Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies # Posted on December 7, 2014 at 22:27

Kristina Berglund: Examination Essay
Seminars attended:
3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
17/ Jason Moore World Systems, History and Ecology
3/3 Alf Hornborg Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
17/3 Oliver Rackham Greece and Revisionist Environmental History
31/3 Carolyn Merchant Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature
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
17/11 Joachim Radkau The Age of Ecology

Seminars organized:
19/5 Jane Carruthers Nationalism, Conservation, Globalization: History of NPs
22/9 Libby Robin History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia

This essay consists of my personal reflections on the above stated 10 seminars in the course “Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History” during the year of 2014, as part of the Master program in Global Environmental History at Uppsala University. I would like to begin with expressing my positive experiences from this course. For me it has been a very worthwhile course that has helped me grow in my role as an environmental history master graduate. It has helped me to define this field of study that was so new to me in the fall of 2013 when I began the program. Throughout this course and others in the program I have grown to feel much more secure in my field. Even though my other courses of course has contributed in this I think Current Debates in a very good way has helped me to connect different courses, topics, discourses and issues, and has provided a forum in which I have been able to discuss this with fellow students and learn also from their perspectives. Drawing from examples and reflections I have made throughout the course I will in this essay try to highlight how my understanding of environmental history, as well as my reasoning thereabout has improved. The essay is divided in three sections in which I included the sessions that in my mind have revolved around similar concepts, ideas and themes.

Empire, Ecology & Revisionist History: Cederlöf, Robin and Rackham
Key words: imperialism, agency, pseudo-ecology
Empire is one of the many concepts discussed during the Current Debates course. Although ecology and empire is often seen as contraries, one as natural and one as social, they actually “forged a historical partnership of great power that radically changed human and natural history across the globe”, in the words of Tom Griffiths (1998:1). Griffith’s and Libby Robin’s emphasis on bringing together ecology and empire – apparent innocence and power – was very connected to Gunnel Cederlöf’s (2013) work on India and the environmental history of imperialism. Both talked about issues of scale and the importance of examining spaces that overlap political boundaries and to look at phenomena that that are indifferent to political borders, such as the natural environment. Robin (1998:12) argued that the regional or global scale is more suitable when writing environmental history than the national, in this case seeing Australia not solely as a nation but “as a settler society, as part of the New World frontier, or a continental cluster of bioregions”. This was similar to Cederlöf’s reasoning on reframing the regional history of Imperialism in South Asia to also include parameters such as corporations and to think in terms of Empire. From both their sessions I took with me the importance of including ecological and climate related dimensions in historical analyses and how the usage of different scales simultaneously can be fruitful in order to understand the complexity of a certain phenomenon. However I do not think the nation as a parameter is to be ignored today either, as we have created a world so dependent on and grounded in the concept of nation-states. Another thing I brought with me was that concepts such as ‘environment’, ‘empire’ and ‘biodiversity’ is not to be taken for granted as obvious or universal. The word ‘empire’ brings certain images to mind, but as Robin said, we all have our little empires and we need to ask ourselves who is the imperialist in a particular setting (Robin, Lecture, Uppsala University, 2014-09-22). Another important task for historians is to shed new light on the history of so called ‘peripheries’ in order to question traditional world histories and bring back agency to those who were left without. This was connected to Oliver Rackham’s reasoning about the dangers of when generalizations and simplifications become ‘factoids’ – presumed ‘facts’ that in reality are not true at all, and which can form whole pseudo-theories. In Rackham’s case of Greece this can evolve into a ‘pseudo-ecology’ – “a coherent, logical, reasonable, and widely accepted system of belief having no connection with the real world” (Rackham, Lecture, Uppsala University 2014-03-17). Rackham argued that landscape history and in particular the landscape history of Greece, is particularly susceptible to this non-objective, untrue pseudo-ecology (ibid).
The main important point I took with me in my reflection on this seminar was the importance of critically analyzing facts and narratives we often take for granted as self-evident. I emphasized in my reflection the importance of “asking whether different information we absorb is really ‘true’, or at least to critically examine the motives and theories that underpin different narratives. This might be more important now than ever, as we live in a society characterized by information-overload and globalization of communication” (Berglund, 2014, reflection paper). Not maybe a groundbreaking discovery, but I brought with me from the seminar the importance of taking in as much different sources of information as possible before making conclusions about a specific question, a lesson that has been very useful for my current master thesis project.

Equality, feminism & capitalism critique: Moore, Hornborg, Norberg-Hodge, Merchant
Key words: capitalocene, machine-fetishism, development, women
Common for these sessions and my reflections on them is the critique of the current capitalist economic system and eco-modernist worldviews. Global questions of equity and how our lifestyles in my part of the world affect other parts of the world have had a strong influence on me and therefore these seminars were intriguing to me in many different ways. Jason Moore argued that the current world-ecology is capitalism, and argued for viewing the modern era as a ‘capitalocene’ (instead of Anthropocene). If seeking apprehension of current global environmental challenges (e.g. questions around food, energy, depletion of natural resources) capitalism is therefore the most crucial phenomenon to understand. Thus, not only biophysical aspects is central to environmental history, but also dimensions such as global financial markets, interest rates and power dynamics between states, capital, producers and places. Moore (2010) argued that the Cartesian divide of capitalism and nature can therefore be transcended in favor of capitalism in nature. Preconditions for a continued accumulation of surplus and the capitalist world system are what Moore calls ‘the four cheaps’ – cheap food, labor, energy and raw materials (Moore, 2010:233). This has laid the ground for the agricultural revolutions that has sustained capitalism as a world system. Moore argued that we today see the end of the four cheaps, which thus marks the end of capitalism. Similar to this, Alf Hornborg argued for a greater awareness and concern for how the way in which we organize society turns the blind eye to the fact that technology and consumption is a zero-sum game where we in the rich part of the world save time and space at the expense of humans and environments in the poorer parts of the world. When ‘doing’ environmental history therefore, Hornborg argued in his lecture that we must acknowledge these connections between places in the world, instead of comparing them. We must recognize what is happening in the marginalized areas of the world as a concequence of the richer part of the world maintaining our advantaged positions aquired from the creation of industrial society, with consumerism, burning of fossil fuels and ‘globalized’ society (Hornborg, 2012).
I was very intruiged by Hornborg’s world-analysis where he views our society as being built on unequal exchanges of resources that benefits a small part of the world’s population at the expense of the less priveleged’s resources, helath and environments, and I think his reasoning has helped me in shaping my own arguments when discussing questions of global equity, food distrbution and similar topics.
Helena Norberg-Hodge added to this discussion with her critique of the Western traditional notion of ‘development’ as a one-way, linear progress path and the prevailing economic system with its lack of consideration for social and environmental wellbeing. I wrote in my reflection that “Helena put forward a convincing case for learning from traditional societies like Ladakh in the Himalayas to direct our societies towards a more socially and ecologically resilient economy, going from global to local by shortening distances and steer all aspects of our economies (e.g. food production) towards localization. However, there were also things to be skeptical about, such as her description of the traditional Ladakhi society as somewhat idealized, and her localization strategy as too simplistic. The question is whether her proposed strategies are complex enough and do not fall in to the same imposed development idea that she so heavily criticizes”. The whole idea of ‘thinking global acting local’ which Norberg-Hodge strongly promoted was later discussed by Joachim Radkau which bluntly dismissed the idea. I think the idea includes wise components but that the scale of localization and its generalizability differ largely from place to place.
Norberg-Hodge’s reasoning about the traditional Ladhak society’s intimate relationship with their natural surroundings was rather harshly criticized at our seminar for being romanticizing and idealistic. Similar to what I wrote in my reflection paper I believe it is central to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘awareness of nature’, ‘closeness to nature’, or even ‘nature’ in general. It is very interesting to explore what values and meanings people dedicate to these concepts and what relation they have to them, in different settings.
This is connected to the session we had with Carolyn Merchant who in her early work explored the connection between women and nature and how the view of nature and women have changed throughout history. I learned at that session that the epithet ‘ecofeminist’ stems from her ideas. In my reflection paper I wrote “Ecofeminism seems to be based on the premise that the oppression of women the domination of nature is fundamentally linked and that this is due to the existence of a patriarchal dualism that places women and the concept of ‘nature’ in the same classification. Despite some relevant criticism that ecofeminism has been exposed to, for example that it holds an essentialist view of women and their affinity to nature, I think it includes some significant points – such as promoting a gender perspective in the environmental debate in general, both in decision making as well as in seeing how women and men are affected by climate change in different ways.” I found Merchant’s feminist perspective as well as the critical reflections on it to be an interesting expansion of my understanding of environmental history. Her book ‘The Death of Nature’ provided a comprehensive review of history of ideas about changing perceptions of women and ecology. Her historical description of a transition from an ‘organic worldview’ to a ‘mechanistic worldview’ and the dichotomies of human-nature were also similar to both Hornborg’s and Moore’s reasoning.
I very much agreed with and was inspired by these scholar’s critique of development, capitalism, machine fetichism, and a unconditional faith in technology – similar to the concept of eco-modernism which I have later learned about. Hornborg argued in his lecture that we in modern society seem to have an unconditional faith in technology, a belief that technology is the answer to continued growth and development but also the solution to current climate change and environmental challenges, and this is exactly what eco-modernism is about. This view is heard from politicians, economists and people in general. But in this view we put an immense faith in technology without questioning the underlying factors that made it possible, namely unequal resource transfers causing environmental and social degradation in the areas where the resources are exploited from.
Another theme in my reasoning was the concern and curoisity for the future, how the challenge many times is to make politicians and economists to think along the lines of being more bold and questioning modern assumptions, and not to mention the large and powerful coorporations, but also ourselves as humans. Moore’s explicit critique of capitalism and his distinctive way of stating that “capitalism is done” in his lecture as a response to the question what the fate of capitalism might be, triggered questions about what in that case will ‘replace’ capitalism, and how the transition will look like. Merchant’ proposed a ‘partnership of ethic’ as an alternative to the current mechanistic worldview that shall include equality between and moral consideration for humans, non-human nature, women and minorities. This was a benign idea but without more specific explanations on how it can be achieved and implemented in reality.

Conservation & The rise of the environmental movement: Carruthers and Radkau
Key words: National Parks, Politics, The New Enlightenment
The topic of nature conservation has greatly interested me during the master program and the Current Debates course, which is also why I have chosen to write about the topic in my master thesis. The visit from Jane Carruthers was one of the most interesting sessions for me, both due to the fact that I was part of organizing it and got a chance to talk to her one on one, but also due to the fact that she was very approachable and interested in learning also form us as students. National Parks constitute a relevant topic in global environmental history, as one of our oldest and most successful forms of nature protection. National parks exist all around the globe, and are part of the nature conservation history so relevant for the environmental debate and history. The Carruthers session brought inspiration for my thesis writing but also dissolved some of my prejudices about what a national park is and how there are no international regulations about what it can be. Carruthers discussed the history of conservation and national parks in South Africa but also how the concept of national parks has spread throughout the world as part of modern globalization. I found it very relevant and suggestive to connect the national park movement into a global context, to learn about how and why it has spread across the globe. The concept of a national park often brings with it an “appealing aura of goodness” – it seems to represent civilized modernity and brings benign connotations like cherished western concepts such as ‘democracy’ (Carruthers, 2012). But the question discussed in the seminar is really; what do we want a national park to be? Should they exist to promote ‘development’, for generation of jobs and income, for tourism, research, or for protecting valuable natural resources? Or should they include all of those aspects? Who should be involved in the management of the parks? What value do we put in words like wilderness, nature and conservation? I think the most important lesson from Carruthers was that all national parks were created in a specific historical context, with specific political, economic and social structures, and thus there can only be context-based management strategies and characteristics for specific parks. It struck me how sad I felt when we discussed how money in many cases seems to be the only force keeping protected areas intact, not any intrinsic value of the natural resources and habitats they hold. But there are so many competing interests, actors and political philosophies involved, and therefore they will unavoidably be challenging to create, manage and discuss. Related to the spread of the national parks movement is the rise of modern environmentalism, which was the topic of the Joachim Radkau session. Radkau’s book ‘The Age of Ecology’ contained many intriguing examples of actors, events and debates that have been part of shaping modern environmentalism. Radkau in his lecture even proposed this to be a kind of ‘new enlightenment’ – a strong word indeed, with positive connotations of being aware and educated. But in one sense that also contradicted his argument that the age of ecology also is a way of forgetting what has been happening in the past and how there is no reason to believe that our present environmental awareness is the highest level of ecological understanding (Radkau, 2013). On the contrary Radkau argued that people in earlier times might have been more advanced in certain aspects than we are today, e.g. with soil preserving methods (Radkau, 2013:430). Our seminar discussion revolved to a large degree around energy politics and pros and cons with different methods of producing energy. It is interesting how perceptions on these different alternatives vary so much and how they are framed by proponents and opponents. This made me steer my reflection paper towards the debate in Sweden about conventional farming versus ecological farming that has been going on for many years but that was revitalized again just the day before the Radkau seminar. The debate was again initiated by a few professors from the Swedish Agricultural University through the launch of their book ‘The ecological dream’ and a debate article in leading Swedish newspapers. My reflection on this matter went (and still goes): “Their argument is essentially that ecological farming will lead to starvation and that the current idea that ecological farming is climate friendly and produces healthier food is false. The authors argue that the increase of ecological farming would be a catastrophe in terms of food supply and would put higher pressure on the environment to a very high cost. Instead of subsidizing ecological farming resources should be put into improving conventional farming practices. They also wrote that ecological farming stems from homeopathy and that the debate has been too much focused on emotions and not ‘real’ natural science. I do agree that we really need to improve farming methods and try to find ways to reduce the highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and indeed there are problems also with ecological farming. But I think that their arguments are highly simplified. I do believe that consumers get healthier foods when eating products that have not been grown with chemicals in them and that this in many ways are better for the environment, I cannot see how they can argue the opposite. And saying that ecological farming is the same as homeopathy is really arrogant. I find it similar to when Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was criticized for not being ‘real science’ and how she was called a ‘hysterical woman’ – the same kind of techniques that can be seen in the current debate when the authors argue that ecological farming proponents just ‘talk about feelings’ in contrast to the ‘real science’ that the authors are involved in. It is just sad that the debate has become so polarized. Of course there are real problems with questions of land, and where and how this land should be used. But what is missing in their argument is that today around 50% of all crops we grow is used for animal fodder, which implies we need to lower our meat consumption. Issues of distribution, policy and food waste were not touched upon either, all important dimensions when talking about food production. Also, the connection between the production of food and starvation is not solid, as many studies have indicated. I do not think it is the way forward to make it sound like the only options we have is either 0 or 100% ecological farming.” The debate will surely continue, as well as the energy politics debate, but what Radkau and the Current Debates course have taught us is that a historical depth on current environmental issues is crucial and may take the debate in new directions.

Conclusion: What is Environmental History? Sörlin
Key words: Sustainability, environment, nature
Even though all Current Debates sessions were environmental history in essence, one certain session was particularly helpful in deepening my understanding of environmental history as a academic field. One full seminar was used to reflect on what environmental history is/what we want it to be, and that was the one on Sverker Sörlin’s introductory chapter ‘Making the environment historical’ from the book ‘Nature’s end: history and the environment’. I saw Sörlin’s introductory chapter as a broad but well written overview of what environmental history is, and how we can think about historicizing nature.
I have used many of the different definitions that my colleagues presented at that seminar. One definition I took with me from Sörlin (2009:2) was that: “Environmental history is meaningful because it seeks to provide the history that can tell us how we arrived here and what we need to know to handle our global environmental predicament”. At the same time however, Sörlin (2009:18) argued that “history is not what the past forces us to do in the future” and that sustainability thus is a decision, not a destiny. I thought that was a nice way to put it. Since environment is described as a human product whereas nature is not, the environment has the opportunity to be sustainable or unsustainable depending on our choices as humans. Nature in itself cannot be unsustainable, can it? I also enjoyed how he described environment as nature when being recognized as historical. Sörlin’s (2009:7) argument that the origins of environmental history cannot be seen as a linear chronology, “but rather a constant growing set of historicizing projects, emerging from different fields of social and political discourse” have also added to my understanding of environmental history and why it is and has to be interdisciplinary and integrative of ideas and perspectives from a wide range of fields.
I think that it was inspiring to meet with Sverker Sörlin, as Sweden’s only professor in environmental history. It feels good to have such a wise person as a central figure in the Swedish field of environmental history. I have since his talk engaged in some of his other work and listened to him attending debates and that has helped me in developing my own reasoning and arguments. This goes however for all lecturers; it is such a privilege to meet with these researchers and to develop ideas and exchange opinions with them and with my colleagues. As I see it, all these lecturers have two things in common: they are stressing the importance of historical analyses to be rooted in ecological dimensions, and in various ways provide perspectives on the role of environmental history in policy making, history writing, conservation, science etcetera.
I have enjoyed this course as it has strengthened me and my academic confidence, and this essay has been a good way to tie things up and has provided an opportunity to reflect on and analyse these ten interesting seminars. I think this will be a good essay to look back to in the future when I want to think about what my master program was all about.

Carruthers, J, 2012, National Parks, civilisation and globalisation. In: Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Hohler, Patrick Kupper (Eds) Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, 256-263. Berghahn Books Ltd. (E book)
Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford University Press Griffiths, T. 1998. Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian History of the World in Griffiths, T & Robin, L (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, University of Washington Press
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.
Merchant, C. 1990. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper one.
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 (
Rackham, O. 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In Shipley, G. (Ed) Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. Routledge (E book)
Radkau, J. 2013. The Age of Ecology. Polity Press
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