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

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Markus # Posted on December 18, 2014 at 19:06

Markus Nyström, Complementary task for Oliver Rackham, 17 March 2014

At the heart of what Rackham argues against, I see the narrative of a “Paradise lost”; a Garden of Eden destroyed under the bulldozer of human destructiveness. Rackham, of course, criticizes this idea when it comes to classical Greece, and argues that the ecology of ancient Greece was probably pretty similar to the Greek ecology of “yesterday” (before the intruduction of industrial technology), and that psuedo-ecology and sloppy historiography has painted a distorted picture of the true ecology of classical Greece.

I think that the idea of an unaltered and pristine nature before the advent of civilization is a common one to modern environmentalist thought, not only in relation to Greece. Similar to nationalism in that sense, environmentalism can (but do not always do) take its departure from this romanticized past now lost. It is an environmentalism built on nostalgia – just like nationalism can be built on a foundation of nostalgia over a more or less imagined and glorious past.

It is a compelling thought, that something beautiful has been lost by our carelessness. And it is even more compelling in the case of Greece, I would argue, since Classical Greece has served as the bedrock of Western philosophy and science. The Greek philosophical tradition, lost in the mists of the middle ages and brought back to a prominent place in the Renaissance, could arguably lead to the idea that Greek ecology saw a similar fate as its philosophy.

Rackham focus his paper on, and warns against, ecological “factoids”. A factoid, he writes, is “a statement that looks like a fact, makes sense like a fact, commands the respect due to a fact, and has all the properties of a fact except that it is not true” (p. 16). He reminds us to be critical of sources, information and narratives that we might take for granted. Many of my colleagues comment on this point. I think Kristina Berglund’s comment on the subject, that this might be more important than ever today as we “live in a society of information-overload” is important to take into account too.

For how do we really decide what is true and not? I have never even been to Greece, and even though I have quite an extensive knowledge about trees (in Sweden), I do not find a single tree that he names familiar to me. Why, then, should I take his narrative over someone elses? My point is that, following Rackham’s warnings to its logical conclusion undoubtedly makes you end up in questions concerning epistomology.

Rackham argues for a stricter historical methodology than classic historiography, where written records are what matters, not taking into account the positionality or intentions of the writer of the records. Rackham instead argues – convincingly, I might add – that the environmental historian ought to make better use of the (natural) science of ecology, and natural science’s methods and results. Historiography, in his view, as I interpret his article, is still narrative history, but the sources are tried and tested for validity against each other. The assumption is that if, say, Plato writes about oak trees of Rhodes, an island on which scientific inquiry has determined that there were no oak trees in Plato’s time, then Plato is wrong. Natural science is that against which narrative sources should be put to the test.

Is this problematic? Yes, to some degree. The point is that many of the narrative sources (Plato, in my fictional example) did not write with the intention of describing ecology. Of course, this makes them many times unfit to use as foundation for environmental history, as Rackham points out. Ancient writers could have used ecology as literary tropes, for instance, as ways of infusing pathos or metaphors (which we may not know or understand today) into their narratives. For all we know, Plato writing about the oak trees on Rhodes could have been a hint towards a popular joke in his day. This problem reminds me of a methodological problem of my former main field of study, literature, where former generations of literary scholars sometimes went to great length to try to determine the “level of truthfulness” in fictional works. Not only was this an inquiry that lead to uncertain results at best, but it was also an inquiry which fundamentally misses the point of the fictional work. A fictional work should not be read as an allegory over reality, not all of them at least, just as Plato should not be read as a source of ecological knowledge. Like my colleague Archie Davies put it: “Just as it is wrong to use literary sources uncritically as a tool for historical ecology, so it is perhaps beside the point to accuse literary authors of getting the historical ecology wrong”.

Of course, written records cover only those periods when people actually did write, which Rackham points out. The bias of historians to cherish and focus on written records lead to the idea of “prehistory”, a time “before history” which means history is that which is in written records. As (post?) modern scholars, and particularly as environmental historians with an understanding of colonial discourses, it is my conviction that we ought to abolish this particular piece of terminology from our shared vocabulary. Rackham speaks of “aboriginal landscapes” (p. 25) instead of “prehistoric” landscapes which is, I like to think, in light of this. Interestingly, Rackham also warns against “projecting modern ecological fallacies on the ancients” (p. 17). The way I see it, the strong focus on written sources is a similar fallacy as we are very much a writing culture. Projecting our own tendency today to write, and also to write with the ambition of writing “the truth” (as in academic works), to the past is an equal fallacy as projecting our ideas (or fallacies) of ecology onto ancient sources. If the projecting of modern ecological fallacies onto ancient sources is “psuedo-ecology”, projecting our own predilection for writing onto the past, studying only written sources, should be regarded as “psuedo-history”. It is quite intuitive that “prehistory” as a concept is flat out inaccurate.

Of the three questions presented by the student organizers before this seminar, I think the most interesting one is whether or how psuedo-ecology in understanding ancient ecological history besides Greece. My answer, in short, is: yes. Factoids are not something inherent only to our understanding of Greek ecological history, but to ecological history in general, independent of geography or nations. The question, rather, is how stringent the natural science part of environmental history has to be in order to pass as stringent enough interdisciplinary environmental history? Of course, the environmental historian can focus on attitudes and views of the ecology and environment instead of the actual nature and changes within the ecology. Rackham, though, criticizes this approach (p. 17), and I – doing exactly that in my thesis, partly – feel that criticism as partly unwarranted. It depends on what the historian is aiming and claiming to do. I would argue that here one could see a watershed within the field of environmental history – that of the truly interdisciplinary environmental history, where elements of narrative historiography and natural science is molded together, and that of the discoursive investigations into attitudes and philosphies of environment throughout history. Maybe the two should not be lumped together like they are today. Maybe one can speak of a “scientific” environmental history and one “philosophical” environmental history?