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|November 24, 2014 at 19:50 #15560|
Submit your final assignment here (final date 20 of Jan)
|December 7, 2014 at 22:27 #15682|
Kristina Berglund: Examination Essay
Empire, Ecology & Revisionist History: Cederlöf, Robin and Rackham
Equality, feminism & capitalism critique: Moore, Hornborg, Norberg-Hodge, Merchant
Conservation & The rise of the environmental movement: Carruthers and Radkau
Conclusion: What is Environmental History? Sörlin
|December 19, 2014 at 14:11 #15821|
17 February: World Systems, History, and Ecology with Jason Moore
3 March: Ecology, History, and Unequal Exchange with Alf Hornborg
14 April: Landscape, History, and Ethnicity with Tim Ingold
28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the Link with Environmental Policy with James Fairhead
15 May: Nationalism, Conservation, and Globalisation: The History of National Parks with Jane Carruthers
26 May: Globalisation, Environment, and Livelyhood: Ladakh, Kashmir with Helena Norberg-Hodge
8 Sep: History, Conservation, and Politics: The Example of Australia with Libby Robbin
22 Sep: The Role of Environmental History with Sverker Sorlin
17 Nov: The History of Ecology with Joachim Radkau
31 March: Science, History, Ecology, and the Idea of Nature with Caroline Merchant
28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the Link with Environmental Policy with James Fairhead
22 Sep: The Role of Environmental History with Sverker Sorlin
In Jason Moore’s World Systems History and Ecology seminar he pronounced that our current neo-liberal world system cannot re-establish conditions for a new long wave of accumulation, as we have exhausted the four pillars of capitalist production (cheap energy, raw materials, labor power, and food). He went on to say that the Capitalpocene was going to come to an end, in my lifetime, and that we would have to re-conceptualize the world understanding that: nature is not external, time is not linear, and space is not flat. It has been a bit frustrating to try to capture everything I have learned and discussed during this course into a mere five pages of text. I have decided to organize my final reflection around Moore’s words, as they continued to resonate throughout the course of the year. However, there was one point that Moore didn’t discuss, which I find I gravitated towards in many of my reflections and that is societies are not systems.
Nature is Not External
The idea that the mind and nature are not separate is certainly a central tenant in this course. In my Libby Robin reflection paper I quoted her saying during her lecture ‘sometimes the nature is different because people are in it but sometimes humanity is just nature’. I thought this was actually a very simple and elegant way of expressing the dialectical phenomena that is the nature and society construct. Robin also said that ‘ecology is a necessary, but no longer sufficient expertise for biodiversity in the crisis of the sixth mass extinction’, and that the individuals most qualified to expound on this issue are not climatologists or ecologists, but social scientists.
Time is not linear
Stories, particularly ones involving the synthesis of long and convoluted narratives, seem to be disseminated most comfortably in chronological sequence. Those interested in discussing global history are faced with the task of imposing a singular timeline of events in order to make sense of the complexities. Unfortunately, archaeologists and historians often lack the high-resolution data necessary to make this leap, and need to deal with the disconjunctions. Yet some still manage to discuss the past by shifting the focus from a linear trajectory of history to the phenomena connecting us throughout time and space.
Space is not flat
In many the same ways that time is not linear, space is not flat. The different scales at which landscapes are conceptualized was a recurring theme throughout the year. Much debate centered around global and local environmental perspectives. Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the localization movement, and strongly critical of international development agendas that threaten local communities, economies, and identities. Norberg-Hodge wrote about her time in Ladakh in Ancient Futures, and believes that industrialized Western mono-cultural development trajectories are very harmful, but at the same time, some Western influences can be successfully integrated into Ladakh life. This contradiction is also characteristic of NGO and development organizations, as they are meant to operate on the community scale, but are subject to the international behavioral norms and institutions from which they proceed. Funders and directors of development organizations essentially have to navigate the complexities of thinking globally and acting locally, and they often fail.
Societies are not systems
I have been thinking a lot this year about how Malthusian population growth models and Hardin’s tragedy of the commons theory believe that as a collective, humans systematically act contrary to their own interests. These ideas have had powerful influences on the environmental movement and the practice of ecology. Fairhead and Leach deconstructed the uncritical discourse centered around humans being the antithesis to nature. Misreading the African Landscape exposes that contrary to the popular opinion of scientists and policy makers in Guinea, forests are actually expanding due to population growth. Fairhead also detailed in the seminar how agriculturalists in Guinea were creating and exploiting ‘black earths’, which are soils that have had their fertility enhanced from the refuse of villages. Fairhead demonstrated that ‘traditional lifeways’ of forest dwelling people in Guinea are creating conditions that benefit forests rather than destroy them. The really fascinating part about this work is that it does not stop at challenging assumptions of forest degradation, but also investigates how these assumptions come into being, and how scientists, policy makers, governments, and media are implicit. By unpacking the process through which environmental threats and ‘indigenous people’ are conceptualized we learn so much more about the real impacts of our work as academics. In academia we are conditioned to authoritatively discuss things like landscapes, indigenous people, and environmental crises but we must constantly be reflexive about our world-views.
A final point, and something that was brought up consistently in Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History is that we need to take a multidisciplinary approach to the study of environment. I found this course very useful as it embodied this objective. It was a pleasure especially to learn from the other participants, and I wish you all the best with your theses.
References (excluding course readings)
Paasi, A. 2005. Globalisation, academic capitalism, and the uneven geographies of international journal publishing spaces. Environment and Planning. 37: 769-789.
|January 3, 2015 at 17:54 #15897|
Reflection on seminar:
Globalization of the environment
|January 6, 2015 at 13:29 #15908|
Nik Petek – Final essay
Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History: Final Essay
List of seminars attended
List of seminars for which complementary work was done
List of seminars led
Diary of seminar reflections and feedback given/received
The characteristic, which allowed the unit to achieve its goal, was its mixing of previously distinct academic disciplines such as history, archaeology, conservation, etc. It spurred each student to step out of the framework that was constructed in his/her previous studies and explore further. Moreover, the focus was more on societal relevance, causes and applicability rather than the science of ecology. This was appreciated by the students who in the future want to have an impact on society or a particular industry.
The unit had a great scope of topics. The seminars dealt with, what I deem, introductory topics which tackled issues of concepts (Ingold 2000b; Ingold 2000a), the history of environmental history (Radkau 2014), and the problems the field has already faced (Rackham 1996). The great majority of seminars attended engaged us students in discussions on world-systems (Moore 2010b; Moore 2010a; Moore 2011), power and power-struggle, and questions of authority and rights (Robin 2011; Carruthers 2012). A welcomed addition were also discussions with Ms. Persson and Ms Norberg-Hodge which allowed us to see how the idea of environment and ecology is perceived and shaped in a political and a popular sphere.
Getting to know the field
Radkau, in his book The Age of Ecology (2014), traces back the roots of environmentalism to the Romantic period, when it became vogue, and even further back to the 1660s in Great Britain (Radkau 2014, p.11). Although criticised for putting a lot of emphasis on Germany (K. Berglund, reflection 17.11.2014), it nevertheless details environmentalisms’ beginnings, and reveals its various guises. Importantly, the book contextualises the environmental discussion and clearly shows what events shaped it, e.g. health (Radkau 2014, p.35). The contextualisation made me realise that we are dealing with perceptions of the environment. For example, “discussing nuclear power in the seminar, [we agreed that it] is one of the greenest and cleanest sources of energy, but countries avoid building them and people are reluctant to have them because they are considered unsafe and create a huge waste disposal issue, and people are scared of radiation. Radkau told us that a German official was an advocate of nuclear energy until the Chernobyl accident” (N. Petek, reflection 17.11.2014). Through the seminar we learnt that we need to keep in mind the perception of the environment and what shaped it. We are dealing with subjective constructs which have the capability of influencing other people and the environmental discussion locally and globally.
While Radkau’s work was dealing with the history of the environmental movement, Ingold’s essays (2000b; 2000a) problematized the common concepts, ‘landscape’ and ‘indigenous’, that we use in the environmental-ecological discussion. My interests lie particularly with the notion of ‘landscape’, how to define it and how to study it. In my reflection I was focusing on the (in)applicability of his definition of landscape. “Because the theory of his framework is based in phenomenology, any interpretation of the archaeological record with this framework will not be objective, due to the archaeologist not being of the period and landscape studied. The question still remains, how archaeologists can best use Ingold’s work” (N. Petek, reflection 14.4.2014). While his work is hard to apply archaeologically, his book The Perception of the Environment is able to construct a holistic account of how people perceive and construct an idea of the environment, and how each culture/individual can perceive the same landscape differently. This weaves well into Radkau’s work, as Ingold provides a subconscious mechanism through which people constructed their perceptions of the environment that Radkau was writing about.
Whereas Ingold and Radkau both produced environmentally focused publications, Rackham (1996) focused on bad or pseudo-ecology, providing glaring examples of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the available data and records. Both M. Ramsey (reflection 17.3.2014) and I (reflection, 12.12.2014) commented that the obvious advice is very welcome. “Because it is obvious and commonplace we usually forget about it and it is particularly valuable to students learning to use various sources of information” (N. Petek, reply to R. Morag 12.12.2014). Particularly when dealing with historical sources it is always important to understand their own context.
The economics of power and the power of economics in society and ecology
While Moore and Hornborg were more focused on the effects of power and economics on the ecology and the environment, Science, Society, and Power (Fairhead & Leach 2003) teaches us how science can be and is politicised and how it is used in struggles for power and legitimacy in conservation and forestry. The book can act as an example of how trans-national relationships can affect the way in which research is done, through incoming donor money. More than by the book, my interest was sparked by the lecture on the dark earths of West Africa. “Many correlations could be drawn between the African dark earths and pastoralists’ abandoned bomas in East Africa” (N. Petek, reflection 28.4.2014). I was particularly drawn to this topic in the way one could approach it from a research perspective as an archaeologist, looking at soil, vegetation patterns, remote sensing etc.
The three seminars combine well to problematize power and the use of economic power and resources. It also taught me that power and authority can considerably affect research, not just what you are allowed to research, but also what you as a researcher perceive as an interesting question.
The politics of conservation
This scientific imperialism can oftentimes be seen in conservation projects, which were discussed by Robin (2011). Science is given the ultimate word when it comes to biodiversity, conservation and the preservation of the environments, although as Robin (2011, p.35) states, the sciences are under pressure and are including more social sciences, humanities and arts with a focus on stress deliberation and analysis. A sentence that stuck with me from that seminar was that “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” (L. Robin, pers.comm. 8.9.2014). By that Robin meant that it was used by white Australians (the dominant group in Australia) who were themselves the biggest destroyers of the environment, but then pushed the Aborigines out of their land. The sentence stuck with me because it is similar in Slovenia, “where food labelled ‘organic’ or ‘bio’ is out of reach for the general population. In that sense, even in countries like Slovenia, conservation and biodiversity also become the dominant group’s word” (N. Petek, reflection 8.9.2014).
Like with Moore, Hornborg, and Fairhead, power plays an important role with Robin’s research. Robin and Carruthers clearly showed us the politics around conservation, such as through the establishment of a national park, and that conservation is determined not by local communities but by those in power.
The environment outside of academia
Norberg-Hodge (1991) tried to engage with the general western public, whose society and economy was being pushed into globalisation and stressful situations, by writing about the Ladak culture. She described the Ladak as a calm people, content with basic necessities, and who with the help of Buddhism lead peaceful lives. The book was stressing the importance of the local compared to the global. Norberg-Hodge was criticised for idealising the Ladak as the perfect archetypal culture, but we needed to remind ourselves that the book’s target audience were not academics, but the general public. The lesson that we can take home is that always make your message audience focused. Furthermore, even though she was criticised for the idealisation of the role that Buddhism and localisation played in their culture, it still sparked a heated debate. The questions we posed during the seminar were consistently related to the importance of the local, and to Buddhism’s relationship to nature and the attitude of life it promotes (W. Steining, reflection 27.5.2014; Y. Gao, reflection 27.5.2014; etc.). My stance on the discussion of the global and the local, and the lifestyles they promote, was that “people will not want to give up globalisation and the commodities this has brought. People have grown used to these commodities and without globalisation technology would get prohibitively expensive” (N. Petek, reflection 26.5.2014).
While Norberg-Hodge targets the general public, Persson works for an NGO that lobbies politicians. Her discussion prompted me to reflect on the correlation between labour, economy, and care for the environment. “How does the relationship that people have with their employment affect how they feel about nature and how their work directly or indirectly affects the environment? Research has shown that people who work on a product from start to finish are happier and more interested in it. Furthermore, egalitarian developed countries (e.g. Japan, Sweden, Finland) are also the ones which care more about climate change than the non-egalitarian developed ones (e.g. USA). In the more egalitarian countries people are also happier doing their job and happier in general” (N. Petek, reflection 9.6.2014). While Maria Wilen replied by pointing out that Sweden has a high suicide rate, she also points out that “it is time to find out what makes people realize the state of the environmental threats and then be willing to participate actively for a sustainable economy” (M. Wilen, reply to N. Petek 10.6.2014).
Norberg-Hodge and Persson have the job of transferring research findings from the academic to the public sphere, and they have to be picky with their choice of information in order to receive empathy from the general public through the idealisation of the Ladak lifestyle, or to achieve changes in policy and law through the government.
The group dynamics were also worth noting, as different people were more prominent depending on their knowledge of the topic. An inspirational characteristic of the group was that it consisted of people who wanted to change the world or parts of it, and they saw research as a prominent force in what can contribute to that change.
|January 7, 2015 at 13:14 #15922|
Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
1. Mon 3 Feb: Introduction to the course & India and the Environmental History
3. Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange (Hornborg, 2012.)
4. Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History (Rackham, 1996.)
6. Mon 14 April: Landscape, history and ethnicity (Ingold, 2000)
7. Mon 28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy (Fairhead, 2003)
8. Mon 19 May: Nationalism, Conservation and Globalisation: the History of National Parks (Carruthers, 2012)
11. Mon 8 Sep: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia (Robin, 1997)
12. Mon 22 Sep: The role of Environmental History (Sörlin, 2008)
13. Mon 6 Oct: Science and Poetry (Midgley, 2001)
16. Mon 17 Nov: The history of Ecology (Radkau, 2013.)
Chaired the eleventh seminar on Libby Robin.
Current Debates helped simultaneously expand and question my understanding of Global Environmental History, but ultimately it made me feel more comfortable with my place in this discipline. In this past year we have met and interacted with notable academics who have all contributed in different ways to Global Environmental History, some with scientific backgrounds, others with political science, history, or philosophy as their main interest. While they did not all directly support each other’s work, what struck me as their shared common ground was their critical analysis of human and nature interactions, and their attempts to build new paradigms. This assignment focuses on the way Current Debates helped me this year, first with my understanding of the field in general and then with my looming thesis writing.
I felt Current Debates mainly served as a way to develop different strategies for approaching research, discussions, and interactions in Global Environmental History. As the seminars all had different focuses and depths, the actual accumulation of ‘facts’ and ‘information’ was inconsistent and not what I considered the main priority. While I learnt interesting things throughout the year, it was mostly broader ideas that I came away with.
While questioning assumptions can be rather basic advice given early on in academia, I found it was not wasted on me to have it explained in different ways, by different academics. Having just ventured into this new world of Global Environmental History, going over some basics from another angle helped develop my foundation. Right off the mark, Gunnel Cederlöf and the seminar on India and imperialism challenged me to look at actors differently. Cederlöf problematized the ‘State’ as an actor in imperial India, deconstructing the existing coherent narrative in colonial history that treats the state as one coherent actor with one set of interests. (Cederlöf, 2013) Following this, Oliver Rackham gave a seminar on his work on Greece, reminding us that even published academics have fallen victim to pseudoscience and to question basic cultural understandings of events, ecology, and history. In Rackham’s case, he felt misinterpretation of data, partly caused by lack of socio-cultural understandings of language and words, confused earlier scholar’s work on the ecology of ancient Greece. (Rackham, 1996) A final example of maneuvering around assumptions can be found with James Fairhead, and the book he coauthored with Melissa Leach, Science, Society and Power. While working in West Africa Fairhead and Leach established that the decolonization of nature had never occurred, thus decades of ‘scientific’ conclusions had been made on a colonial ideological foundation. Just as Rackham described the effects of pseudo-ecology, Fairhead spoke to us about the similar impact of colonial discourses shaping science. While perhaps not extremely radical to consider science subjective, when assumptions are made unaware that they are layered on colonial subjectivity, they lead academics to different discoveries altogether. Fairhead, Rackham, and Cederlöf deconstruct assumptions and in doing so illustrated clearly to me the many assumptions we must be wary of.
While many of the seminars sifted through assumptions and encouraged independent thinking, I was also struck by the interdisciplinary nature of Global Environmental History. While it has been described as interdisciplinary, bearing witness to different scholars, books, articles, and discussions that embodied the interdisciplinary nature of this program helped make it a tangible reality to me. None of the guest lecturers presented any of their research as straight forward, simple, or requiring one set of skills. For the most part we dealt with complexity; from global to local scale, no issue or topic worth discussing existed in one dimension. Incorporating other disciplines, whether through written sources or collaboration with different scholars, helps to justify studying environmental problems at all. I initially thought this collaboration would be difficult if we are required to question all of our assumptions. Not having a background in biology, it would require tremendous effort to sift through possible ‘facts’ and ‘factoids’ that I am relying on in my research. However, being skeptical about this will accomplish nothing, so being able to balance questioning assumptions with trust in other disciplines is essential.
An example of a scholar tackling different levels of complexity can be found with Alf Hornborg. Hornborg discussed complexity by looking at the modern conceptions of technology. While technology can be considered as a flat term or idea, Hornborg deconstructs components behind technological advances, and illustrates that technology is not politically innocent. (Hornborg, 2012) As he stated in his first chapter, “’technology’, ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ are cultural categories that train us to think about socio-ecological realities in particular ways.” (Hornborg, 2012, p.8) This separation of these cultural categories is problematic to Hornborg as it divides entities that he views as being completely intertwined, and allows people to disconnect actions and results occurring in one cultural category from the other. In this case, ecology, economics, and politics, (to name only a few categories) are all required to assess problems of inequality. Being an expert in all these fields simultaneously is not very likely, and cooperation with academics from other fields is most likely needed.
Joakim Radkau also illustrated a manner in which cross-disciplinary efforts could be explored. Radkau brought up time in reference to climate change. He was commenting on the future, and how we are negotiating that outcome. He wrote in his conclusion about Hegel, how “man is essentially here and now.” (Radkau, 2013 p. 429) Nora Bateson brought up a similar line of thought when she problematized the way we look at environmental issues on a linear time scale. (Bateson, lecture dec.8) During her guest lecture, Bateson discussed new ways to consider time. In this case, reinventing time paradigms may involve incorporating new ideas which root themselves in philosophy or physics, for example. Being open to other disciplines’ methods, theories, and outlooks may provide global environmental historians keys to examining events with different lenses, and help push aside deep-rooted assumptions.
Questioning assumptions and the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation are the two main pillars I took away from Current Debates. Interacting with all these scholars who encouraged independent thinking, building new paradigms, and challenging academic expectations helped shape what I now consider to be the field of Global Environmental History. While before the course I had a difficult time grasping the limitations of this field, now I see with imagination there are not many limitations at all, but I understand that as a positive component of Global Environmental History and not as my own inability to grasp a solid definition of it.
In addition to giving me a better footing in Global Environmental History in general, Current Debates helped shape the direction my thesis has gone in thus far. In particular, Libby Robin and her work on biodiversity really influenced how I wanted to tackle the issue of Swedish nature conservation. After reading from Ecology and Empire, I was struck by how the history of power and history of ideas must have interacted in regards to nature conservation in Sweden and what that will reveal. Robin made me want to search for the “biodiversity” in my own area of interest. I am also interested in the idea that “a crisis itself frames its own solutions” and I will now try and apply this lens to my work. (Robin, 1998, p.25) I began to try and reimagine what the issue of the Swedish wolf in Sweden was really about, and I hope this will help defend against assumptions I could make that would weaken my study.
Current Debates also revealed insight into some of the scholars’ academic processes. Cederlöf explained the way her book took shape during the research process, her own expectations, and how matters actually turned out. (Cederlöf, mind and nature lecture) Jane Carruther’s touched on the networking she did in Southern African national parks, which included her journey from an academic anomaly to an expert in the field. (Carruther, mind and nature lecture) Robin told us about the process of creating and editing a volume on environmental humanities, the academics she got in touch with, the collaborations involved, and the satisfaction of finally compiling such a work as Ecology and Empire. (Robin, GEH seminar) Finally, academics such as Mary Midgley, and Nora Bateson illustrated the way knowledge can be produced outside of a university’s realm. Midgley took philosophy beyond the university campus, while Bateson advocated the importance of having avenues beyond the university as research facilities. (Midgely, GEH seminar) Being privileged with a small insight into the academic process and journey of some notable contributors to the environmental humanities helped unveil a somewhat clouded process. While it is impossible to compare one’s self with such veterans in the field, it is comforting to see that they all had different strategies and different routes into this discipline. It does not concretely help me with my thesis writing, yet, it again illuminates the possibilities, and I think that is encouraging.
Bateson, Nora. Mind and Nature guest seminar, Uppsala University, December 8th, 2014.
Carruthers, J, 2012, National Parks, civilisation and globalisation. In: Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Hohler, Patrick Kupper (Eds) Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, 256-263. Berghahn Books Ltd. (E book)
Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford University Press Griffiths, T. 1998.
Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian History of the World in Griffiths, 1998, T & Robin, L (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, University of Washington Press
Fairhead, J. & Leach, M., 2003. Science, Society and Power: Environmental Knowledge and Policy in West Africa and the Carribean, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.
Midgley, Mary, GEH seminar, Uppsala University, October 6th, 2014.
Rackham, O., 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In G. Shipley & J. Salmon, eds. Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 16–43.
Radkau, J. 2013. The Age of Ecology. Polity Press
Robin, L., 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises , responses and expertise. Quaderni, 76, pp.25–38.
|January 17, 2015 at 19:00 #15994|
Final Reflection on Current Debates in Environmental History (2014)
3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
14/10 Kenneth Worthy: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Enviroment
6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
Introduction: no red threat but a good turn
In the following I will reflect on the texts I have produced along the current debates which were held over the last year. While reading my reflections and comments I was searching for something like a “red threat”, a line of thought that developed over time. I did not find a clear one which does not mean that my thinking has not changed over time. Quite the opposite is the case: now, after three semesters, I feel more inspired by and dedicated to our discipline more than ever. This might be due to an unexpected but fruitful postmodern turn in my understanding to the extend that the past, present and future never have to be the way we believe it was, is and will be. The aim of this “reflection diary” is to explain why and how I came to that optimistic glimpse. Five themes which stood out in my contributions should serve here as illustrations.
Environing everything, now and ever
Divided mind, divided nature
Academics should look in the mirror and then forward
A personal struggle against ecological modernization
Environmental History and its missing link with politics
Finally: mediating between truths about the environment
Radkau, Joachim (2013): The Age of Ecology. Polity Press.
|January 18, 2015 at 17:15 #16001|
3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
The seven knots of history
I have decided to write my »grand narrative« of the course spanning through one whole turbulent year of my life as a meshwork of topics and problems that stimulated my thoughts most. May this be an excuse for unsystematic, Joycean-stream-of-consciousness style of writing, since I do not know how to approach this differently (and to my defense, the instructions did tell us to write a diary). Thus, I take the knitting needles into my hands and start to weave my (hi)story and hope the pattern emerges in the process…
&&&History as politics&&&
I could not disagree with Worthy, since I cannot and do not want to separate my work as a student from myself as an activist. But where do I differ then from the ideologues behind the creation of national parks that we were dealing with at the session with Jane Carruthers? Whether it be in my country of origin, Slovenia, where after the dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia, the intellectual elite created a kind of geographical deterministic national identity that would separate it from the Balkans, i.e. the alpine identity. The creation of the Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps in 1961 makes me curious who/what was this nation in the context of SFR Slovenia? Slovenes, Yugoslavs? Anyway, what about the bureaucrats behind the creation, re-creation of national parks nowadays that strive towards various goals like biodiversity, economic activity etc.? (Re)writing history of an area makes it malleable, it makes legitimizations. Again, what makes me as a historian different? I aim for factuality, yet I clearly acknowledge my ideological bias that might skewer my interpretation of sources and indeed my choice of sources. Is it only my left-wing apprehension of the world that separates my historiography?
&&&History as imperialism&&&
I am constantly afraid that my own thinking and work might actually subdue the Otherness. As I reflected on the conversation with Libby Robin: » imperialism [is] not only a historical or political phenomenon but also a mode of conduct and thought. Such an understanding means that an empire is not strictly a geographical entity stretching over vast areas, or indeed does not have to be a geographic entity at all, but can also mean intra-state imperialism or imperialism done by scientific categorization for example.« The scientific imperialism is very much alive, for example indigenous practices clash with juridico-academic definitions of biodiversity (as Carruthers described the situation in the problematics of South African national parks), the imperialistic appropriation of the past by intellectual historians who minimalize the lives of uncanonized, everyday people, my own stubbornness in minimalizing all other issues if compared to class struggle throughout history etc. Of course scientific imperialism was and is made possible by territorial imperialism of the maritime and military powers, like the frontier usurping of the North American continent, or colonial expansion on all continents; Gunnel Cederlöf shows how it is impossible to decouple nation-state creation from the growth of colonial merchant companies and how the scale of a nation is lacking in the context of the 18th century when the economy was becoming increasingly globalized (let alone nowadays) and even more so in the context of environmental history, since national borders rarely coincide with delimitations provided by rivers or mountains (Cederlöf:2013). Or if one is interested in the dispossesion and plundering of global capital flows as Hornborg is, then the nation-state as a point of departure necessarily obscures the unequal flows and structural inequalities that are materialized in every piece of technology we own (Hornborg:2012). But I would like to return to the theatrical notion of locating boundaries in nature; I am still amused by one of events that Cederlöf describes in her book, when an East India Company officer tried to draw a border but had to go in zig zags, due to flooding (the border still remains that way…). It is a wake up call when one thinks that a vast amount of contemporary legalistic and academic notions probably originate in someone’s inflexibility of thoughts. But how to think consciousness as a phenomenon of the past? Is not consciousness always only present in the present?
&&&History as consciousness&&&
Given my tendency to sympathize with histories from below, I often ask myself how to find traces of people’s lives who left little in the way of official sources, written sources etc. How to find their thoughts if only a wooden spoon remains for example? Much can be deduced from patterns of consumption, landscape use, changes in the economy. And yet, if as environmental historians we are interested in how people perceived the environments they lived in, does this suffice? Tim Ingold’s phenomenological approach to the understanding of the subject in an Umwelt was enlightening to a degree, especially when he aimed to reconstruct the experience of a landscape depicted in a painting by Bruegel The Harvesters (Ingold:2000). It was a lovely experience to imagine the heat, the smell of harvested wheat, the chattering, the quenching of the thirst one harvester experiences etc. But, I could not get rid of the notion that I (or Ingold for that matter) am romanticizing this. This is one issue I take with this approach, how to reach the supraindividual, even if indeed we can reconstruct a taskscape; an individual hardly ever can experience themselves and other entities in a historical context, as a finished business, yet in a way we are. For example, the incense of harvest and the rays of sun might be pleasurable to the harvesters but are they aware of themselves as being exploited in an unegalitarian agrarian economy (I am just guessing by contextualizing the painting in the 16th century)? But if the notion is turned around, people’s perceptions and actions in the taskscape changed the physical environment; the path is there, perhaps where the leftovers of the harvest are left, there might be more mice, maybe someone carved something into the tree’s bark etc. Is this relevant for history? I think for environmental historians as Moore put it, albeit in a different context: »no domain of human experience is off limits« (Moore: 2011, p.135).
&&&History as atonement&&&
This will be my finishing knot. I think there is no single author that we have read or had conversations with during our sessions, that does not with their work follow Marx’s words »[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it« (Marx: 2000, p.173). I think this is something conventional historians would not like to admit, since it puts into question the factuality and objectivity of their work and to change the narrative of the past carries huge responsibilites. I have not yet included in my story any thoughts that have sprung to being with the help of Norberg Hodge, which is ironic since I was chairing that session together with Ellen. I think this is because I found her text Ancient Futures (2009) the least rigorous; the history of the Ladakhi people was dealth with like it was written with the typical tragical scheme: the innocent beginning, the meeting with the active, usually malevolent actor (the West), the fall but with the addition of a glimpse of a possible happy-end. But Norberg Hodge’s text is useful because it puts into sharp relief the pathos, which is symptomatic for many of the authors we have been acquainted with (especially the intellectual history line); it is the pathos of atonement. It is the conflation of economic, ecological, psychological, societal, intellectual phenomena into a single history of Western individualism and dissociation from »nature«, which is where we find ourselves now supposedly. This leads me back to Sörlin’s claim, that history reflects anxieties and interests of the society, in which it emerges. It seems I have knitted a circular piece of material, but I still think it is not random to choose anxiety as the starting point and maybe it is the way it should be, since it drives us away from the illusions of objectivity into that unstable in-between moments, where history and all the voices of the people from the past collide in ourselves, where the limits fall, time and space become insubstantial in one great point of clarity; the clarity that is humbleness for the times past, for the now and the humbleness we owe to the times to come. I did not want to sound so cliché and spiritual in a way books for the middle-aged want us to be. But I think that humbleness can help us when grappling with all the cliffs, hurdles, the whys, the blank spaces, the aporias when immersing in history.
|January 20, 2015 at 01:07 #16115|
A Dairy of Reflections on Seminars and Lectures: Current themes and debates in Environmental History: by Sabbath Sunday
The following is a dairy of reflections on seminars and lectures on current themes and debates. My discussions and reflections are directly related to the respective themes of each seminar. The different seminars and lectures provided me with an overall knowledge of environmental history which is a multidisciplinary subject that draws widely on both the humanities and natural science. During the course we focused on particular time-scales, geographic space with key themes regarding human interaction with the natural world over time.
India and the Environmental History of Imperialism: Cederlöf, Gunnel
The book by Cederlöf. G (2013) is one of the various historical accounts that enable us to understand environmental histories of other parts of the world. The issues of organization of human society, ecology, climate and modes of production and are well tackled. My reflections on this piece of work was based of several perspectives by some environmental historians who have given their arguments on how to understand the new discipline in order to enable us handle our environmental challenges with informed backgrounds.
According to Worster, and Crosby, (1988) “much of the materials for environmental history have been around for generations if not for centuries” so it is our duty “to organize them in light of our recent experiences.” So in the case of Cederlöf’s book, the British and the Mughal’s imperial occupation in the region of north eastern India is a manifestation of Donald Wortster’s arguments in his recent presentations “Second Earth: Thinking About Environmental History on a Planetary Scale”, that the discovery of the Americas and a sea route to India via the Cape, triggered off a rush for search of new land and natural resources by European imperialists. This was just the exportation of environmental depletion in other parts of the world after wrecking havoc in their European home countries. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all struggled to control north eastern India because of its abundant natural resources but the British came out successful. This territory had been under the Mughah Empire (1525-1857) having defeated an earlier Ahom kingdom (1228-1826) but all of these were imperialists. All these successive socio-political organizations had one objective; to exploit the natural wealth for the economic sustainability of their empires through agriculture, fishing, mining, lumbering, hunting and trade. Gunnel, C. (2014) makes it clear that the British East India Company (EIC) was more interested in mercantile activities rather than administration. This could have encouraged the ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude towards environmental degradation and respect for indigenous settlers. Theirs was total ecological imperialism as observed by Worster and Crosby, (1988) whereby apart from taking away natural wealth, “the Europeans also introduced domestic animals, plants, pathogens, varmints, and weeds in many regions of the world”.
Merchant, (2010) has another concept of colonial ecological revolution as a fresh approach to environmental history. The environmental historical situation of the American Indians in New England of North East of North America faced the same tragedy as that of North East India in southern Asia. In both cases ‘the integration of the Indians with their natural world, was interrupted by other invading economic regimes and social structures who not only came to control plant and animal life but also to dominate the host communities. The Ahom, the Mughal and the British East India Company brought about a succession of ‘capitalistic ecological revolution’ that changed and monopolized natural resource exploitation in disregard of the indigenous settlers whose mode of production was friendlier to the environment.
World Systems, History and Ecology: J. W. Moore
Moore’s articles on the above theme reflect to Wallerstein’s (1974) perceptions as the first to develop a theory to understand the historical changes involved in the rise of capitalism up to the modern day of world economic systems. Both authors agree that ‘the world is one unit connected by a complex of network economic exchange relationships.’ Moore goes on to refer this phenomenon as an ‘oikeios’ which is a Greek terminology that means ‘belonging to one household and also being related to each other.’ Thus, the universe should be regarded as a family of interrelated units which include; ‘flora, fauna, geological and biospheric configurations like cycles and movements.’ However, according to Moore, the expected harmonic relationship has been altered in time and space by historical changes which have been characterized by successive socio-ecological shifts that depend on capitalistic demands.
The history of capitalism and its impact on world ecology has been well tackled Moore from Wallerstein’s theory of world systems, tracing it from around 1500 to the present. It was still the nature-society relationship that saw the collapse of feudalism and the growing of capitalism in Europe. This was a mere change of system to ensure continued economic growth. However, the so called civilisation and capitalism combined, ignored nature as a ‘historically variant webs of life’ but even went further to look for new frontiers to sustain accumulation with cheap products, leaving behind trails of exhausted and disused ecosystems. Capitalism discards the notion of ‘oikeios’ but rather, only regards the ‘extra-human nature as an external entity which is only a source of wealth and power. The process of human-ecological history that run through the period 1450-1750 up to the present day has been characterized by globalization of world resources, developmentalism, finacialism and accumulation whose negative results on ecology, have been registered in climate change, agro-ecological exhaustion, diseases and natural disasters.
The shifting of capitalism from frontier expansion of a direct socio-ecological hegemony to the present day world system economic hegemonies, seemed to have been halted by the end of colonialism, the latter still makes no difference on affecting ecology. As Wallerstein (1974) argues, the strong modern states or core states do only facilitate a ‘skewed development in which economic and social disparities between sections of the world economy have increased instead of providing prosperity for all.’ It is thus predicted that ‘a worldwide economic crisis is imminent and that the capitalist world economic system will collapse, giving way to new revolutionary changes’.
Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange: Alf Hornborg
From a historical point of view, unequal exchange came about because of capitalism which was according to Moore, is characterized by developmentalism, financialism, globalization and accumulation. In a show of wealth and power the post medieval European nations, rushed out to conquer new frontiers looking for new lands for mining, agricultural investments and other cheap raw materials. It was the discovery of the ‘New World:’ the Americas and South East Asia, which culminated into the practice of unequal exchange. With the advent of Industrial Revolution and subsequent proliferation of machine driven fossil fuels, both human labour and vast areas of land were highly exploited. The cheap raw materials for European industries were unfairly extracted by poorly paid or slave labour from the New Worlds. The notion of the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ is clearly reflected in the modern theory of ecological and economic world systems whereby, the core nations (developed) are engaged in the unequal exchange with the periphery nations (developing) in the zero-sum capitalistic game.
I agreed with Hornborg’s argument that the modern mainstream thinking is quite unaware of unequal exchange games behind resource converting and space adjustment technology which represents a ‘cornucopian perception of development.’ The interconnected illusions about technology, economy, and ecology have resulted into machine fetishism, monetary fetishism and commodity fetishism. Hornborg’s argument is that technology which is a cultural concept is a global social phenomenon that actually represents labour input and ecological space somewhere else, which is unfairly considered. Due to consumer blindness about unequal exchange, the affluent societies tend to worship their commodities little knowing that the raw materials for manufacturing the commodity are ill-gotten at the expense of environmental integrity and cheap human labour and even loss of lives.
My final reflection on Hornborg’s arguments that he does not seem to have a solution for this global economic and ecological problem. For sure, the two world systems; the core and peripheral regions remain to co-exist on dependency of each other in their unequal exchange game, maybe until the collapse of capitalism and a new dispensation. The introduction of a common global metric unit of exchange as he suggests may however not go smooth with those who are already lost in the illusion of development.
Ecology and Pseudo-ecology, an example of Greece: Oliver Rackham
According to Oliver Rackham’s arguments in his article ‘Ecology and pseudo-ecology, an example of Greece,’ pseudo-ecology refers to historical records about ecology that are either politically biased or unintentionally created especially by ancient and pre-modern writers. He argues that when historical facts are on record, it is likely that some people may take it as the real truth if they are not very critical about the source of the information. So, the works of revisionist historians like Rackham and others has be to decipher and construe what was wrongly recorded by early writers. Pre-modern scholars fell in the trap of writing pseudo-ecology of Greece, much as their predecessors, the Greek philosophers did in their original scripts.
My reflection was directed at the Greek situation of recording pseudo-ecology and how it may have been the same in other ancient civilizations like Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia and others. Rackham argues that the original records of ecological history of Greece were flawed by lack of references by philosophers like Homer, Socrates and Aristotle. They were also not trained botanists and thus were limited in identifying specific species. In some of their records, they created a wrong impression that Greece was covered in thick forests with special tree stands that were suitable for ship building, and house construction. Also the fact that these philosophers were elderly and only staying in cities, thus, their local observations could not represent the whole of Greece. Besides, throughout their ages, many things may have happened to the environment which would disqualify their old memories. Also the pre-modern scholars became the conformists of such records without being critical. They are also accused of patching up pieces of historical information to create an impression of the real ecology of a given place. The same scenario could be affecting other ancient historical data apart from Greece because of similar circumstances.
However, Oliver Rackham’s strong argument in the interpretation of ancient ecology without relying solely on pseudo-historians is looking for clues from other sources and to employ modern scientific means like critical observation satellite images in comparison with old maps. In order to establish the real ecology of past and present Greece and other areas, certain factors must come into play. Rackham argues that human activities like agriculture and livestock keeping in Greece and indeed in other ancient civilizations must have been very influential in transforming the environment to what it looks like today. Geological changes like tectonic movements causing uplifts, and volcanic eruptions may have been some of the main factors in influencing ecology. Climate change is another factor which is mentioned by E. Huntington, a geographer quoted by Rackham. This is also evident in the desert areas that were once occupied by powerful ancient civilizations that were supported by agriculture.
Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature: Carolyn Merchant
Carolyn Merchant combines all categories of environmental history, from the point of view of ecological philosophy. She develops her ideas/arguments through a metaphor about a ‘pristine’ nature in a picture of a productive woman who co-creates and sustains life through human ecological reproduction/succession. She identifies a period in which humans interacted harmoniously with nature until such a time when humans started to convert the organic nature into mechanistic nature with the onset of renaissance. This was the period of cultural development in form of political power and technology that unleashed terror to ‘Mother Nature’ by stripping ‘Her’ naked in search of raw materials for industries, thus degrading the global ecological systems. The process did not end on the surface but also ripping of ‘her flesh’ through excavations. The rush for the ‘New World’ wealth was a direct result of industrialization in Europe where natural resources had been exhausted. Mining, extensive agriculture, and deforestation were the main activities that caused nature ‘the productive woman’, to be subordinated by a capitalistic system.
Landscape, history and ethnicity: Tim Ingold
‘The Perception of the environment’, has been a good choice for the debate about the theme; landscape, history and ethnicity. Tim’s argument is bent on ‘relational ecological development’ with the aim of displaying how humans are related to their environments as they struggle to eke out their existence. In due process, humans develop cultural awareness that enables them to claim identity based on their ‘dwelling’ status.
In the chapter entitled ‘Ancestry, generation, substance, memory, land’, Tim argues that the above terms he has chosen are linked together in what he calls a genealogical model. He indicates that land is a platform from where humans undergo their social dynamics that help them to transcend generations through experience and ‘cultural memory’ that is passed on through language. Tim argues that there is always a relationship between the original inhabitants of land and the current dwellers. The passing of continuous generations does not affect the dwellers claims of belonging and status. In my opinion, such humans who may also be known as the indigenous dwellers have got a ‘sense of place’ which they attach to their ancestral connections with their current land which is be quite essential for natural conservation. Tim puts the indigenous dwellers in a political concept of oppression and marginalisation, and that they are limited in articulating their aspirations within hegemony of the state. However, he does not articulate how these indigenous people can be essential for ecological conservation, given their traditional environmental knowledge.
Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy: Fairhead, J.
Fairhead and Leach focus on environmental narratives as a core theme of their book within a framework of political ecology. They show how scientific and political interactions can affect environmental knowledge and its narratives for the sake of pleasing policy makers. The authors outline the need to study the relationship between science and society in the developing world, as well as the value of seriously taking a comparative ethnographic approach to understand environmental history of a given area. Fairhead and Leach’s research expound on this in their research, by discovering that the ‘forest islands’ in West Africa were actually man-made rather than just remnants of a former belt of forest which was claimed, have been destroyed by indigenous communities and therefore needed protection. The existence of ringed patches of forest biodiversity and the deep black loam soils was evidence of the long term interaction between mankind and nature. For quite some time, the colonial governments and post colonial governments including transnational corporations, multilateral donors, and international NGOs, had been designing policies of forest management without regard to the indigenous knowledge and its relevance to conservation of nature. It is therefore important that traditional ecological knowledge can greatly contribute to environmental history of an area for redesigning policies for conservation of nature.
Globalisation, Environment and Livelihood: Helen Norberg-Hodge
According to the Brundtland Report which is also known as ‘Our Common Future’, Sustainability is based on the principle that ‘everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. My reflection is that Norberg-Hodge’s book is relevant to the principles of sustainability. It calls the reader to consider traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) as a relevant issue in designing and maintaining a ‘sustainable world’. Ancient knowledge is quite important to our modern time and our future in contrast with science and technology whose impacts have been detrimental to global ecology. We are confronted with environmental dilemmas because of our economic policies aimed at rising standards for the few and the rest remaining in dire poverty. As the poor turn to the environment for subsistence, the rich will increase their competition for resources, both of which have severe and negative effects on nature.
Norberg-Hodge’s argument about the ‘economics of happiness’, indicates that humans should live harmoniously with nature while maintaining social interconnection as in the case of Ladakh people. This happiness can only be achieved through the idea of localization as contrasted with globalization. Through economic subsidies, burning of fossil fuels, the proliferation of multinational commercial companies, competitive local businesses and the threat to cultural identity are slowly and steadily taking away happiness of Ladakh people as environmental pollution is also taking its toll.
So what did ‘this economic happiness’ look like among the Ladakh people and how can it be relevant to localization for a sustainable world? First, social interconnectedness through extended families and belief in themselves through respect especially the young and the old; bring us back to the argument of linking the ancient to the future which is the foundation for sustainability through localization. Every member of the society is employed through division of labour as they share the benefits of their local economy. There is less or no pollution and diseases are also non prevalent while their foods are grown organically. Norberg-Hodge continues to argue that she has seen that community and a close relationship to the land can enrich human life in terms of happiness, beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. Finally the ‘emerging global economy and the growing domination of science and technology are not only worsening our connection to nature and to one another but also breaking down natural and cultural diversity’.
The history of Ecology: Radkau, J.
Radkau’s history of ecology focuses on several critical periods: the first conservation movements from the 1870s to 1914, the second wave in the 1970s, and the third wave in the 1990s. But in this regard I should argue that the title of his book should have appeared like ‘the age of environmental movements’ and not ‘the age of ecology’ which appears to me as if it is a narrative of evolutionary events about ecology. However, Radkau handle the issue of environmentalism as a global issue perhaps because his focus was to compile concerns for global awakening like the European and American movements, then Chinese, Japanese, and Indian environmental movements. The core of his history of the rise of environmental activism range from concerns like the rise of ecologists with concerns about the fate of the planet, the famous tragedy of the commons, publications about the diminishing tropical forest and the birth of ‘biodiversity’ as the new scientific concept about environment, the threat of global warming from fossil fuel gases, nuclear threat, pollution and many others. However, what would Radkau’s future of environment look like? By his suggestion, it should be a new green Enlightenment that should define our age. This should be so in a sense that mankind is responsible for halting the dangers of our planet; deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss. However, this would bear positive results if we were at the same time concerned with population growth. Much as we would want to save the planet, if population continued to increase, then the demands for natural resources would overstretch the planetary boundaries to its eventual demise.
The role of Environmental History: Sörlin
Sörlin’s arguments indicate his strong passion to ‘revolutionalise’ the old history subject into a sub-discipline that not only integrates humanities with other disciplines especially natural science history but also putting an emphasis on how human actions that have affected nature and vice versa in time and space. As we are witnessing transition in historical thinking by looking at human-nature interaction, we have a lot to draw from all recorded history. Describing history as a nightmare is equivalent to dismissing its sources. During his lecture, Sörlin displayed some of the history texts which he argues do not contain much information about environmental history. By doing this he was trying to justify the fact that authors of the new historical narrative, himself inclusive, are far better off than the previous ones. I somehow agree with this but argue that history books about ancient wars, struggles, revolutions and reforms are equally important to the environmental historian, just like for example the books written by colonial intellectuals who were trying to understand man-nature relationship in the new worlds. These are very good sources of knowledge but also interest should be on human migrations and settlements which affected the environment through conquests and occupation. Conflicts, wars, domination and creation of empires were motivated by resource availability which directly affected the environment. It is from this ‘nightmare’ history that environmental historians can for example fetch information on ‘political ecology’.
While environmental history is still a developing multidisciplinary study, the objective of scholars should be to analyse all factors driving human actions ever since the beginning of evolution. Both recorded and unrecorded evidence for compiling information on environmental history is embedded in the old historical libraries and traditional ecological knowledge. It is thus upon the modern scholar to look at the discipline as a global issue with the goal of finding out means for sustainable living for all mankind.
References outside course literature
Cronon, W. (1992). A place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative, The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No 4 (Mar., 1992, pp 1347-1376Accessed: 17/06/2009 05:42.
Wallerstein, I. (1974). The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World- Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press
|January 20, 2015 at 15:41 #16139|
1) Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
Submitted complimentary tasks:
1) Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
Let fantasy, if we replace current debate with words like this: one year about everlasting issues in current academia debate, some of us will definitely get crazy and laugh. And let crazy go, but let laugh suspend. Imagine, the course’s name, even shallow, it has so rich meanings, and how about other things which are already deep enough that have contained tremendous connotation? Like time, space, human society, environment, environmental history, scale and more.
And now, it’s time to review these ideas again. The foremost idea is environmental history. What is environmental history and how can we do environmental history research? I had experienced changes in my mind about the idea of environmental history even if I may not fully recognize. I will not answer it directly but let my dairy about each seminar reveals my consideration.
The field environmental history in current debate reveals its different approaches and different focus by scholars. Ecology, history, political science, sustainability, philosophy and sad theology, environment history involves different disciplines and form a broad version for disciplines. The interdisciplinary character makes environmental history a new and challenging discipline for scholars. Mastering only one discipline is by no means enough in environmental history study.
Finally, the environmental history handles a lot with China as I read and discussed during current debate. The environmental problems in China attract much attention from scholars. But problems and environmental history are not necessarily bonded. Problem solving is not the center to environmental history; it may well be the focus of the government and related organizations. China’s environmental history should be investigated more beyond the problem-solving pattern so that the real relation between human and nature in China is thus come out from the appearing problems. What’s more, theories about environmental history and theories from other disciplines, if applied to China’s environmental history, can be superficial and misleading especially in dealing with environmental thoughts. Because in China’s historical time, five elements, I Ching, Yin and Yang and more ideas related to environment are only seen in Chinese culture. Can modern theories explain the deep root or the ideas of environmental thoughts in China? I would answer “I do not know” as Oliver’s to the question: “did the ancient Greeks have an attitude to ecology”.
|January 22, 2015 at 17:27 #16183|
Seminars attended or complemented (11):
People in general, myself included, seek information that confirm rather than challenge their perspectives. In a large, diverse and long course like Current Debates and Themes in Environmental History, some subjects, more in line with ones presumptions and ideas, tend to stick more than others. In the surprisingly large variety of subjects in this course, I see some issues as sticking out, issues many or at least some of the lecturers had in common, and issues I myself am acquainted with or interested in. This essay will follow some of these common threads of interest. Furthermore, the essay is sometimes, and on some levels, critical as to how these issues were dealt with. With the help of the seminars, the literature and the reflections, I try to pinpoint some things I saw as missing with the course. In that sense, this essay is as much a final exam as a form of evaluation of the course. However, the criticism is entirely constructive and I see it more as pointers to new and expanded discussions on the issues that permeated the course.
The atom and the globe
Spatially, we have had lecturers and literature who has taken us from the level of the global down to the atom. I see this – space – as one of the major issues discussed in the course. On the one hand, Mary Midgley spoke of, and sharply criticized, the tendency of the modern mind to “atomize” everything, reducing everything to its smallest, indestructable parts (Midgley, 2001). In science it boils down to quarks and electrons or, in biological sciences, DNA, and in social terms it boils down to the individual. (Interestingly, “atom” comes from the greek word for “undividable” which is also the mening of “individ” – impossible to divide). Midgley criticizes this because the emergent properties from the interplay of these “undividables” is often what is more important and “real” to us – matter, animals and plants, societies.
On the other hand we have thinkers like Carolyn Merchant, Alf Hornborg and Jason Moore who all bring us narratives and tools to decipher the vast systems of global structures. Moore, emphasizing the importance of understanding capitalism as the “world ecology” of the present (Moore, 2011), is complemented by Hornborg’s call to environmental historians to investigate the connections in time and space in the world system rather than making comparisons (Hornborg, lecture). Merchant then, on a philosophical and discoursive level, speaks of the importance of metaphoric understanding of the world, how the metaphors of the world has changed over time, and how the domination of nature is linked with men’s domination of women (Merchant, 1990).
My own reflections regarding the change in focus being tossed back and forth between the very small and the very large is that environmental history as a subject is incredibly flexible in spatial focus. Like physics which investigates the smallest and the biggest, environmental history seems to be able to house a comparible diversity of spatial foci (though based and limited in the social and human sciences, of course).
I find this both liberating and slightly terrifying at the same time (which is a rather precise description of my thoughts and feelings towards this course in general, by the way). What is liberating is that borders are removed, or we are encouraged to remove them ourselves. We are encouraged to seek spatial foci in our theses that are where our hearts and minds are, not spatial foci that follow some preconcieved idea of what environmental history ought to be about.
The terrifying part is that without borders, without limitations, there also comes a rising degree of uncertainty. With nation state borders regarded as mere political constructions, ecosystem borders as more or less open and global, with chaos theory and relativity, with discourse analysis and postmodernity at large – with all this comes the terrifying prospect of our terminologies, our understandings and chategories, being arbitrary and inherently fallible. To do science and research in such an intellectual environment of arbitrariness and inescapable fallibility is demanding – and ultimately, in my opinion, it begs the question of why we should do it at all. If all is “narrative”, “metaphor” and “borderless” anyway, why bother with all the work and academic stringency and terminology? This probably more than anything reveal my own, personal pet peeve, my own indecisiveness toward academia, where I, on the one hand, is and have for a long time been intrigued at the same time as I question its very function.
A lack of explicitness about ethics
I think, however, that there is a middle ground to be found between the very small and the very large, and it has to do with the ethics of the researcher. Just like Midgley wrote about how atomizing the world leads to a distorted understanding of reality (Midgley, 2001), so can a constant global vantage point too distort reality. Hornborg’s machine fetischism (Hornborg, 2012), for instance, is crucial for understanding global flows of material and energy, I am sure, but it does not tie into the individual experience of machine use. As an example one can say that even dispossessed and oppressed people, who feed a fervent dislike or even hatred towards the thieves and colonialists, also use machines – are they too appropreating time and space from other people in the other end of the world system? Probably, in a Hornborgian analysis, but that does not explain the reality of that person. The same can be said about nation state borders, which in environmental terms most often are arbitrary – but they still hold extreme importance in the lives and minds of people everywhere. In this summerizing reflection, I would like to say that what I find missing from the discussions and seminars of the course is this “middle ground” – we trained and thought like (post)modern academics throughout the course but did not really ask or think about what the world is like for people who live in it. Did we ever even speak of contemporary political events and news? Even environmental news? No, not really, because we kept ourself aloft, floating above and beyond the discourse of the mere joneses. No harm in that – indeed, removing oneself from the immediate, from the obvious, and trying to see underlying patterns, is the hallmark of eye-opening research. But I think it is bad research if the researcher acts and writes as if the reality that people live through every day does not exist. Ingold is a good example of this when he writes about definitions of indigenous peoples (Ingold, 2000, ch. 8). He criticizes the use of a genealogical model, without clearly pointing out an alternative, and downplays the importance of the genealogical model for many of these peoples (since it is the only thing they have got). Academically, I can’t blame Ingold, and his discussion is interesting, convincing and eloquent, but it holds potentially leathal ramifications for the peoples he is writing about.
The middle ground, therefore, is in my mind closely tied to research ethics. Indeed, if research categories and terminology is tainted by arbitrariness, then ethics could be a good guide for what research to do. Research, even very stringent and well executed research, can be politically and humanly important (and thereby “ethical”). It can make the world better for the people and other beings in it. In a programme and a course so focused on the state of the world, the suffering of people and other living beings, why have we never asked, in class, what theses subjects will make the world a better place? Is that too “political” to ask? Is it “unscientific”? Is it “naive”? No, I do not think so, and I believe I would get many of the lecturers in the course to support me on this. Researchers like Midgley, Hornborg, Tainter and Merchant are clearly driven by what in their perspectives will make the world a better place. I let my political interests and empathy guide my choosing of thesis subject, and maybe many of my colleagues did too, but we never discussed it and talked about it. We never had a seminar where we tried to help and give feedback on each other’s research proposals from the perspective of what would make the world a better place. I think we should have. In other words, good environmental history can be both at the level of the “globe” or at the level of the “atom”, but the important thing is that it is done without loosing the connection with, and relevance for, percieved realities of the people and other living beings who are supposed to benefit from that research. Otherwise you run the risk of doing what I think Ingold did, which is potentially harming the ones he wanted to help.
Power, privilege and history
Power, according to Michel Foucault, is productive. It gets things done. And indeed, in my own thinking about what power really is, this is an important part of my own definition.
Many discussions and seminars in the course has had questions of power as its center. Not that we have discussed in-depth what power, in different situations, really is – how it is manifested – but it has always been there, as a kind of black hole around which our discussions orbit. Hornborg sees power as manifested through inequality in the world system, which enables continued accumulation, which in turn lead to greater power. Jason Moore sees the power of capital as being tied to “the four cheaps” (food, energy, natural resources, labor), and that this power is soon about to come to an end (Moore, 2012). Libby Robin, Gunnel Cederlöf, Mary Midgley and Caroline Merchant focus more on the ideas that lie behind the power of colonialism and oppression rather than the systems of oppression those ideas result in. They also, in different ways, exemplify how many different forms power can take, that is not easy to decipher power structures, especially because “common knowledge” tells a different story (Cederlöf in particular; Cederlöf, 2013). Joseph Tainter points toward how powerless human civilizations are in face of the basic laws (and power) of diminishing return on complexity (Tainter, 1987). And then, finally, there are those lecturers who more focus on the power of the researcher and his/her work, like Sverker Sörlin and Oliver Rackham. Only one lecturer (of the ones I attended or complemented) speaks of current power structures in a positive way, Kristina Persson. I do not believe it a coincident that she is also the only one from outside academia. Persson and her organization is ecomodernist, which really boils down to the belief of the constructive power of human technology, inventiveness, politics and economics as enough to solve the sustainability crises (Global Utmaning, website).
But then, what is power? I believe that those who – by whichever means – can get things done according to their will, who benefit from developments and changes, are in power. Capital is obviously power in a capitalist system, men are obviously powerful in a patriachal culture, and the researcher is clearly powerful in a society that looks to research for the unbiased “truth”. It is the capitalist who with the help of his/her capital get things done (get workers to work, products to be produced, etcetera), it is the man in a patriachal culture who structure the culture in a certain way to suit his wishes, and it is the researcher who has the power to decide what is “truth” and a society which glorify his/her position as truth teller.
Power is productive. And power is thus closely connected with privilege. As some are powerful and privileged, so are others powerless and unpriveleged – those who only or mainly have the possibility to react to patterns of power rather than influence them or benefit from them. But I believe it is important to understand, if one wants to understand power, that the discourses that shape the matrix of power structures in the world are not only fueled by those who are powerful and privileged, but are internalized and reproduced by those who are powerless and unprivileged as well. The classic example is colonial discourses which work not only by the colonialists assuming power, but also by the colonized accepting the discourse of the colonizers as true. Another example is money: money is not actually worth anything, but works because we all agree to “pretend” that they are worth something. The power of money, of capital, is therefore based on all of us buying into the idea of money. The day we don’t, money cease to function as a currency of value. For these reasons it is vital in emancipation movements – seeking to debunk power and free people from opression – to shed away the discourses of the opressors, to remove the opressor’s narratives and replace it with new narratives. It is here that history, as unifying narratives, is vital for emancipation.
History, therefore, belongs to the privileged and powerful. Environmental history could be seen as a respons to the oppression of nature, as a sort of emancipation of the environment from the ignorance and destructiveness of modern humanity (or “man”, in an ecofeminist tint). Sverker Sörlin wrote that nature becomes environment when it is recognized as historical (Sörlin & Warde, 2009). Even though we in the course discussed various power structures at many occations, we rarely discussed our own priviliged position or the power that comes with our discipline. What is “done” with this power, what narratives do we tell and what ramifications do they have? This comes down to an ethical question (again) where our priviliged positions give us the power to shape understandings and narratives, include and exclude, and we ought to think about what we do with this power. I am not suggesting that one, as a master student at Uppsala University, has some sort of godlike powers, but we do live in a society and a time which values academic work as as close as it is possible to get to unbiased truth. Even though there are many academic arguments against regarding research as “truth”, that is still how research is largely viewed among the public. “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” Libby Robin said at her seminar (quoted from Nik Petek’s reflection). What other words that we, as environmental historians, use without much consideration are “white man’s words”? Maybe history in itself, as we think of it, as an academic, formalistic discipline, is a white man’s occupation?
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