Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on January 3, 2015 at 17:54

Attended seminars:
Nationalism, conservation, globalization: History of national parks Carruthers
Globalization, environment and Livelihood: Ladakh Norberg-Hodge
The role of environmental history Sörlin
The Age of Ecology Radkau
Global Changes Persson
Healing the destructive divide between People and the Environment Worthy
Science and Poetry Midgley
The Collapse of complex societies Tainter
An ecology of mind Bateson

Reflection on seminar:
History, conservation and politics: Example of Australia Robin

Organized seminars:
Nationalism, conservation, globalization: History of national parks together with Kristina Berglund
The Age of Ecology

This essay is a summary of my reflections on the seminars I have attended for the course “Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History”. CDS and CEMUS together with the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History are jointly managing the course. Thus, these inter-disciplinary classes combine topics in humanities, such as environment and history, society, policy, globalization, philosophy and conservation. Not only did I find most of the lecturers very enthusiastic in the their seminars with us students, but with their broad knowledge, they were very interested in our projects and added valuable aspects for us to consider. I am also impressed by my course mates’ reflections and opinions and highly enjoyed reading their arguments.

Globalization of the environment
At first, most of us may consider we know what a national park is and that there is a worldwide general concept for policies and managing protected nature. Furthermore, if you ask, people’s perceptions and emotions of what nature is, what experience they expect and what value nature has to them, their ideas differ, depending on their social, geographical and background they .come from. In Africa, many nature park’ and reserves originated as protected hunting grounds, reserved for Europeans or local chieftains. They have long been associated with the problem of unauthorized trespassing and harvesting of natural resources for survival by the people living at the periphery of the reserved areas (1). From exterminating mammals, considered as vermin or threatening trophy hunting, national parks in the 80s almost became ecologically experimental outdoor laboratories. The focus of the first World Conference on National Parks in 1962 was how to protect biodiversity and that meant no human residency on within the parks (2). Scientists from developed countries took the leading role of conservation by managing biodiversity, while local inhabitants’ rights were still not taken into consideration, despite valuable human resources of experience and indigenous knowledge. This is now changing; from looking at isolated areas, international awareness about climate change, invasive species and extinction, NGOs and other institutions are introducing terms like resilience, socio-ecological systems and environmental justice in nature conservation (2). Reading Jane Carruther’s chapter in “Civilizing Nature” (3) and Conservation: Linking ecology, economics, and culture (4) I realize that the idea of national parks has a complicated, multifaceted history of colonialism, power contests and politics, cultural, social, as well as scientific policies and interests. Jane’s talk really made me aware of the complicated social and political history involved, but thus also inspired me to try to find out more about the history and present situation. One, in a way simple question was: what other “brand name” than national park should be used to better describe the purpose/function of a national park? Branding is a very important tool today and finding a new term to draw attention to the public about the concept of national parks is as essential as the function of biodiversity, natural resources etc. (5). Besides understanding the background for why, how and when national parks were established, globalization of nature in the form of climate change, spread of diseases, invasive species or extinction of fauna and flora, increased population and a variety of tourism activities, is as important. It has been exciting to learn about how the international environmental, biological and sociological institutions and NGOs try to focus on new management methods for environmental justice to make progress. I think that globalization of nature as well as policies and politics, have changed the purpose for establishing national parks, and one fundamental transformation is to include human assets as part of the concept for conservation. Biologists and sociologists still argue about the best solution to preserve biodiversity and improve human living conditions. Unfortunately, I believe that the increasing gap between the rich/West and the poor/south regions is socially, environmentally and economically alarming, as it is the greatest threat for the intention to convert to a sustainable society, in which access to nature in different forms.
Globalization can be an emotionally charged word, and agitate different groups of activists. Adding the explosive expansion of communications by Internet and Facebook, for example, these now even reach the public with grass roots in nations lead by dictators and in the third world, as with example of the protests against the new channel in Costa Rica that is supposed to reduce costs and time for marine transport (Sveriges Radio 23 Dec 2014). These news leads me to Radkau’s seminar on the history of environmental movements and how people worldwide respond to environment threats, now and might do in the future. I was impressed by Radkau’s wide knowledge from reading the book “Nature and Power” (6) (although it looked extremely boring with no pictures and only small text) with his review of many global environmental issues. “The age of ecology” (7) has the same quality of broad understanding of time and space. After the first green movements in the 70s as a response to , another, appeared in the 90s. But what started this new “enlightenment”? Chernobyl, Bhopal, , Exxon Valdez generated anxiety in people’s mind and are part of his explanation. He also mention points out the fall of the Berlin wall was an eye opener into a “hidden society” and a link in a chain reaction to political, religious and other ideological events. A basic goal, indirectly, for most of the movements he described is to protect biodiversity and inform about sustainability, though I think that many members or activists do not understand the underlying principles of these functions. I found it quite interesting though, that Radkau did not think that these concepts were always the best alternative, but what do we have instead? Is his answer to accept biotechnology to preserve threatened species artificially? Then a provoking question might be how evolution of those species continues compared to the same species left “in the bush”. His view on the importance of integrating agriculture, energy, transport and construction business and institutions as one unit to process in discussions and planning for sustainability being, I find very coherent. Besides involving a lot of re-thinking and innovations, novel environmental projects would create many new jobs. Other topics that we discussed were the concept of “think local act global” and energy production. Safe, sustainable, and/or renewable forms are not always compatible when you discuss what is best long term and efficient solutions. Most of us agree that buying local products (produced sustainably and ecologically) is good, but what about imported food from on another continent whose production supports many poor families and help them educate their children? A surprise from this seminar was that Rachel Carson more or less initiated the field of environmental toxicology and thus an awareness of the toxic impact on the environment, which transfers hazards to humans. Why didn’t I read “Silent Spring” before?
As energy production and climate change are connected in a globalized society, the world economy and financial markets, are the base in ever increasing production of commodities. Kristina Persson’s own think-tank ” Global Challenges” (8) promotes globalization with the aim to introduce a new leadership and initiate discussions from a holistic and enduring global viewpoint is set almost utopian high. With the title “Policy in the Age of Climate Crisis” for her seminar, she presented what she called the “three senses”; equal parts of ecology, economy and social responsibilities to counteract the present escalating inequality in living and consumption standards worldwide. I agree that if this combination could be practiced in reality, many problems would have a good chance to be solved. But, unfortunately, reality does not consist of idealists and for breaking down the power of multinational corporations, a new kind of market, already implemented and functioning is required. Kristina’s idea is to encourage big companies to compete about the most sustainable and innovative production line and to recycle and reuse material in the manufacturing. That is a far reaching goal, but more companies adopt “corporate social responsibility”, which could be developed further, as networking and public awareness are becoming “hard currency” in the business sphere. To create jobs for the rising unemployment, because of the more computerized and resourceful business, Kristina proposes that a variety of new service businesses would employ many people, one reason I imagine, could be more opportunities for innovative thinking and learning.
Holism for a healthy society and environment
Kristina’s campaign for equality and happiness, and her view for a globally sustainable growth, justice and relations, made me recount to the healthy and happy society that Helena Norberg-Hodge advocates with Ancient Future (9), but with the difference in that Kristina encourage globalization, while Helena instead endorses preservation of “localization”, in the case of Ladakh society. According to her book, the inhabitants in Ladakh are healthier and happier than in most other societies. But, social and culture factors, tradition and religion are very important factors for how you perceive your life is well-known, see for example Global Health Education Consortium (10). Gross National Happiness was set up in Bhutan 1972 as a measure for quality of life, rather than quoting monetary wealth as being the main factor. The result of this system set up in Ladakh at the time Helena was there would have been interesting to analyze and compare with results 30 years later. I agree that the Western financial system and the hard competitive market it has created, must change, but her story is very naive. Although she is acknowledged by receiving the Right Livelihood Award 1986 for her work in Ladakh, I ask myself about the source of her statement about people’s health in chapter three and what conclusions anthropologists/sociologists/medical studies would have made. The seminar was laid up as a “question courier” in which we got a question from our neighbor around the table to answer and vice versa. I replied to a question about the impact on local people’s knowledge from a modern education system. I underline that it is important to safeguard the familiarity and experience from religious and other traditions, theoretical as well as practical, as long as these are not hazardous to people’s health, right to free thinking and living standard. But, to deprive young people and a society, which believes in fearful superstitions, from the right to modern education built on empirical science, is unjustifiable. A system where community members rely on a powerful shaman or an astrologer or spirituals to cure diseases and predict future courses of events, as Helena describes in chapter three of “Ancient Future”, does not belong in a society that defend round the members’ right to adequate health care and general welfare in a modern=legitimate civilization. I learned when reading her text, the difference between illness and disease (in conventional medicine you may feel ill, but have no symptoms, but have a disease without feeling ill). Helena describes the proficiency of the amchi, to cure illness, thus considering mind and body and fellowship with the community when treating the patient. That the amchi is highly respected, could unfortunately also mean that patients do not dare to disagree with the opinions of the amchi.
The link between health and education (11) is recognized by the international community. Many traditional agricultural practices illustrated in chapter two, can probably easily be explained in scientific terms. I believe it makes a difference to an individual’s engagement, if she or he understands why and how their practices have been more or less successfully for generations? Reading chapters seven and eight about how Western style culture and money economy have changed the “old” Ladakh community, it is easy to understand why Helena dismisses the intrusion of Western tourism, infrastructure, food markets. Furthermore, the increasing population has as a negative impact on the local resources. In the article “Ecology and Health: A study among tribals of Ladakh” (12), the author proposes what to protect of indigenous knowledge and what is needed to improve health care systems and a necessary development of the society. I would find it interesting to hear Helena’s comments after reading this article.
Nora Bateson’s film about her father, Gregory, (13) is a beautiful dedication to a beloved parent from his youngest daughter. Beside philosophy, his ideas includes topics such as chaotic theories, anthropology, genetics and cross-species behavior and communication, all of which are mirrored to some extend in the film. What attracted me most was his opinion that we should try to see and understand outside our own sphere of training, education, social and/or cultural community. It might take some effort, as well as requiring to accommodate to unconventional or main stream thoughts, but by letting our mind be challenged, we can learn to detect new relations, get new insights and evolve as humans. What I also find appealing, is his desire and eagerness to learn all life, not only scholarly knowledge, but from fellowmen as well. He, and, for example, Kenneth Worthy (see below) are concerned about the lost connection between nature and man in the modern society. It is there to a certain extent (see below) and many rely on the bond when life is troublesome. His idea of what images you can make by just looking at the anatomy of your hand and fingers, is an illustrative example of his holistic vision and open-minded intellect. That said, I do not agree with his concept of hemoglobin as a universal particle; if it would have the same function on another planet, life there would consist of the same matter as on Earth. The molecule has evolved to be composed and shaped as it is today for a specific, biological function in a specific environment.
Sometimes I think holism can go too far, as when I see an advertisement for holistic Vitamin E! To me, the word holistic can make me creepy as there is something mixed-up when it is used in for promoting alternative medicine, food etc. However, reading about Gaia for the seminar on Mary Midgley, I accept the holistic view of Earth as an assembly of interdependent parts of physical entities, like plants, animals including humans, water, air, and inorganic material (rocks, minerals) could be a useful tool to explain . I must admit that I didn’t know what Gaia really means until I read the chapter from “Science and Poetry” (14). If it is easier for people to understand the interconnectivity and interdependency of all organic and non-organic systems of the Earth by relating to Gaia as one single organism, it is good. I value Mary’s discussion on science and social science (chapter 4) in which she makes clear that scientific thoughts are not alien to other disciplines, just a continuation of many different mutual thoughts together. I would hold that both fields have their origin in human aspiration to understand and explain what we experience. To me, philosophy and sociology can be mysterious, not science, although it is sometimes difficult to understand. Mary’s chapter on “atomism” as a bad thing for understanding society, that it makes us rely more on individualism than community, is also interesting. Still I find it easier to understand contexts by putting smaller parts together. I enjoy her comment on Dawkins’ view on poetry, as he is one of the most “scientific” scientists I have read and heard of. So, that lead me to the part of the seminar when we talked about the poetry or art related pieces we brought. I liked that very much; so much beauty, sorrow, lament, appreciation, metaphors and hope for thoughts on nature in the few examples that we brought.
Continuing on the theme of hope, I consider the Skype-session with Kenneth Worthy an optimistic recount on the believe in humanity’s spirit to participate in cleaning up the environmental mess we so flippant contributed to. From the parts that I read of his book, I do not fully agree what he says about the human community not being connected with nature (see further down). Kenneth has a doctorate in environmental humanities and teaches in ecopsychology, anthropology philosophy, environmental ethics etc. and in “Invisible Nature” (15) he reasons why we so easily do environmentally bad alternatives, while we know that they are destructive and we actually are attached to nature. From the introduction I notice his comparison between people’s detachment from nature back home in the US and his experience from Asia, where he lived for some time. Would he have noticed the same if he arrived in a Nordic country, or in Rumania or in Spain? A study at SLU showed that young people react positively to bird song in the cities and feel more healthy (16). The result was interpreted as it is important for us to have nature around us, to keep green areas even when more housing is needed. Another study together with SLU and a country council is studying the health effects of green and more natural spaces in connection with hospitals (17). To me, these described reactions show that we are more dependent on natural experiences than we think of or notice daily. On the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that we care about our environment. Also in Asia, South America and Africa are urban people more or less disconnected from nature. And unfortunately, I have the sense that in most rural areas, the young kids want to move into town to get a job. Yes, we have also lost connection with nature regarding what nature provides us with for our daily life, and I don’t think of food, but from where and how are commodities are produced (conflict minerals, cheap fashion? Are we really interested to make a change that will make it a little more inconvenient to live, or is it more important that we (the young generation)can check out Facebook continuously with our phone? It seems as the Asian life style, considered to be more respectful to nature, quickly disappears with the introduction of Western taste for life. Why? Maybe we don’t have the courage to see the reality and consequences of modern lifestyle yet, simply don’t have the time, or prefer a comfortable life style and the latest fashion? Worthy had a very interesting idea about encouraging citizens by helping them take a little step at a time, to be more environmentally friendly directed: any effort, although small, motivated by a rapid and perceivable reward makes a tangible significance. Did he have in mind “Nudging for sustainability”, the new trend, and could that really make a difference, in people’s mind and in practice? Unfortunately, I think we do not understand how deeply dependent we are on nature, not only for survival, but emotionally and for our physical health. I strongly believe in education in science, humanities and social sciences to ignite and save the appreciation for nature that most of us still have and need in difficult situations. Giving next generations an awareness and understanding of what natural really resources are, and how to use them efficiently and with respect to sustainability, is a responsibility of the society. If not, innovations and long-term solutions might be too late and the delicate connection we still have with nature might disappear completely.
How severe is the situation, if we lost solidarity with nature and understanding that its resources s are the base for sustaining our existence and future development? Tainter’s model “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (18), written more than 25 years ago is an economically based system theory based on benefits and costs for keeping a society well maintained. As I comprehend, it refers to an interdependence between socio-economic-organizational complexity in a society, which as it develops and improve the infrastructure, it simultaneously becomes more specialized and complex, that is becoming a civilization. That requires more resources to solve “problems” and for further development additional resources are needed. Future problems Tainter describes on YouTube from the International Conference on Energy-Economy and Sustainability in 2010, are for example, increasing costs for health care, impact by climate change, military activity and using new energy sources. When these have reach such a peak that the society cannot compensate benefits for costs it collapses. One illustration of his hypothesis is the West Roman Empire (around 470 A.D.), in which heavy tax increases were a major cause for its collapse. Tainter’s model contains general assumptions on human psychology, judgment and planning under certain conditions, which I think are quite adequate, but also on archeological findings, which I presume could be difficult to interpret correctly. Nonetheless, human societies at present have developed, many might say contracted, in a direction that was not foreseen. Technology including IT, weaponry and artificial intelligence, population increase, communication, globalization and the ever increasing demand for energy have changed the conditions that prevailed for the exemplified civilizations. Looking at the “problem” of energy needs, his standpoint is that increasing consumption of energy is necessary to avoid another, this time global, collapse. In my opinion, Tainter focuses on economic solutions for maintaining or developing a complex, for him, meaning an economically high-quality society via “energy” consumerism. Furthermore, he refers to the American society when he say that an “adult conversation” is needed, and is that comparable with European, African or Asian political systems?. He concludes that not spending more money on new technologies and inventions, which in fact demand even more energy (at the cost of i.e health care), is to go back to an “economic undevelopment” (p 211, 212, 215). But are there no other solutions? Tainter might consider a shift towards green fuel techniques and inventions as an “utopian alternative” (19), or could it be a paradigm shift from prevailing economic systems?. It is easy to follow his logic on YouTube on how complexity builds up and how he looks at the development of human innovation “art”, but I feel skeptic about his view on sustainability as “what people value”. I cannot quite connect that to sustainable utilization of existing energy resources and techniques, unless new innovations are developed in a raging pace.
I will end my summary with some thoughts from the Introduction of “Nature’s End: history and the environment” (20). As the authors point out, history mirrors the events, thoughts and concerns of the present time. There is a lot in the quote “… Nature as full of surprises who can “hit back” on ignorant humans…” (p 2). First, I just ask myself, why would nature serve humans? Then, that nature is not a reflective essence (why who and not which?) with a mind to predict and act intentionally. I can make a parable with misinterpretations, when animals, partly domesticated, react unexpectedly to humans ignorant of how to perceive and predict their body language, social competence etc.. I recently heard similar words of “hit back” when the authorities in Miami Beach talked about how to prepare the city from future flooding disaster by protective constructions, but not a single word about changing human impact or life style, to reduce the risks. By now, existing knowledge in ecology, climatology, earth science etc., facilitate more accurate predictions, but many of these are not welcome to be planned for by politicians and other decision-makers. Another important aspect of environmental history I find in the Introduction of the book; “it is also about action and about moral predicaments and determinations to guide action” (p 2). The words encourage me to believe that humans have the sense of being responsible, That environmental history has”…role as a bridge builder between the humanities and other disciplines”…(p 11) is a reassuring quote. Linking natural science with other disciplines to add knowledge about our right and responsibility as a species among others, is a very important notion to me. Inspiring the civic society to make decisions built on facts are decisive for the future. From page eight I read “The environment does not start where the farmland ends, …”. Of course not, nature is urban, rural, oceanic, aerial and much more, and can be enjoyed almost everywhere (guided tours in Stockholm city teach you where to find edible plants or herbs). With urban gardening, vertical farming indoor and outdoor, creating small biodiversity rich environments, not only for food supply, but as climate buffers, and for kids to learn, appreciate, enjoy and be inspired by. A small, but rich fauna and flora in a natural setting that is easy to reach, letting nature take some space back and simultaneously give disengaged groups in the society a chance to be more connected to nature is achievable. Many seminars have had this basic idea as a theme, just confirming that environmental history is about humanity (p 16). Imagine what could be read about it hundred years from now!
Writing a summary of the seminars have been cumbersome, but rewarding. Some seminars have been provocative to me, but loosened my attitude in questions to which I arrived with a resolute idea. I have got new insights, which I now have in my mind when planning for my project. There are of course topic I would liked to have discussed, like the question of population growth and that impact on the environment and society, role of indigenous floral knowledge in culture and biomedicine and how to engage the civic society to take more responsibility for their environment. But, I have a better grasp on environmental history now, and can thus build more knowledge myself.
1. Schmidt-Soltau K. 2009. Is the Displacement of People from Parks only ‘Purported’, or is it Real? Conservation and Society. 7:1, 46-55
2. Robin L. 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises, responses and expertise. 2011. Quaderni, 76, 25-37
3. Carruthers J. 2012. National Parks, civilization and globalization in Civilizing Nature: National parks in Global historical perspective. Gissible, Hohler, Kupper (eds). Berghahn Books Ltd
4. Conservation: Linking ecology, economics, and cultureEds. Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolollo. Princeton University Press
5. (
6. Radkau J. 2008. Power and nature. A global history of the environment. Cambridge university Press
7. Radaku J. 2013. The age of ecology. A global history. Polity Press
9. Norberg-Hodge H. 2009. Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World. Sierra Club Books. San Fransisco
10. Global Health Education Consortium.
11. Feinstein L. et al. 2006. What are the effects of education on health? Measjring the effects of education on health and civic engagement: Proceedings of the Copenhagen symposium OECD
12. Bhasin V. 2005. Ecology and Health: A Study Among Tribals of Ladakh. Stud. Tribes Tribals, 3:1, 1-13
13. Bateson N. 2011. “An Ecology of Mind”
14. Midgley M. 2001. Science and Poetry. Routledge Classics. Polity Press
15. Worthy K. 2013. Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between people and the environment. Berkeley, University Press
16. Hedblom M. et al. 2014. Bird song diversity influences young people’s appreciation of urban landscapes. 13:3, 469-474
18. Tainter J. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New Studies on Archaeology. Cambridge ?University Press
20. Sörlin S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction p 1-22 In: Nature’s end: History and the environment, Sörlin and Warde (eds)