Reply To: Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History Reply To: Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

Author Replies # Posted on December 12, 2014 at 20:09

Nik Petek, Relfection on Oliver Rackham
Complimentary task for Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History

Unfortunately, I missed Rackham’s seminar and am putting down only my reflections on the article on the ecology and pseudo-ecology of Greece.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this chapter because of its witty academic politeness when discussing the conclusions of other researchers and the style it was written in. Rackham is clearly a person with much experience in debunking bad ecology and writes with the same vigour as a person who has had enough of it. The comment on p. 34 on Zangger’s work is particularly revealing why he wants better ecological work.

The impression I have about the work of others is that they based it on very scant data – at least that is how Rackham presents it. While I suspect that each author provided more evidence (or factoids), since otherwise it would never get published, it does show how quickly an individual can debunk a badly assembled argument on ecology and socio-ecological relationships. The particular danger, which comes out from Rackham’s paper, is that people are dealing with material (historical scripts in this case) with which they don’t know how to handle. Already as an archaeology and anthropology undergraduate I was told not to take historical references at face-value, but to be critical of them and to analyse and contextualise each historical source. However, we were never taught how you can be critical and how you can contextualise and strengthen any argument using historical sources. Throughout my undergraduate and master’s degree, I continued to use historical sources and was trying not to take them at face-value, but it was not until recently that I was taught how to work with historical sources.

During a workshop on the use of archival resources, Prof David Anderson brought forward the notion of ‘triangulation’. By triangulation he meant that a researcher uses more than one historical source of evidence (not just archives, but also public media, oral history) and uses data from other disciplines. (Unfortunately, this brings us again to the criticism that some people will not know how to deal with and interpret the data from other disciplines). Through triangulation an argument will gain more weight and become more coherent.

Not knowing how to work with the data and be critical of it is not the only problem that Rackham encounters in the ecology of ancient Greece. Many of the issues Rackham talks about also appear simplified and are not dealt with in sufficient detail. Part of the reason for this problem stems from the lack of written evidence from Ancient Greece, be it either that the Greek writers were ignorant of ecological issues or that they did not survive to the present day. Another problem is that researchers think of former lands/regions as a single ecological area and sometimes in terms of the modern state that occupies that area. As Rackham himself states already, even an island like Crete cannot be subject to a single ecological discussion due to the various environs present on the island. But researchers (admittedly the articles he writes about are from the 1980s) deal with the whole Classic Greek world as a single ecological entity. The third issue Rackham exposes is the lack of thought given to various possibilities that could have happened or to the multiplicity of truths. The thought process he criticises is usually binary: if it is not a, it has to be b; and if it is not b, it has to be a.

To explain this problem I would like to refer the area that I am working in: Baringo, Kenya. Baringo is now suffering from heavy erosion. Before the research done by David Anderson, it was popularly believed that it was the extremely large herds of cattle and goat that ate all of the undergrowth, thus causing erosion. David Anderson, however, showed that it was the British colonialists who created native reserves, immobilizing pastoralists, who caused the overgrazing of the area. Less than a decade ago Kiage reported that erosion has been happening for the past 400 years – that is for the whole period that lake sediment records were available. Kiage again brought the idea to the forefront that it was the local inhabitants of the area that could be the major cause of erosion. Neither Anderson nor Kiage took into account the geology of the area and how it operates with the local climate. Baringo is characterised by unconsolidated, very fine silts and clays which are easily transported by wind (which is constant) and by water (which comes in sporadic downpours during two rainy seasons). Although I am still to investigate this and substantiate my claim, it seems reasonable to assume that both the geology and the local climate are the major actors in this erosion and might even be the root cause of it.
Anderson’s argument was it was not the locals, it was the colonials. Kiage’s argument was that erosion has been happening for too long to be the colonials’ fault; it has to be the locals. But neither of them is right, since their conclusion is very binary and does not take into account the whole picture. The discussion is very similar to that of Madagascar, where people have again been accused of causing erosion. However, with time the argument has grown more complex and it is now believed that it is natural.

One thing that Rackham shows, between the lines, is that no matter our agenda, as researchers we should aim to be as precise as we can, even if that precision means that we can’t say anything conclusive. We should not try and build an ecological and environmental argument, just for the sake of having one. Every researcher needs to be aware of the deficiencies of his/her data and acknowledge that.