Reply To: September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia Reply To: September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia

Author Replies # Posted on September 9, 2014 at 12:45

Reflection on Libby Robin (2014): Ecology and Empire to Biological Invasions: 25 Years of Environmental History

In the following I would like to reflect on three aspects of the last seminar: first, the importance of the history of ideas and power in my thesis, second, the nation state as a scale for an analysis in environmental history and third, the question if there is a frontier outside the colonial context.

Coming to my own thesis, I conclude that the history of ideas and of power can not be analyzed apart from each other. From a Foucauldian perspective any idea, or call it knowledge, can only become dominant in a society if it is coupled with power, that is through systems of inclusion and exclusion of knowledge, and consequently, of people in their ability to speak and act. Similarly, power can not work without working through certain kinds of knowledge. Especially since the modern times it is hard to imagine that people’s attitudes and practices can be forged without the (re)articulation of certain ideas, be it the Enlightenment, democracy or environmentalism and the workings of certain institutions like prisons, schools or national parks.

Tom Griffith made a very interesting point by claiming that most of outstanding environmental historians of the US write in a nationalist manner. By doing so he probably did not mean they intentionally wanted to contribute to a grand story of the nation state. He rather tried to demonstrate that by taking the national frontier as the only scale for an environmental historian analysis, the perspective is already limited to events which took place inside the borders of a (developing) nation state. Events which changed the environment and societies in a certain area before or outside the constitution of such borders are excluded in that way. Thus, a historical analysis which only includes documents of human or environmental change during a certain time and in a certain place, can only be partial and is privileging some over others. Consequently, an environmental history about the American continent must start way earlier than the arrival of Columbus, the vikings, Egyptians or even Asians – and see the last five hundred years of settler societies as only a short sequence of ongoing environmental and societal changes. By doing so the historian might actually be able to cut out the imperial and the nationalist image of the past, and could contribute to a (at least more) universal world history.

Can we imagine frontiers beyond the unexplored, unsettled edges of a landscape? I think rather not. During the seminar I realized that there is no expression of “frontier” in the German language. The closes translation would be “Grenze” which is mostly used in the same way as the English word “border”. This might be only a minor difference but my initial explanation for that “missing word” might be the relatively minor involvement of German speaking states in the colonization of the global South. This is not to say that they have not been imperial, with the history of Nazi Germany being the most brutal expression of imperialism so far. But in expanding the German territory, the Nazis have mainly crossed borders of neighbouring states which was invaded inhabited space. Thus the absence of a German “frontier” let me conclude that it is a colonial word, strongly connected to the moving of settlers to other regions (in- and outside Europe). These colonizers were the ones who were exposed to the threats and uncertainties of new lands, not knowing where they would end or what they contained. Tthey con”front”ed a place which’s nature or history they did not know. For that reason, I don’t think there are still any frontiers in the modern world – at least on planet earth.