Libby Robin “The rise of the idea of biodiversity” 2011
Tom Griffiths “Ecology and Empire: towards an Australian history of the world” 1997
Reflections on the literature and the participants’ comments
It is unfortunate that some technical issues have prevented me from fully hearing the seminar’s content, as Libby Robin seems to be such a fascinating scholar. However, by reading the literature and my colleagues’ reflections I gain a lot of perspectives helping me in the process of my own thesis writing. My thesis is about the permaculture movement and its philosophical roots, and I am especially interested in researching about the idea of ‘natural agriculture’. Some communities have claimed to return to a natural form of agriculture with a low impact on the ecosystems, mainly for spiritual or philosophical reasons. However, is it really possible to practice agriculture without impacting the Earth and its ecosystems? Many studies have shown that even hunters-gatherers societies had an impact on their environment.
Australian environmental history is especially interesting to me since permaculture initially originated in Australia. Indeed, the founders of permaculture were inspired by Aborigines Australians and by their way of relating to the land, which they found to be a conservation model. Before the arrival of agriculture there was no such thing as farming on the Australian continent, although as Tom Griffiths reminds us there was a form of proto-agriculture practiced and Aborigines might have had much more impact on the Australian ecosystems than the Whites first assumed. Both Robin’s and Griffiths’ articles are extremely interesting and relevant to today’s debates in environmental history. They raise issues such as history of power and ideas, the scale on which we reflect and the different interpretations that result from various perspectives. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on how this seminar helps me getting through my own research.
First, regarding contextualizing one case study in a global framework, an issue raised by Libby Robin, I agree with all of my colleagues that this contextualization is necessary. It is not for no-reason that our master is called “global environmental history”. As James Lovelock stated in his Gaia hypothesis in1989, the Earth can be compared to a superorganism able to self-regulate. Quoting environmentalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.
Just like Nisa, I find Robin work’s inspiring to contextualize my thesis work in a global frame. It is especially interesting when studying the history of agriculture because agriculture varies so much from one place to another. Indeed, different climates, soils and ecosystems generate different agricultural practices. Robin herself mentioned in the seminar that the only local crop before the arrival of the Whites were macadamia nuts and that the importation of many overseas crops in Australia caused an ecological disaster for the Australian soils. Indeed, I think we need to look at the history of agriculture on a global scale and not on a local one. Ellen writes that Robin told her how important it was to communicate with other levels of reflection, and I can only agree with that.
Regarding the applicability of the history of ideas and history of power approach in thesis work, I believe Griffiths and Robin have given many relevant examples of how power has often shaped the conception of the environment. Griffiths for instance elegantly points out the need of a new Australian environmental history, one that would not be dominated by power relationships. As Nick points out, conservation and biodiversity are definitely White men’s words. Kristina stresses that one of the things she has learnt in this program is that concepts such as ‘environment’, ‘empire’ and ‘biodiversity’ shall not be taken for granted as universal. I find it intriguing that Bill Mollison one of the founders of permaculture describe the Aborigines as a model for conservationists, but the Aborigines were surely not thinking of conservation when relating to their environment. Importing overseas crops into Australia had a devastating impact on Australia’s biodiversity but the Aborigines practicing proto-agriculture and hunting animals before Cook’s arrival, probably also had a big impact on biodiversity. Many species of mammals had disappeared from the Australian continent before the arrival of Whites. Surely, an empire is not solely a geographical entity, as Nisa reminds us inspired by Robin and Griffiths: it is a political and philosophical construction which existence relies on power. Morag also emphasizes the fact that the very idea of conservation is surrounded by emotional, psychological and social elements. In the case of the history of agriculture, and more especially the history of the natural agriculture movement, the concept of conservation plays an important role. Natural agriculture is about growing food while imitating nature and respecting it, but is it really possible to do so? Which nature do we want to imitate? In order to gain a better understanding of it, we shall conceive the last five hundred years of settler societies “as only a short sequence of ongoing environmental and societal changes” as Michael wrote.
Michael’s reflection embraces well the third aspect of this seminar, namely the question of the frontier in environmental history. As Gao reminds us, culture surely shapes our way of envisioning a landscape. Robin discussed how culture influences people’s perceptions toward the environment, like how British shaped the way Australian understand their environment. The idea of a ‘frontier’ is nothing less than a cultural construction, a point also mentioned by Michael. The concept of frontier is very interesting for my own research, as many researchers have shown that hunters-gatherers societies have also impacted what is usually called the backcountry.