Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on January 6, 2015 at 13:29

Nik Petek – Final essay

Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History: Final Essay

List of seminars attended
Date Topic Guest lecturer
17.2.2014 World systems, history and ecology J. W. Moore
3.3.2014 Ecology, history and unequal exchange A. Hornborg
7.4.2014 Landscape, history and ethnicity T. Ingold
28.4.2014 Science, society and power J. Fairhead
19.5.2014 Nationalism, conservation and globalisation J. Carruthers
26.5.2014 Globalisation, environment and livelihood H. Norberg-Hodge
9.6.2014 Policy in the age of climate crises K. Persson
8.9.2014 History, conservation and politics L. Robin
17.11.2014 The Age of Ecology J. Radkau

List of seminars for which complementary work was done
Date Topic Guest lecturer
17.3.2014 Greece and revisionist environmental history O. Rackham

List of seminars led
Date Topic Guest lecturer
28.4.2014 Science, society and power J. Fairhead

Diary of seminar reflections and feedback given/received

The Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History unit was an exciting interdisciplinary approach to the study of current issues involving ecology, the environment, conservation and socio-ecological systems. The purpose of this unit, for me coming from a socio-archaeological background, was to grasp the scope of current and past research pertaining to the environment, what it does and what it can entail, and what remains unanswered. Through the seminars and readings, I was able to map out the vast research into environmental and ecological studies, allowing me to find space for my own research. The unit achieved that we, students, started thinking critically about how environmental research can be done and particularly to think about the environment more widely, not just in a single term, such as ‘conservation’, but also to include ‘imperialism’, locate the conservation of a particular place in a world-system etc.

The characteristic, which allowed the unit to achieve its goal, was its mixing of previously distinct academic disciplines such as history, archaeology, conservation, etc. It spurred each student to step out of the framework that was constructed in his/her previous studies and explore further. Moreover, the focus was more on societal relevance, causes and applicability rather than the science of ecology. This was appreciated by the students who in the future want to have an impact on society or a particular industry.

The unit had a great scope of topics. The seminars dealt with, what I deem, introductory topics which tackled issues of concepts (Ingold 2000b; Ingold 2000a), the history of environmental history (Radkau 2014), and the problems the field has already faced (Rackham 1996). The great majority of seminars attended engaged us students in discussions on world-systems (Moore 2010b; Moore 2010a; Moore 2011), power and power-struggle, and questions of authority and rights (Robin 2011; Carruthers 2012). A welcomed addition were also discussions with Ms. Persson and Ms Norberg-Hodge which allowed us to see how the idea of environment and ecology is perceived and shaped in a political and a popular sphere.

Getting to know the field
The unit was large in terms of the topics that it encompassed, but three seminars stood out as providing the best arms for tackling future topics. They dealt with the writings of Ingold, Rackham and Radkau, as they were problematizing bad ecology, ecology’s history and the concepts it uses.

Radkau, in his book The Age of Ecology (2014), traces back the roots of environmentalism to the Romantic period, when it became vogue, and even further back to the 1660s in Great Britain (Radkau 2014, p.11). Although criticised for putting a lot of emphasis on Germany (K. Berglund, reflection 17.11.2014), it nevertheless details environmentalisms’ beginnings, and reveals its various guises. Importantly, the book contextualises the environmental discussion and clearly shows what events shaped it, e.g. health (Radkau 2014, p.35). The contextualisation made me realise that we are dealing with perceptions of the environment. For example, “discussing nuclear power in the seminar, [we agreed that it] is one of the greenest and cleanest sources of energy, but countries avoid building them and people are reluctant to have them because they are considered unsafe and create a huge waste disposal issue, and people are scared of radiation. Radkau told us that a German official was an advocate of nuclear energy until the Chernobyl accident” (N. Petek, reflection 17.11.2014). Through the seminar we learnt that we need to keep in mind the perception of the environment and what shaped it. We are dealing with subjective constructs which have the capability of influencing other people and the environmental discussion locally and globally.

While Radkau’s work was dealing with the history of the environmental movement, Ingold’s essays (2000b; 2000a) problematized the common concepts, ‘landscape’ and ‘indigenous’, that we use in the environmental-ecological discussion. My interests lie particularly with the notion of ‘landscape’, how to define it and how to study it. In my reflection I was focusing on the (in)applicability of his definition of landscape. “Because the theory of his framework is based in phenomenology, any interpretation of the archaeological record with this framework will not be objective, due to the archaeologist not being of the period and landscape studied. The question still remains, how archaeologists can best use Ingold’s work” (N. Petek, reflection 14.4.2014). While his work is hard to apply archaeologically, his book The Perception of the Environment is able to construct a holistic account of how people perceive and construct an idea of the environment, and how each culture/individual can perceive the same landscape differently. This weaves well into Radkau’s work, as Ingold provides a subconscious mechanism through which people constructed their perceptions of the environment that Radkau was writing about.

Whereas Ingold and Radkau both produced environmentally focused publications, Rackham (1996) focused on bad or pseudo-ecology, providing glaring examples of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the available data and records. Both M. Ramsey (reflection 17.3.2014) and I (reflection, 12.12.2014) commented that the obvious advice is very welcome. “Because it is obvious and commonplace we usually forget about it and it is particularly valuable to students learning to use various sources of information” (N. Petek, reply to R. Morag 12.12.2014). Particularly when dealing with historical sources it is always important to understand their own context.

The economics of power and the power of economics in society and ecology
Fairhead, Moore, and Hornborg were, to a different extent, all dealing with the topic of power, the economics behind it, its causes and effects. Hornborg and Moore complement each other as both promote the study of ecological effects of capitalism across borders. Hornborg (2012) focuses on trans-national unequal exchange of resources between rich and developing countries. This allows developed countries to build up a technological advantage at the expense of the developing countries. Moore (Moore 2011; Moore 2010b) promotes the study of world-systems and argues that capitalism is not just a socio-economic system but also an ecological one with a deep impact on the environment. Moore, additionally, is propelling the idea of the oikeios, where humans and nature live in the same sphere, rather than seeing the Cartesian division between the two. He continued to stress the Cartesian division during the seminar, even though his articles were several years old. Hence I reflected that “the study of the Anthropocene is improving and now sees humans bounded together with the environment. Since the rise of the material culture theory and phenomenology in archaeology, the discipline has become more relationship focused. The theoretical shift in archaeology caused disciplines working closely with it (e.g. palaeoecology) to accept the new theory, which allows for the study of the Anthropocene in a world ecology” (N. Petek, reflection 18.2.2014). Like Moore, who stressed the importance of the world as a whole, Hornborg denounced the nation-state as a unit of analysis in environmental history. While I agree with Hornborg that “the nation state, which is unchangeable and devoid of external contact, is not a useful unit of analysis, it is a necessary concept. The nation-state is the centre of political power nowadays, and it is also a place where the general public should have the power to propose laws, enforce economic change, etc” N. Petek, reflection 4.3.2014). Thus, a nation-state should be part of the analysis but not as the only unit of analysis devoid of contacts and relationships outside of its borders.

While Moore and Hornborg were more focused on the effects of power and economics on the ecology and the environment, Science, Society, and Power (Fairhead & Leach 2003) teaches us how science can be and is politicised and how it is used in struggles for power and legitimacy in conservation and forestry. The book can act as an example of how trans-national relationships can affect the way in which research is done, through incoming donor money. More than by the book, my interest was sparked by the lecture on the dark earths of West Africa. “Many correlations could be drawn between the African dark earths and pastoralists’ abandoned bomas in East Africa” (N. Petek, reflection 28.4.2014). I was particularly drawn to this topic in the way one could approach it from a research perspective as an archaeologist, looking at soil, vegetation patterns, remote sensing etc.

The three seminars combine well to problematize power and the use of economic power and resources. It also taught me that power and authority can considerably affect research, not just what you are allowed to research, but also what you as a researcher perceive as an interesting question.

The politics of conservation
Two seminars focused on conservation as their topic. Carruthers’ work (2012) was particularly interesting and it was thought-provoking to read in the edited volume (Gissibl et al. 2012) how national parks are used in various ways, from conservation of the environment to the assertion of independence in the case of Slovenia. I was interested in the non-standardisation of the concept ‘national park’. Even though the parks around the world have little in common in how they are organised and run, or what their purpose is, “they have a convention every 10 years where they discuss topics of education, tourism, sustainable development, etc. I am not sure of the effects of these conventions, but would projects that spring up from the convention be seen as globally standardising national parks?” (N. Petek, reflection 20.5.2014). According to Carruthers, national parks remain remarkably pliable in terms of what they can be. My reflection on the globalisation of national parks prompted the reply: “What (who) decides which ideas get implemented and which don’t [when discussing projects that spring up from national parks conventions]? I guess it boils down to who wields the power and knowledge, so I think we can claim that it is the western scientific paradigm that constructs the ideological framework” (N. Dedić, reply to N. Petek 22.5.2014)

This scientific imperialism can oftentimes be seen in conservation projects, which were discussed by Robin (2011). Science is given the ultimate word when it comes to biodiversity, conservation and the preservation of the environments, although as Robin (2011, p.35) states, the sciences are under pressure and are including more social sciences, humanities and arts with a focus on stress deliberation and analysis. A sentence that stuck with me from that seminar was that “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” (L. Robin, pers.comm. 8.9.2014). By that Robin meant that it was used by white Australians (the dominant group in Australia) who were themselves the biggest destroyers of the environment, but then pushed the Aborigines out of their land. The sentence stuck with me because it is similar in Slovenia, “where food labelled ‘organic’ or ‘bio’ is out of reach for the general population. In that sense, even in countries like Slovenia, conservation and biodiversity also become the dominant group’s word” (N. Petek, reflection 8.9.2014).

Like with Moore, Hornborg, and Fairhead, power plays an important role with Robin’s research. Robin and Carruthers clearly showed us the politics around conservation, such as through the establishment of a national park, and that conservation is determined not by local communities but by those in power.

The environment outside of academia
For me it was really useful to attend seminars prepared with Norberg-Hodge and Persson, who both work outside of academia with politicians and the general public. I found it intriguing to see how the information gathered by researchers gets diffused to the public and into politics, and how they want to affect the people working and living in those spheres of life.

Norberg-Hodge (1991) tried to engage with the general western public, whose society and economy was being pushed into globalisation and stressful situations, by writing about the Ladak culture. She described the Ladak as a calm people, content with basic necessities, and who with the help of Buddhism lead peaceful lives. The book was stressing the importance of the local compared to the global. Norberg-Hodge was criticised for idealising the Ladak as the perfect archetypal culture, but we needed to remind ourselves that the book’s target audience were not academics, but the general public. The lesson that we can take home is that always make your message audience focused. Furthermore, even though she was criticised for the idealisation of the role that Buddhism and localisation played in their culture, it still sparked a heated debate. The questions we posed during the seminar were consistently related to the importance of the local, and to Buddhism’s relationship to nature and the attitude of life it promotes (W. Steining, reflection 27.5.2014; Y. Gao, reflection 27.5.2014; etc.). My stance on the discussion of the global and the local, and the lifestyles they promote, was that “people will not want to give up globalisation and the commodities this has brought. People have grown used to these commodities and without globalisation technology would get prohibitively expensive” (N. Petek, reflection 26.5.2014).

While Norberg-Hodge targets the general public, Persson works for an NGO that lobbies politicians. Her discussion prompted me to reflect on the correlation between labour, economy, and care for the environment. “How does the relationship that people have with their employment affect how they feel about nature and how their work directly or indirectly affects the environment? Research has shown that people who work on a product from start to finish are happier and more interested in it. Furthermore, egalitarian developed countries (e.g. Japan, Sweden, Finland) are also the ones which care more about climate change than the non-egalitarian developed ones (e.g. USA). In the more egalitarian countries people are also happier doing their job and happier in general” (N. Petek, reflection 9.6.2014). While Maria Wilen replied by pointing out that Sweden has a high suicide rate, she also points out that “it is time to find out what makes people realize the state of the environmental threats and then be willing to participate actively for a sustainable economy” (M. Wilen, reply to N. Petek 10.6.2014).

Norberg-Hodge and Persson have the job of transferring research findings from the academic to the public sphere, and they have to be picky with their choice of information in order to receive empathy from the general public through the idealisation of the Ladak lifestyle, or to achieve changes in policy and law through the government.

An intention of mine through each seminar was to try and link the discussion back to my own research topic and region. I was able to do that in four out of ten reflections and I found it interesting to discover in how many ways I could take or expand my research, and where the connections lie. I think the unit has the potential to become an essential course of a master’s programme. It encourages thinking and exploration of topics from different standpoints. Furthermore, since it is student-led, it forces the students to think about how they will present the topic and how to approach it.

The group dynamics were also worth noting, as different people were more prominent depending on their knowledge of the topic. An inspirational characteristic of the group was that it consisted of people who wanted to change the world or parts of it, and they saw research as a prominent force in what can contribute to that change.

Carruthers, J., 2012. National Parks, Civilization, and Globalisation. In B. Gissibl, S. Höhler, & P. Kupper, eds. Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective. New York: Berghahn, pp. 256–263.
Fairhead, J. & Leach, M., 2003. Science, Society and Power: Environmental Knowledge and Policy in West Africa and the Carribean, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gissibl, B., Höhler, S. & Kupper, P., 2012. Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, New York: Berghahn.
Hornborg, A., 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World, London: Routledge.
Ingold, T., 2000a. Ancestry, generation, substance, memory, land. In T. Ingold, ed. The Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge, pp. 132–151.
Ingold, T., 2000b. The temporality of the landscape. In T. Ingold, ed. The Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge, pp. 189–208.
Moore, J.W., 2010a. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 33, pp.225–261.
Moore, J.W., 2011. Ecology, capital and the nature of our times: Accumulation & crisis in the capitalist world-ecology. Journal of World-Systems Research, 17(1), pp.107–146.
Moore, J.W., 2010b. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(3), pp.389–413.
Norberg-Hodge, H., 1991. Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Rackham, O., 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In G. Shipley & J. Salmon, eds. Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 16–43.
Radkau, J., 2014. The Era of Ecology, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Robin, L., 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises , responses and expertise. Quaderni, 76, pp.25–38.