Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on January 18, 2015 at 17:15

Nisa Dedić
Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
Final Assignment: January 2014

Attended seminars:

3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
17/2 Jason Moore World Systems, History and Ecology
3/3 Alf Hornborg: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
19/5 Jane Carruthers Nationalism, Conservation, Globalization: History of NPs
26/5 Helena Norberg-Hodge Globalization, Environment and Livelihoods: Ladakh
8/9 Sverker Sörlin The role of Environmental History
22/9 Libby Robin History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia
6/10 Mary Midgley: Science and Poetry
14/10 Kenneth Worthy: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Enviroment
17/11 Joachim Radkau: The Age of Ecology
8/12 Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature.

Chaired seminars:
26/5 Helena Norberg-Hodge Globalization, Environment and Livelihoods: Ladakh
6/10 Mary Midgley: Science and Poetry

The seven knots of history

I have decided to write my »grand narrative« of the course spanning through one whole turbulent year of my life as a meshwork of topics and problems that stimulated my thoughts most. May this be an excuse for unsystematic, Joycean-stream-of-consciousness style of writing, since I do not know how to approach this differently (and to my defense, the instructions did tell us to write a diary). Thus, I take the knitting needles into my hands and start to weave my (hi)story and hope the pattern emerges in the process…
While I was reading through my reflections of the past course sessions, I was struck dumb by how much my reflections were conditioned by my mental and emotional well-being and how much my academic interests and methodological preferences actually overlap with my general presence in a certain period in my life. This is the first strand and lesson of my story: the more I strove for objectiveness, the more I wrote my reflections with a kind of metaphysical desire; like I wanted to ground my feet in reality but it turned out like I grounded them in desire of a certain reality. In the moments when I allowed myself to wrote a relaxed reflection, just doing an introspection of a kind, I found my reflections more like something a person interest in history and not a metaphysicist would write. This leads me to the first knot in my strand,
&&&history as anxiety&&&
i.e. Sörlin’s quote that “history fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” (Sörlin 2009, p.2). This knot of several thoughts I have so far put forward tells me that historiography is always societal, if not exactly personal, like it might have been suggested in the beginning of my weaving (though it would have been most interesting to have had a session on psychoanalytical reading about historiography…). I do not claim that history is just a product of past emotional states or that a certain historiography is an emanation of anxieties, both collective and individual. Rather, I think that if historiography indeed reflects anxieties and interests current at the time, then it tells us more about the past than just the bare glorified facts; not only glimpses into the historical reality, but also the interpretation of the reality and the best part: the desires of the time. In every historiography there is a collision of the retelling of the past, the interpretation of the now and the desire for the times to come. I will come back to the question of anxiety and desire, but for now I continue with the second knot:
&&&history as science&&&
The big, open wound of humanities in the modern academia. Of course, this second knot departs from the first one; the anxiety of a discipline in the modern world as a battlefield in the aftermath of a battle between postmodernism and neoliberalism, though the allegiances are not clear. Please excuse the military metaphor, yet somehow searching for inspiration does feel like scavenging for something that is not dead yet and presents a remnant of hope for the future. Anxiety of the discipline of history, even much so of environmental history. To elucidate I will shamelessly quote myself from a reflection on the session with Libby Robin: »[a]s environmental historians we inhabit the worlds in between the hard sciences and the humanities; hence, we have to be wary of “scientifization” of history (what I have in mind here is for example the environmentally deterministic narrative of history…«. Thus in order not to slip into all possible deterministic pits and traps (geographical, meteorological, economic, cultural, ideational, cynical – my own personal cesspit – etc.), we have to think about what is the ultimate frontier of reality; environmental history has to inhabit that irreducible, elusive area that throughout the course literature I think only Jason Moore actually dared to spell out (whereas elsewhere it is simply presupposed). In Moore’s terminology that is the oikeios, which is defined as the »fundamental ontological relation between humans and the rest of nature« (Moore:2001, p.127). The historical-ecological method reveals to Moore (or he sets out with this revelation? The circularity of method is a well-known aporia) that it is the historical development of capitalism that is the organising principle of this fundamental ontological relation; thus in the capitalist oikeios the relation between humans and the rest of nature is organised on the basis of commodification. When this relation becomes untenable, since it exhausts itself according to Marx’s Law of Underproduction, a crisis of capitalism occurs. History is thus understood as the unfolding of capitalism; dare I say cycles of capitalism? This brings me to the third knot:
&&& history as teleology &&&
This is another issue I keep returning to and never coming to terms with. Teleology that inevitable path (irony right there…); what I mean by this is locating something in the present and then following this path as a chicken follows a path of corn and finally locating the source, or lets rather say, until the trail exhausts itself and then the root, the source is simply that frontier we are still able to recognize, even though the path precedes it, goes beyond it, continues. However much I align myself with Marxian thinkers, which Moore is, I find it hard to understand history just as a series of capital accumulation/ capital crises occurrences. The ontological relation in this case is as I see it based on a vulgar materiality; surely materiality is more material than that? But from all the historical methods I have been acquainted with during this course, I find Moore’s the most workable and delineated. Moore’s analysis of environmental histories practice so far, is helpful in order to understand how the mind/matter divide manifests itself in the practice of history writing. He diagnoses two wide fields of practicing environmental history: one that focuses on biophysical conditions that enabled socio-environmental transformations and the other that focuses on consequences of human activity upon biophysical nature. As already mentioned, the historical-ecological method Moore employs aims to break with this divide with capitalism in nature motto, but the risk of slipping into economic determinism and teleology makes me wary. It seems I am not the only one: many people find this vulgar materialism unappealing, but unfortunately by avoiding the vulgar materialist trap many fall into the ideational pit, which writes history as thoughts floating somewhere above the messy, banal past on the ground. We have been acquainted with many intellectual historians during our course, but in this line of thought Kenneth Worthy (2013) and Mary Midgley (2001) come first to mind. Both start from a modern point of dissociation, atomistic Western individualism and write it backwards into the texts of *great* thinkers. Such a teleology is not only dangerous, but is a slip from a precipice into using the past to construct a morality for now, a guilt ridden morality at that. Yet, Midgley as a philosopher follows the strand of atomism more discreetly and thoroughly; she follows Democritus and proceeds from him to contemporary scientists and shows how atomism and individualism legitimized each other from the 17th century onwards. Worthy on the other hand makes hasty conclusions; since my thoughts on this are not so fresh anymore I will quote what I wrote in my reflection: »the competitive individualised and stratified society of the Greeks is explained via a hasty explication of competitiveness between various Greek polis. The Middle Ages are as usual dealth with in a veeeery hazy manner; you know, yes the medieval world-view was more organicist, but then comes the Renaissance and colonialism and Enlightenment and we have this separation again as the Greeks«.
Moore’s historiography risks inserting universal laws into the past, which then conditions certain events to happen within a capitalist oikeois; Worthy’s and Midgley’s intellectual history risks raising canonized philosophy into causal events. A triumph of mind over matter! Let me try to delineate the focal points of Western dissociation from nature based on the authors: 1. the *birth* of philosophical inquiry as the birth of Western history as the path of dissociations from nature, 2. the culmination and crystallization of the questioning subject in the Cartesian res cogitans/res extensa, 3. the Cartesian dualism as the force behind the imperialist conquest of nature (of course humans included). Can we as environmental historians take up this frame to make us understand where we are now and to understand why we are here now? I asked Worthy this question and he answered (not in these words precisely, I do not remember anymore his words exactly) that he would sacrifice “objectiveness” in order to gain political momentum with his work. So many strands now, time for another knot:

&&&History as politics&&&

I could not disagree with Worthy, since I cannot and do not want to separate my work as a student from myself as an activist. But where do I differ then from the ideologues behind the creation of national parks that we were dealing with at the session with Jane Carruthers? Whether it be in my country of origin, Slovenia, where after the dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia, the intellectual elite created a kind of geographical deterministic national identity that would separate it from the Balkans, i.e. the alpine identity. The creation of the Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps in 1961 makes me curious who/what was this nation in the context of SFR Slovenia? Slovenes, Yugoslavs? Anyway, what about the bureaucrats behind the creation, re-creation of national parks nowadays that strive towards various goals like biodiversity, economic activity etc.? (Re)writing history of an area makes it malleable, it makes legitimizations. Again, what makes me as a historian different? I aim for factuality, yet I clearly acknowledge my ideological bias that might skewer my interpretation of sources and indeed my choice of sources. Is it only my left-wing apprehension of the world that separates my historiography?

&&&History as imperialism&&&

I am constantly afraid that my own thinking and work might actually subdue the Otherness. As I reflected on the conversation with Libby Robin: » imperialism [is] not only a historical or political phenomenon but also a mode of conduct and thought. Such an understanding means that an empire is not strictly a geographical entity stretching over vast areas, or indeed does not have to be a geographic entity at all, but can also mean intra-state imperialism or imperialism done by scientific categorization for example.« The scientific imperialism is very much alive, for example indigenous practices clash with juridico-academic definitions of biodiversity (as Carruthers described the situation in the problematics of South African national parks), the imperialistic appropriation of the past by intellectual historians who minimalize the lives of uncanonized, everyday people, my own stubbornness in minimalizing all other issues if compared to class struggle throughout history etc. Of course scientific imperialism was and is made possible by territorial imperialism of the maritime and military powers, like the frontier usurping of the North American continent, or colonial expansion on all continents; Gunnel Cederlöf shows how it is impossible to decouple nation-state creation from the growth of colonial merchant companies and how the scale of a nation is lacking in the context of the 18th century when the economy was becoming increasingly globalized (let alone nowadays) and even more so in the context of environmental history, since national borders rarely coincide with delimitations provided by rivers or mountains (Cederlöf:2013). Or if one is interested in the dispossesion and plundering of global capital flows as Hornborg is, then the nation-state as a point of departure necessarily obscures the unequal flows and structural inequalities that are materialized in every piece of technology we own (Hornborg:2012). But I would like to return to the theatrical notion of locating boundaries in nature; I am still amused by one of events that Cederlöf describes in her book, when an East India Company officer tried to draw a border but had to go in zig zags, due to flooding (the border still remains that way…). It is a wake up call when one thinks that a vast amount of contemporary legalistic and academic notions probably originate in someone’s inflexibility of thoughts. But how to think consciousness as a phenomenon of the past? Is not consciousness always only present in the present?

&&&History as consciousness&&&

Given my tendency to sympathize with histories from below, I often ask myself how to find traces of people’s lives who left little in the way of official sources, written sources etc. How to find their thoughts if only a wooden spoon remains for example? Much can be deduced from patterns of consumption, landscape use, changes in the economy. And yet, if as environmental historians we are interested in how people perceived the environments they lived in, does this suffice? Tim Ingold’s phenomenological approach to the understanding of the subject in an Umwelt was enlightening to a degree, especially when he aimed to reconstruct the experience of a landscape depicted in a painting by Bruegel The Harvesters (Ingold:2000). It was a lovely experience to imagine the heat, the smell of harvested wheat, the chattering, the quenching of the thirst one harvester experiences etc. But, I could not get rid of the notion that I (or Ingold for that matter) am romanticizing this. This is one issue I take with this approach, how to reach the supraindividual, even if indeed we can reconstruct a taskscape; an individual hardly ever can experience themselves and other entities in a historical context, as a finished business, yet in a way we are. For example, the incense of harvest and the rays of sun might be pleasurable to the harvesters but are they aware of themselves as being exploited in an unegalitarian agrarian economy (I am just guessing by contextualizing the painting in the 16th century)? But if the notion is turned around, people’s perceptions and actions in the taskscape changed the physical environment; the path is there, perhaps where the leftovers of the harvest are left, there might be more mice, maybe someone carved something into the tree’s bark etc. Is this relevant for history? I think for environmental historians as Moore put it, albeit in a different context: »no domain of human experience is off limits« (Moore: 2011, p.135).

&&&History as atonement&&&

This will be my finishing knot. I think there is no single author that we have read or had conversations with during our sessions, that does not with their work follow Marx’s words »[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it« (Marx: 2000, p.173). I think this is something conventional historians would not like to admit, since it puts into question the factuality and objectivity of their work and to change the narrative of the past carries huge responsibilites. I have not yet included in my story any thoughts that have sprung to being with the help of Norberg Hodge, which is ironic since I was chairing that session together with Ellen. I think this is because I found her text Ancient Futures (2009) the least rigorous; the history of the Ladakhi people was dealth with like it was written with the typical tragical scheme: the innocent beginning, the meeting with the active, usually malevolent actor (the West), the fall but with the addition of a glimpse of a possible happy-end. But Norberg Hodge’s text is useful because it puts into sharp relief the pathos, which is symptomatic for many of the authors we have been acquainted with (especially the intellectual history line); it is the pathos of atonement. It is the conflation of economic, ecological, psychological, societal, intellectual phenomena into a single history of Western individualism and dissociation from »nature«, which is where we find ourselves now supposedly. This leads me back to Sörlin’s claim, that history reflects anxieties and interests of the society, in which it emerges. It seems I have knitted a circular piece of material, but I still think it is not random to choose anxiety as the starting point and maybe it is the way it should be, since it drives us away from the illusions of objectivity into that unstable in-between moments, where history and all the voices of the people from the past collide in ourselves, where the limits fall, time and space become insubstantial in one great point of clarity; the clarity that is humbleness for the times past, for the now and the humbleness we owe to the times to come. I did not want to sound so cliché and spiritual in a way books for the middle-aged want us to be. But I think that humbleness can help us when grappling with all the cliffs, hurdles, the whys, the blank spaces, the aporias when immersing in history.

Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge
Ingold, T. 2000. Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge
Marx, K. edited by McLellan, D. 2000. Selected Writings. Oxford University Press.
Midgley, M. 2001. Science and Poetry. Routledge Classics. Polity Press.
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.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2009. Ancient futures: lessons from Ladakh for a globalizing world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (
Sörlin, S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction In: Sverker, S., Warde, P (ed) Nature’s end: history and the environment, 1-22. McMillan
Worthy, K. 2014. Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide Between People and the Environment. New York: Prometheus Books.