Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Author Replies # Posted on March 4, 2014 at 14:07

What is wrong with the nation-state as a unit of analysis for environmental history?

Reading through Hornborg’s book there was hardly a point I did not agree with. I thought he put forward a well substantiated argument and methodology on how to study environmental history and environmental impacts that was not just theoretical but also included many anthropological examples. I was in the group talking about the nation-state and if it is a useful concept in the analysis of environmental history. While our discussion took us away from the above question, we did talk about the nation-state as a concept that should/should not be present in the study of environmental history.

To reiterate my thoughts on yesterday’s discussion, I think that the concept of a nation-state should be part of any environmental historical research. The nation-state is the centre of political power nowadays, and it is also a place/space where the general public should (theoretically) have the power to propose new laws, enforce economic change, express their mind etc. Through their actions they should be able to change their countries’ economic outlook. It is also in the nation-state that politicians have the power to make economically irrational decisions and go against a dominant economic thought or the dominant economic system, like neoliberalism. Each nation-state should be seen as a living and changing entity within an economic system that is different from the other, and operates differently. So, in the current global capitalist system, the US does not operate like Sweden, which does not operate like China. This is because each nation-state is trying to do what is best economically and best for its people in the situation that it is at that point, and because the politicians leading the nation-states and their populations have different ideological outlooks.

There are huge global corporations, which transcend the boundaries of the nation-state and which have the power to affect their economy and laws through lobbying. However, the nation-state would hardly allow the corporation to touch its sovereignty and the corporation would have to comply with the nation-state’s laws.

While the nation-state is a necessary and useful concept in the analysis of environmental history, it is not useful as a unit of analysis, which is unchangeable and devoid of external contact. For one, the idea of a nation-state only started gaining ground some 300 years ago or less. Using the nation-state as a unit of analysis means that we lose some of the historical background of certain economic tendencies within the space now occupied by the nation state. Moreover, there are not many environmental histories just as there are not many environments in the world. The world’s environment operates in unity, so the non-appearance of El Nino can produce droughts in East Africa. So saying that the British Empire did not have any major environmental impacts in the 17th and 18th century because it did not deforest its own lands, but imported wood from East Europe would be a major historical fallacy. Nation-states, empires, regions, etc. have economic ties to other places. The economic ties do not stop at the boundary of that nation-state.

That is why Hornborg thinks of the nation-state as not a useful unit of analysis of environmental history, but rather focuses on the economic ties themselves, as these are not bound by political entities, but are shaped by the dominant economic system and that system’s/people’s needs.