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Sabbath Sunday # Posted on January 20, 2015 at 01:07

A Dairy of Reflections on Seminars and Lectures: Current themes and debates in Environmental History: by Sabbath Sunday

Seminars attended:
1. Mon 3 Feb: Introduction to the course & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism & book launch: Cederlöf, G.
2. Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology: Moore J.W.
3. Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange: Hornborg, A.
4. Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History: Rackham, O
5. Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature: Merchant, C.
6. Mon 14 April: Landscape, history and ethnicity: Ingold, T.
7. Mon 28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy: Fairhead, J.
9. Mon 26 May: Globalisation, Environment and Livelihood- Ladakh, Kashmir: Norberg-Hodge, Helena.
11. Mon 8 Sep: The role of Environmental History: Sörlin, S.
16. Mon 17 Nov: The history of Ecology: Radkau, J.

Seminars organised:
Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History: Rackham, O


The following is a dairy of reflections on seminars and lectures on current themes and debates. My discussions and reflections are directly related to the respective themes of each seminar. The different seminars and lectures provided me with an overall knowledge of environmental history which is a multidisciplinary subject that draws widely on both the humanities and natural science. During the course we focused on particular time-scales, geographic space with key themes regarding human interaction with the natural world over time.

India and the Environmental History of Imperialism: Cederlöf, Gunnel

The book by Cederlöf. G (2013) is one of the various historical accounts that enable us to understand environmental histories of other parts of the world. The issues of organization of human society, ecology, climate and modes of production and are well tackled. My reflections on this piece of work was based of several perspectives by some environmental historians who have given their arguments on how to understand the new discipline in order to enable us handle our environmental challenges with informed backgrounds.

According to Worster, and Crosby, (1988) “much of the materials for environmental history have been around for generations if not for centuries” so it is our duty “to organize them in light of our recent experiences.” So in the case of Cederlöf’s book, the British and the Mughal’s imperial occupation in the region of north eastern India is a manifestation of Donald Wortster’s arguments in his recent presentations “Second Earth: Thinking About Environmental History on a Planetary Scale”, that the discovery of the Americas and a sea route to India via the Cape, triggered off a rush for search of new land and natural resources by European imperialists. This was just the exportation of environmental depletion in other parts of the world after wrecking havoc in their European home countries. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all struggled to control north eastern India because of its abundant natural resources but the British came out successful. This territory had been under the Mughah Empire (1525-1857) having defeated an earlier Ahom kingdom (1228-1826) but all of these were imperialists. All these successive socio-political organizations had one objective; to exploit the natural wealth for the economic sustainability of their empires through agriculture, fishing, mining, lumbering, hunting and trade. Gunnel, C. (2014) makes it clear that the British East India Company (EIC) was more interested in mercantile activities rather than administration. This could have encouraged the ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude towards environmental degradation and respect for indigenous settlers. Theirs was total ecological imperialism as observed by Worster and Crosby, (1988) whereby apart from taking away natural wealth, “the Europeans also introduced domestic animals, plants, pathogens, varmints, and weeds in many regions of the world”.

Merchant, (2010) has another concept of colonial ecological revolution as a fresh approach to environmental history. The environmental historical situation of the American Indians in New England of North East of North America faced the same tragedy as that of North East India in southern Asia. In both cases ‘the integration of the Indians with their natural world, was interrupted by other invading economic regimes and social structures who not only came to control plant and animal life but also to dominate the host communities. The Ahom, the Mughal and the British East India Company brought about a succession of ‘capitalistic ecological revolution’ that changed and monopolized natural resource exploitation in disregard of the indigenous settlers whose mode of production was friendlier to the environment.

World Systems, History and Ecology: J. W. Moore

Moore’s articles on the above theme reflect to Wallerstein’s (1974) perceptions as the first to develop a theory to understand the historical changes involved in the rise of capitalism up to the modern day of world economic systems. Both authors agree that ‘the world is one unit connected by a complex of network economic exchange relationships.’ Moore goes on to refer this phenomenon as an ‘oikeios’ which is a Greek terminology that means ‘belonging to one household and also being related to each other.’ Thus, the universe should be regarded as a family of interrelated units which include; ‘flora, fauna, geological and biospheric configurations like cycles and movements.’ However, according to Moore, the expected harmonic relationship has been altered in time and space by historical changes which have been characterized by successive socio-ecological shifts that depend on capitalistic demands.

The history of capitalism and its impact on world ecology has been well tackled Moore from Wallerstein’s theory of world systems, tracing it from around 1500 to the present. It was still the nature-society relationship that saw the collapse of feudalism and the growing of capitalism in Europe. This was a mere change of system to ensure continued economic growth. However, the so called civilisation and capitalism combined, ignored nature as a ‘historically variant webs of life’ but even went further to look for new frontiers to sustain accumulation with cheap products, leaving behind trails of exhausted and disused ecosystems. Capitalism discards the notion of ‘oikeios’ but rather, only regards the ‘extra-human nature as an external entity which is only a source of wealth and power. The process of human-ecological history that run through the period 1450-1750 up to the present day has been characterized by globalization of world resources, developmentalism, finacialism and accumulation whose negative results on ecology, have been registered in climate change, agro-ecological exhaustion, diseases and natural disasters.

The shifting of capitalism from frontier expansion of a direct socio-ecological hegemony to the present day world system economic hegemonies, seemed to have been halted by the end of colonialism, the latter still makes no difference on affecting ecology. As Wallerstein (1974) argues, the strong modern states or core states do only facilitate a ‘skewed development in which economic and social disparities between sections of the world economy have increased instead of providing prosperity for all.’ It is thus predicted that ‘a worldwide economic crisis is imminent and that the capitalist world economic system will collapse, giving way to new revolutionary changes’.

Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange: Alf Hornborg

From a historical point of view, unequal exchange came about because of capitalism which was according to Moore, is characterized by developmentalism, financialism, globalization and accumulation. In a show of wealth and power the post medieval European nations, rushed out to conquer new frontiers looking for new lands for mining, agricultural investments and other cheap raw materials. It was the discovery of the ‘New World:’ the Americas and South East Asia, which culminated into the practice of unequal exchange. With the advent of Industrial Revolution and subsequent proliferation of machine driven fossil fuels, both human labour and vast areas of land were highly exploited. The cheap raw materials for European industries were unfairly extracted by poorly paid or slave labour from the New Worlds. The notion of the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ is clearly reflected in the modern theory of ecological and economic world systems whereby, the core nations (developed) are engaged in the unequal exchange with the periphery nations (developing) in the zero-sum capitalistic game.

I agreed with Hornborg’s argument that the modern mainstream thinking is quite unaware of unequal exchange games behind resource converting and space adjustment technology which represents a ‘cornucopian perception of development.’ The interconnected illusions about technology, economy, and ecology have resulted into machine fetishism, monetary fetishism and commodity fetishism. Hornborg’s argument is that technology which is a cultural concept is a global social phenomenon that actually represents labour input and ecological space somewhere else, which is unfairly considered. Due to consumer blindness about unequal exchange, the affluent societies tend to worship their commodities little knowing that the raw materials for manufacturing the commodity are ill-gotten at the expense of environmental integrity and cheap human labour and even loss of lives.

My final reflection on Hornborg’s arguments that he does not seem to have a solution for this global economic and ecological problem. For sure, the two world systems; the core and peripheral regions remain to co-exist on dependency of each other in their unequal exchange game, maybe until the collapse of capitalism and a new dispensation. The introduction of a common global metric unit of exchange as he suggests may however not go smooth with those who are already lost in the illusion of development.

Ecology and Pseudo-ecology, an example of Greece: Oliver Rackham

According to Oliver Rackham’s arguments in his article ‘Ecology and pseudo-ecology, an example of Greece,’ pseudo-ecology refers to historical records about ecology that are either politically biased or unintentionally created especially by ancient and pre-modern writers. He argues that when historical facts are on record, it is likely that some people may take it as the real truth if they are not very critical about the source of the information. So, the works of revisionist historians like Rackham and others has be to decipher and construe what was wrongly recorded by early writers. Pre-modern scholars fell in the trap of writing pseudo-ecology of Greece, much as their predecessors, the Greek philosophers did in their original scripts.

My reflection was directed at the Greek situation of recording pseudo-ecology and how it may have been the same in other ancient civilizations like Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia and others. Rackham argues that the original records of ecological history of Greece were flawed by lack of references by philosophers like Homer, Socrates and Aristotle. They were also not trained botanists and thus were limited in identifying specific species. In some of their records, they created a wrong impression that Greece was covered in thick forests with special tree stands that were suitable for ship building, and house construction. Also the fact that these philosophers were elderly and only staying in cities, thus, their local observations could not represent the whole of Greece. Besides, throughout their ages, many things may have happened to the environment which would disqualify their old memories. Also the pre-modern scholars became the conformists of such records without being critical. They are also accused of patching up pieces of historical information to create an impression of the real ecology of a given place. The same scenario could be affecting other ancient historical data apart from Greece because of similar circumstances.

However, Oliver Rackham’s strong argument in the interpretation of ancient ecology without relying solely on pseudo-historians is looking for clues from other sources and to employ modern scientific means like critical observation satellite images in comparison with old maps. In order to establish the real ecology of past and present Greece and other areas, certain factors must come into play. Rackham argues that human activities like agriculture and livestock keeping in Greece and indeed in other ancient civilizations must have been very influential in transforming the environment to what it looks like today. Geological changes like tectonic movements causing uplifts, and volcanic eruptions may have been some of the main factors in influencing ecology. Climate change is another factor which is mentioned by E. Huntington, a geographer quoted by Rackham. This is also evident in the desert areas that were once occupied by powerful ancient civilizations that were supported by agriculture.

Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature: Carolyn Merchant

Carolyn Merchant combines all categories of environmental history, from the point of view of ecological philosophy. She develops her ideas/arguments through a metaphor about a ‘pristine’ nature in a picture of a productive woman who co-creates and sustains life through human ecological reproduction/succession. She identifies a period in which humans interacted harmoniously with nature until such a time when humans started to convert the organic nature into mechanistic nature with the onset of renaissance. This was the period of cultural development in form of political power and technology that unleashed terror to ‘Mother Nature’ by stripping ‘Her’ naked in search of raw materials for industries, thus degrading the global ecological systems. The process did not end on the surface but also ripping of ‘her flesh’ through excavations. The rush for the ‘New World’ wealth was a direct result of industrialization in Europe where natural resources had been exhausted. Mining, extensive agriculture, and deforestation were the main activities that caused nature ‘the productive woman’, to be subordinated by a capitalistic system.
Carolyn Merchant’s philosophy calls for reawakening of women to realize their positions in human ecology in relation to their attitudes towards all environmental systems that form nature. Environmental activism and philosophy like ecofeminism is an attempt to restore/rehabilitate the humiliated ‘Mother Nature’ to an ethical state of harmony and respect. Women should be at the forefront of fighting for nature because both nature and women have been dominated from time immemorial. However, this can only be achieved through a sustainable perspective of development and gender equality, because humans have always depended on the products of nature.

Landscape, history and ethnicity: Tim Ingold

‘The Perception of the environment’, has been a good choice for the debate about the theme; landscape, history and ethnicity. Tim’s argument is bent on ‘relational ecological development’ with the aim of displaying how humans are related to their environments as they struggle to eke out their existence. In due process, humans develop cultural awareness that enables them to claim identity based on their ‘dwelling’ status.

In the chapter entitled ‘Ancestry, generation, substance, memory, land’, Tim argues that the above terms he has chosen are linked together in what he calls a genealogical model. He indicates that land is a platform from where humans undergo their social dynamics that help them to transcend generations through experience and ‘cultural memory’ that is passed on through language. Tim argues that there is always a relationship between the original inhabitants of land and the current dwellers. The passing of continuous generations does not affect the dwellers claims of belonging and status. In my opinion, such humans who may also be known as the indigenous dwellers have got a ‘sense of place’ which they attach to their ancestral connections with their current land which is be quite essential for natural conservation. Tim puts the indigenous dwellers in a political concept of oppression and marginalisation, and that they are limited in articulating their aspirations within hegemony of the state. However, he does not articulate how these indigenous people can be essential for ecological conservation, given their traditional environmental knowledge.
Chapter eleven, ‘The temporality of the landscape’ is another of Tim’s discussion about ecological anthropology. His argument is based on the fact that, human and non-human activities on the landscape are continuous processes that give it shape and definition at a given time. He demonstrates his argument with the imagery of music and a painting to enable the reader to understand how temporal, landscape processes work. When music is playing, not all instruments are heard but each one comes up at a moment where it is designed to appear and this does not affect the intended harmony but improves the final presentation. Similarly in the farmers’ painting, many activities are shown and not all people are doing the same job. There is even one who is asleep under the tree after his job is done but all in all, work is finally done. In this case Tim displays the argument that while geological processes like erosion, river and sea action continue to shape landscape, also human activities or ‘taskscapes’ also contribute to the process of landscape modification which is never completed. Human ‘taskscapes’ carry with them a lot of symbolism with foot prints of how far they have adapted themselves to their environments through their culture. I am convinced that this view is very instrumental in enabling humans to jealously guard what they have created for themselves during their ‘taskscapes’, thus living sustainably with nature.

Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy: Fairhead, J.

Fairhead and Leach focus on environmental narratives as a core theme of their book within a framework of political ecology. They show how scientific and political interactions can affect environmental knowledge and its narratives for the sake of pleasing policy makers. The authors outline the need to study the relationship between science and society in the developing world, as well as the value of seriously taking a comparative ethnographic approach to understand environmental history of a given area. Fairhead and Leach’s research expound on this in their research, by discovering that the ‘forest islands’ in West Africa were actually man-made rather than just remnants of a former belt of forest which was claimed, have been destroyed by indigenous communities and therefore needed protection. The existence of ringed patches of forest biodiversity and the deep black loam soils was evidence of the long term interaction between mankind and nature. For quite some time, the colonial governments and post colonial governments including transnational corporations, multilateral donors, and international NGOs, had been designing policies of forest management without regard to the indigenous knowledge and its relevance to conservation of nature. It is therefore important that traditional ecological knowledge can greatly contribute to environmental history of an area for redesigning policies for conservation of nature.

Globalisation, Environment and Livelihood: Helen Norberg-Hodge
Question: How can we define happiness? Is happiness a crucial foundation of a sustainable world? Discuss this based on ‘Ancient Futures’ by Helena Norberg-Hodge.

According to the Brundtland Report which is also known as ‘Our Common Future’, Sustainability is based on the principle that ‘everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. My reflection is that Norberg-Hodge’s book is relevant to the principles of sustainability. It calls the reader to consider traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) as a relevant issue in designing and maintaining a ‘sustainable world’. Ancient knowledge is quite important to our modern time and our future in contrast with science and technology whose impacts have been detrimental to global ecology. We are confronted with environmental dilemmas because of our economic policies aimed at rising standards for the few and the rest remaining in dire poverty. As the poor turn to the environment for subsistence, the rich will increase their competition for resources, both of which have severe and negative effects on nature.

Norberg-Hodge’s argument about the ‘economics of happiness’, indicates that humans should live harmoniously with nature while maintaining social interconnection as in the case of Ladakh people. This happiness can only be achieved through the idea of localization as contrasted with globalization. Through economic subsidies, burning of fossil fuels, the proliferation of multinational commercial companies, competitive local businesses and the threat to cultural identity are slowly and steadily taking away happiness of Ladakh people as environmental pollution is also taking its toll.

So what did ‘this economic happiness’ look like among the Ladakh people and how can it be relevant to localization for a sustainable world? First, social interconnectedness through extended families and belief in themselves through respect especially the young and the old; bring us back to the argument of linking the ancient to the future which is the foundation for sustainability through localization. Every member of the society is employed through division of labour as they share the benefits of their local economy. There is less or no pollution and diseases are also non prevalent while their foods are grown organically. Norberg-Hodge continues to argue that she has seen that community and a close relationship to the land can enrich human life in terms of happiness, beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. Finally the ‘emerging global economy and the growing domination of science and technology are not only worsening our connection to nature and to one another but also breaking down natural and cultural diversity’.

The history of Ecology: Radkau, J.

Radkau’s history of ecology focuses on several critical periods: the first conservation movements from the 1870s to 1914, the second wave in the 1970s, and the third wave in the 1990s. But in this regard I should argue that the title of his book should have appeared like ‘the age of environmental movements’ and not ‘the age of ecology’ which appears to me as if it is a narrative of evolutionary events about ecology. However, Radkau handle the issue of environmentalism as a global issue perhaps because his focus was to compile concerns for global awakening like the European and American movements, then Chinese, Japanese, and Indian environmental movements. The core of his history of the rise of environmental activism range from concerns like the rise of ecologists with concerns about the fate of the planet, the famous tragedy of the commons, publications about the diminishing tropical forest and the birth of ‘biodiversity’ as the new scientific concept about environment, the threat of global warming from fossil fuel gases, nuclear threat, pollution and many others. However, what would Radkau’s future of environment look like? By his suggestion, it should be a new green Enlightenment that should define our age. This should be so in a sense that mankind is responsible for halting the dangers of our planet; deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss. However, this would bear positive results if we were at the same time concerned with population growth. Much as we would want to save the planet, if population continued to increase, then the demands for natural resources would overstretch the planetary boundaries to its eventual demise.

The role of Environmental History: Sörlin

Sörlin’s arguments indicate his strong passion to ‘revolutionalise’ the old history subject into a sub-discipline that not only integrates humanities with other disciplines especially natural science history but also putting an emphasis on how human actions that have affected nature and vice versa in time and space. As we are witnessing transition in historical thinking by looking at human-nature interaction, we have a lot to draw from all recorded history. Describing history as a nightmare is equivalent to dismissing its sources. During his lecture, Sörlin displayed some of the history texts which he argues do not contain much information about environmental history. By doing this he was trying to justify the fact that authors of the new historical narrative, himself inclusive, are far better off than the previous ones. I somehow agree with this but argue that history books about ancient wars, struggles, revolutions and reforms are equally important to the environmental historian, just like for example the books written by colonial intellectuals who were trying to understand man-nature relationship in the new worlds. These are very good sources of knowledge but also interest should be on human migrations and settlements which affected the environment through conquests and occupation. Conflicts, wars, domination and creation of empires were motivated by resource availability which directly affected the environment. It is from this ‘nightmare’ history that environmental historians can for example fetch information on ‘political ecology’.


While environmental history is still a developing multidisciplinary study, the objective of scholars should be to analyse all factors driving human actions ever since the beginning of evolution. Both recorded and unrecorded evidence for compiling information on environmental history is embedded in the old historical libraries and traditional ecological knowledge. It is thus upon the modern scholar to look at the discipline as a global issue with the goal of finding out means for sustainable living for all mankind.

References outside course literature

Cronon, W. (1992). A place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative, The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No 4 (Mar., 1992, pp 1347-1376Accessed: 17/06/2009 05:42.

Wallerstein, I. (1974). The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World- Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press
Worster, D and Crosby, A.W. (1988). The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, Cambridge University Press.