to look at the connections through space and time so we can see how the present state of the world is the result of differential positions and dynamics in global economic exchange.
Joakim Radkau also discussed with us the idea that we are living in the age of ecology, and that it is best conceptualized as a new enlightenment. Radkau prompted me in my reflection to compare the environmental movement to the age of enlightenment, and I think it was a really useful insight. I said in my reflection that both ages we have ‘a more opinionated and educated public, and calls for social reform towards a more egalitarian and utopian society that does not sacrifice individualism’. In addition ‘like the enlightenment, environmentalism needs proceeding darkness against which to illuminate’. Radkau said that early environmentalism was an outburst of panic, and the age of ecology is an age of fear. Yet this prompted me to think of all of the really fascinating parallels that can be drawn between these two conceptual ages, and to ponder such questions as ‘What lessons can we learn from the French and American Revolutions that apply to the environmental movement? How can the altruistic and righteous ideals of the environmental movement manifest themselves in violence? How are people being mislead because of an unquestioned allegiance to the movement?’
Paul Sinclair asked Radkau during his lecture about whether or not he was using time as a uni-linear rather than a multi-dimensional way, and Radkau admitted he hadn’t thought about it much. Yet, I must say that his seminar got me thinking about aspects of the past that are alive and repeated in our present and how this will continue to be expressed in phenomena in our future. Furthermore, examination of these processes sometimes necessitates an approach that does away with the linearity of events and instead connects phenomena occurring at different scales and periods of time.

Space is not flat

In many the same ways that time is not linear, space is not flat. The different scales at which landscapes are conceptualized was a recurring theme throughout the year. Much debate centered around global and local environmental perspectives. Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the localization movement, and strongly critical of international development agendas that threaten local communities, economies, and identities. Norberg-Hodge wrote about her time in Ladakh in Ancient Futures, and believes that industrialized Western mono-cultural development trajectories are very harmful, but at the same time, some Western influences can be successfully integrated into Ladakh life. This contradiction is also characteristic of NGO and development organizations, as they are meant to operate on the community scale, but are subject to the international behavioral norms and institutions from which they proceed. Funders and directors of development organizations essentially have to navigate the complexities of thinking globally and acting locally, and they often fail.
Sverker Sörlin’s book Nature’s End discusses how all self-conscious reflections on the so-called environment that have taken place in the past can be studied as environmental history, and the approach in the book is to connect these narratives to wider strands of traditional history. In the Sörlin seminar, our class discussed how wider strands of traditional history are written from the perspectives of the global north, and thus environmental history is being written to join discourses of relevance in more ‘developed’ countries. I was fixated on how the history of environmental history is actually really disjointed on a global scale. The geographies of academic publications are unevenly distributed particularly with regards to formerly colonized peripheries, but equally disturbing is that those on the periphery are seen as importers rather than exporters of theory (Paasi 2005). In the lecture Sörlin talked about how 25 years ago there was very little environmental history being practiced as we know it outside of North America, but now there are vibrant congresses of environmental historians popping up in places such as Portugal and India. It is interesting to think how the practice of environmental history will change in the coming decades if it truly becomes more international.
Perhaps the challenge now is to build the capacity for ‘periphery’ regions to set their own research and development agendas. We must always be conscious of the fact that the geographies that environmentalism operates within are all to often hierarchical, and rife with inequalities.

Societies are not systems

I have been thinking a lot this year about how Malthusian population growth models and Hardin’s tragedy of the commons theory believe that as a collective, humans systematically act contrary to their own interests. These ideas have had powerful influences on the environmental movement and the practice of ecology. Fairhead and Leach deconstructed the uncritical discourse centered around humans being the antithesis to nature. Misreading the African Landscape exposes that contrary to the popular opinion of scientists and policy makers in Guinea, forests are actually expanding due to population growth. Fairhead also detailed in the seminar how agriculturalists in Guinea were creating and exploiting ‘black earths’, which are soils that have had their fertility enhanced from the refuse of villages. Fairhead demonstrated that ‘traditional lifeways’ of forest dwelling people in Guinea are creating conditions that benefit forests rather than destroy them. The really fascinating part about this work is that it does not stop at challenging assumptions of forest degradation, but also investigates how these assumptions come into being, and how scientists, policy makers, governments, and media are implicit. By unpacking the process through which environmental threats and ‘indigenous people’ are conceptualized we learn so much more about the real impacts of our work as academics. In academia we are conditioned to authoritatively discuss things like landscapes, indigenous people, and environmental crises but we must constantly be reflexive about our world-views.
To bring this discussion to a full circle now, I propose that we urgently need to re-examine the ways we discuss and conceive of the environment and our position in it. In Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, she deconstructs the formation of our contemporary world-view that has re-conceptualized nature as a machine rather than a living organism. Merchant details how just as in the seventeenth century, today’s managerial ecology has done away with anthropogenic connotations of group sharing and embraced physical descriptions and equations associated with quantitative analysis. She rightly cautions that it is difficult, if not impossible to successfully program contexts and patterns into a computer. Merchant writes that taking components or abstracting data from the environmental context can alter the whole, distorting its behavior (1980: 252). She goes on to criticize systems theorists who claim a holistic perspective, because they wrongly assume that they are taking into account the ways in which all the parts in a given system affect the whole. She points out that the gestalt is not mathematized, and that we cannot quantify the ways in which each part in any given moment takes it’s meaning from the whole (1980: 291).
When Merchant talks about nature and ecosystems, the divisions between human and environment dissolves in that just as nature has been mechanized so too have societies. Science encourages this because it allows us to attempt to make sense of the world around us, and to predict the outcomes of behaviors. Yet, no model powerful enough yet exists that allows us to see the gestalt with any sort of precision or accuracy. Even in science the basis of many of our rationalizations are our own world-views which are complex in identification, formation, and dissolution.

A final point, and something that was brought up consistently in Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History is that we need to take a multidisciplinary approach to the study of environment. I found this course very useful as it embodied this objective. It was a pleasure especially to learn from the other participants, and I wish you all the best with your theses.

References (excluding course readings)

Paasi, A. 2005. Globalisation, academic capitalism, and the uneven geographies of international journal publishing spaces. Environment and Planning. 37: 769-789.