Final assignment

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November 24, 2014 at 19:50 #15560
Anneli Ekblom

Submit your final assignment here (final date 20 of Jan)

December 7, 2014 at 22:27 #15682

Kristina Berglund: Examination Essay
Seminars attended:
3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
17/ Jason Moore World Systems, History and Ecology
3/3 Alf Hornborg Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
17/3 Oliver Rackham Greece and Revisionist Environmental History
31/3 Carolyn Merchant Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature
19/5 Jane Carruthers Nationalism, Conservation, Globalization: History of NPs
26/5 Helena Norberg-Hodge Globalization, Environment and Livelihoods: Ladakh
8/9 Sverker Sörlin The role of Environmental History
22/9 Libby Robin History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia
17/11 Joachim Radkau The Age of Ecology

Seminars organized:
19/5 Jane Carruthers Nationalism, Conservation, Globalization: History of NPs
22/9 Libby Robin History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia

This essay consists of my personal reflections on the above stated 10 seminars in the course “Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History” during the year of 2014, as part of the Master program in Global Environmental History at Uppsala University. I would like to begin with expressing my positive experiences from this course. For me it has been a very worthwhile course that has helped me grow in my role as an environmental history master graduate. It has helped me to define this field of study that was so new to me in the fall of 2013 when I began the program. Throughout this course and others in the program I have grown to feel much more secure in my field. Even though my other courses of course has contributed in this I think Current Debates in a very good way has helped me to connect different courses, topics, discourses and issues, and has provided a forum in which I have been able to discuss this with fellow students and learn also from their perspectives. Drawing from examples and reflections I have made throughout the course I will in this essay try to highlight how my understanding of environmental history, as well as my reasoning thereabout has improved. The essay is divided in three sections in which I included the sessions that in my mind have revolved around similar concepts, ideas and themes.

Empire, Ecology & Revisionist History: Cederlöf, Robin and Rackham
Key words: imperialism, agency, pseudo-ecology
Empire is one of the many concepts discussed during the Current Debates course. Although ecology and empire is often seen as contraries, one as natural and one as social, they actually “forged a historical partnership of great power that radically changed human and natural history across the globe”, in the words of Tom Griffiths (1998:1). Griffith’s and Libby Robin’s emphasis on bringing together ecology and empire – apparent innocence and power – was very connected to Gunnel Cederlöf’s (2013) work on India and the environmental history of imperialism. Both talked about issues of scale and the importance of examining spaces that overlap political boundaries and to look at phenomena that that are indifferent to political borders, such as the natural environment. Robin (1998:12) argued that the regional or global scale is more suitable when writing environmental history than the national, in this case seeing Australia not solely as a nation but “as a settler society, as part of the New World frontier, or a continental cluster of bioregions”. This was similar to Cederlöf’s reasoning on reframing the regional history of Imperialism in South Asia to also include parameters such as corporations and to think in terms of Empire. From both their sessions I took with me the importance of including ecological and climate related dimensions in historical analyses and how the usage of different scales simultaneously can be fruitful in order to understand the complexity of a certain phenomenon. However I do not think the nation as a parameter is to be ignored today either, as we have created a world so dependent on and grounded in the concept of nation-states. Another thing I brought with me was that concepts such as ‘environment’, ‘empire’ and ‘biodiversity’ is not to be taken for granted as obvious or universal. The word ‘empire’ brings certain images to mind, but as Robin said, we all have our little empires and we need to ask ourselves who is the imperialist in a particular setting (Robin, Lecture, Uppsala University, 2014-09-22). Another important task for historians is to shed new light on the history of so called ‘peripheries’ in order to question traditional world histories and bring back agency to those who were left without. This was connected to Oliver Rackham’s reasoning about the dangers of when generalizations and simplifications become ‘factoids’ – presumed ‘facts’ that in reality are not true at all, and which can form whole pseudo-theories. In Rackham’s case of Greece this can evolve into a ‘pseudo-ecology’ – “a coherent, logical, reasonable, and widely accepted system of belief having no connection with the real world” (Rackham, Lecture, Uppsala University 2014-03-17). Rackham argued that landscape history and in particular the landscape history of Greece, is particularly susceptible to this non-objective, untrue pseudo-ecology (ibid).
The main important point I took with me in my reflection on this seminar was the importance of critically analyzing facts and narratives we often take for granted as self-evident. I emphasized in my reflection the importance of “asking whether different information we absorb is really ‘true’, or at least to critically examine the motives and theories that underpin different narratives. This might be more important now than ever, as we live in a society characterized by information-overload and globalization of communication” (Berglund, 2014, reflection paper). Not maybe a groundbreaking discovery, but I brought with me from the seminar the importance of taking in as much different sources of information as possible before making conclusions about a specific question, a lesson that has been very useful for my current master thesis project.

Equality, feminism & capitalism critique: Moore, Hornborg, Norberg-Hodge, Merchant
Key words: capitalocene, machine-fetishism, development, women
Common for these sessions and my reflections on them is the critique of the current capitalist economic system and eco-modernist worldviews. Global questions of equity and how our lifestyles in my part of the world affect other parts of the world have had a strong influence on me and therefore these seminars were intriguing to me in many different ways. Jason Moore argued that the current world-ecology is capitalism, and argued for viewing the modern era as a ‘capitalocene’ (instead of Anthropocene). If seeking apprehension of current global environmental challenges (e.g. questions around food, energy, depletion of natural resources) capitalism is therefore the most crucial phenomenon to understand. Thus, not only biophysical aspects is central to environmental history, but also dimensions such as global financial markets, interest rates and power dynamics between states, capital, producers and places. Moore (2010) argued that the Cartesian divide of capitalism and nature can therefore be transcended in favor of capitalism in nature. Preconditions for a continued accumulation of surplus and the capitalist world system are what Moore calls ‘the four cheaps’ – cheap food, labor, energy and raw materials (Moore, 2010:233). This has laid the ground for the agricultural revolutions that has sustained capitalism as a world system. Moore argued that we today see the end of the four cheaps, which thus marks the end of capitalism. Similar to this, Alf Hornborg argued for a greater awareness and concern for how the way in which we organize society turns the blind eye to the fact that technology and consumption is a zero-sum game where we in the rich part of the world save time and space at the expense of humans and environments in the poorer parts of the world. When ‘doing’ environmental history therefore, Hornborg argued in his lecture that we must acknowledge these connections between places in the world, instead of comparing them. We must recognize what is happening in the marginalized areas of the world as a concequence of the richer part of the world maintaining our advantaged positions aquired from the creation of industrial society, with consumerism, burning of fossil fuels and ‘globalized’ society (Hornborg, 2012).
I was very intruiged by Hornborg’s world-analysis where he views our society as being built on unequal exchanges of resources that benefits a small part of the world’s population at the expense of the less priveleged’s resources, helath and environments, and I think his reasoning has helped me in shaping my own arguments when discussing questions of global equity, food distrbution and similar topics.
Helena Norberg-Hodge added to this discussion with her critique of the Western traditional notion of ‘development’ as a one-way, linear progress path and the prevailing economic system with its lack of consideration for social and environmental wellbeing. I wrote in my reflection that “Helena put forward a convincing case for learning from traditional societies like Ladakh in the Himalayas to direct our societies towards a more socially and ecologically resilient economy, going from global to local by shortening distances and steer all aspects of our economies (e.g. food production) towards localization. However, there were also things to be skeptical about, such as her description of the traditional Ladakhi society as somewhat idealized, and her localization strategy as too simplistic. The question is whether her proposed strategies are complex enough and do not fall in to the same imposed development idea that she so heavily criticizes”. The whole idea of ‘thinking global acting local’ which Norberg-Hodge strongly promoted was later discussed by Joachim Radkau which bluntly dismissed the idea. I think the idea includes wise components but that the scale of localization and its generalizability differ largely from place to place.
Norberg-Hodge’s reasoning about the traditional Ladhak society’s intimate relationship with their natural surroundings was rather harshly criticized at our seminar for being romanticizing and idealistic. Similar to what I wrote in my reflection paper I believe it is central to discuss what we mean when we talk about ‘awareness of nature’, ‘closeness to nature’, or even ‘nature’ in general. It is very interesting to explore what values and meanings people dedicate to these concepts and what relation they have to them, in different settings.
This is connected to the session we had with Carolyn Merchant who in her early work explored the connection between women and nature and how the view of nature and women have changed throughout history. I learned at that session that the epithet ‘ecofeminist’ stems from her ideas. In my reflection paper I wrote “Ecofeminism seems to be based on the premise that the oppression of women the domination of nature is fundamentally linked and that this is due to the existence of a patriarchal dualism that places women and the concept of ‘nature’ in the same classification. Despite some relevant criticism that ecofeminism has been exposed to, for example that it holds an essentialist view of women and their affinity to nature, I think it includes some significant points – such as promoting a gender perspective in the environmental debate in general, both in decision making as well as in seeing how women and men are affected by climate change in different ways.” I found Merchant’s feminist perspective as well as the critical reflections on it to be an interesting expansion of my understanding of environmental history. Her book ‘The Death of Nature’ provided a comprehensive review of history of ideas about changing perceptions of women and ecology. Her historical description of a transition from an ‘organic worldview’ to a ‘mechanistic worldview’ and the dichotomies of human-nature were also similar to both Hornborg’s and Moore’s reasoning.
I very much agreed with and was inspired by these scholar’s critique of development, capitalism, machine fetichism, and a unconditional faith in technology – similar to the concept of eco-modernism which I have later learned about. Hornborg argued in his lecture that we in modern society seem to have an unconditional faith in technology, a belief that technology is the answer to continued growth and development but also the solution to current climate change and environmental challenges, and this is exactly what eco-modernism is about. This view is heard from politicians, economists and people in general. But in this view we put an immense faith in technology without questioning the underlying factors that made it possible, namely unequal resource transfers causing environmental and social degradation in the areas where the resources are exploited from.
Another theme in my reasoning was the concern and curoisity for the future, how the challenge many times is to make politicians and economists to think along the lines of being more bold and questioning modern assumptions, and not to mention the large and powerful coorporations, but also ourselves as humans. Moore’s explicit critique of capitalism and his distinctive way of stating that “capitalism is done” in his lecture as a response to the question what the fate of capitalism might be, triggered questions about what in that case will ‘replace’ capitalism, and how the transition will look like. Merchant’ proposed a ‘partnership of ethic’ as an alternative to the current mechanistic worldview that shall include equality between and moral consideration for humans, non-human nature, women and minorities. This was a benign idea but without more specific explanations on how it can be achieved and implemented in reality.

Conservation & The rise of the environmental movement: Carruthers and Radkau
Key words: National Parks, Politics, The New Enlightenment
The topic of nature conservation has greatly interested me during the master program and the Current Debates course, which is also why I have chosen to write about the topic in my master thesis. The visit from Jane Carruthers was one of the most interesting sessions for me, both due to the fact that I was part of organizing it and got a chance to talk to her one on one, but also due to the fact that she was very approachable and interested in learning also form us as students. National Parks constitute a relevant topic in global environmental history, as one of our oldest and most successful forms of nature protection. National parks exist all around the globe, and are part of the nature conservation history so relevant for the environmental debate and history. The Carruthers session brought inspiration for my thesis writing but also dissolved some of my prejudices about what a national park is and how there are no international regulations about what it can be. Carruthers discussed the history of conservation and national parks in South Africa but also how the concept of national parks has spread throughout the world as part of modern globalization. I found it very relevant and suggestive to connect the national park movement into a global context, to learn about how and why it has spread across the globe. The concept of a national park often brings with it an “appealing aura of goodness” – it seems to represent civilized modernity and brings benign connotations like cherished western concepts such as ‘democracy’ (Carruthers, 2012). But the question discussed in the seminar is really; what do we want a national park to be? Should they exist to promote ‘development’, for generation of jobs and income, for tourism, research, or for protecting valuable natural resources? Or should they include all of those aspects? Who should be involved in the management of the parks? What value do we put in words like wilderness, nature and conservation? I think the most important lesson from Carruthers was that all national parks were created in a specific historical context, with specific political, economic and social structures, and thus there can only be context-based management strategies and characteristics for specific parks. It struck me how sad I felt when we discussed how money in many cases seems to be the only force keeping protected areas intact, not any intrinsic value of the natural resources and habitats they hold. But there are so many competing interests, actors and political philosophies involved, and therefore they will unavoidably be challenging to create, manage and discuss. Related to the spread of the national parks movement is the rise of modern environmentalism, which was the topic of the Joachim Radkau session. Radkau’s book ‘The Age of Ecology’ contained many intriguing examples of actors, events and debates that have been part of shaping modern environmentalism. Radkau in his lecture even proposed this to be a kind of ‘new enlightenment’ – a strong word indeed, with positive connotations of being aware and educated. But in one sense that also contradicted his argument that the age of ecology also is a way of forgetting what has been happening in the past and how there is no reason to believe that our present environmental awareness is the highest level of ecological understanding (Radkau, 2013). On the contrary Radkau argued that people in earlier times might have been more advanced in certain aspects than we are today, e.g. with soil preserving methods (Radkau, 2013:430). Our seminar discussion revolved to a large degree around energy politics and pros and cons with different methods of producing energy. It is interesting how perceptions on these different alternatives vary so much and how they are framed by proponents and opponents. This made me steer my reflection paper towards the debate in Sweden about conventional farming versus ecological farming that has been going on for many years but that was revitalized again just the day before the Radkau seminar. The debate was again initiated by a few professors from the Swedish Agricultural University through the launch of their book ‘The ecological dream’ and a debate article in leading Swedish newspapers. My reflection on this matter went (and still goes): “Their argument is essentially that ecological farming will lead to starvation and that the current idea that ecological farming is climate friendly and produces healthier food is false. The authors argue that the increase of ecological farming would be a catastrophe in terms of food supply and would put higher pressure on the environment to a very high cost. Instead of subsidizing ecological farming resources should be put into improving conventional farming practices. They also wrote that ecological farming stems from homeopathy and that the debate has been too much focused on emotions and not ‘real’ natural science. I do agree that we really need to improve farming methods and try to find ways to reduce the highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and indeed there are problems also with ecological farming. But I think that their arguments are highly simplified. I do believe that consumers get healthier foods when eating products that have not been grown with chemicals in them and that this in many ways are better for the environment, I cannot see how they can argue the opposite. And saying that ecological farming is the same as homeopathy is really arrogant. I find it similar to when Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was criticized for not being ‘real science’ and how she was called a ‘hysterical woman’ – the same kind of techniques that can be seen in the current debate when the authors argue that ecological farming proponents just ‘talk about feelings’ in contrast to the ‘real science’ that the authors are involved in. It is just sad that the debate has become so polarized. Of course there are real problems with questions of land, and where and how this land should be used. But what is missing in their argument is that today around 50% of all crops we grow is used for animal fodder, which implies we need to lower our meat consumption. Issues of distribution, policy and food waste were not touched upon either, all important dimensions when talking about food production. Also, the connection between the production of food and starvation is not solid, as many studies have indicated. I do not think it is the way forward to make it sound like the only options we have is either 0 or 100% ecological farming.” The debate will surely continue, as well as the energy politics debate, but what Radkau and the Current Debates course have taught us is that a historical depth on current environmental issues is crucial and may take the debate in new directions.

Conclusion: What is Environmental History? Sörlin
Key words: Sustainability, environment, nature
Even though all Current Debates sessions were environmental history in essence, one certain session was particularly helpful in deepening my understanding of environmental history as a academic field. One full seminar was used to reflect on what environmental history is/what we want it to be, and that was the one on Sverker Sörlin’s introductory chapter ‘Making the environment historical’ from the book ‘Nature’s end: history and the environment’. I saw Sörlin’s introductory chapter as a broad but well written overview of what environmental history is, and how we can think about historicizing nature.
I have used many of the different definitions that my colleagues presented at that seminar. One definition I took with me from Sörlin (2009:2) was that: “Environmental history is meaningful because it seeks to provide the history that can tell us how we arrived here and what we need to know to handle our global environmental predicament”. At the same time however, Sörlin (2009:18) argued that “history is not what the past forces us to do in the future” and that sustainability thus is a decision, not a destiny. I thought that was a nice way to put it. Since environment is described as a human product whereas nature is not, the environment has the opportunity to be sustainable or unsustainable depending on our choices as humans. Nature in itself cannot be unsustainable, can it? I also enjoyed how he described environment as nature when being recognized as historical. Sörlin’s (2009:7) argument that the origins of environmental history cannot be seen as a linear chronology, “but rather a constant growing set of historicizing projects, emerging from different fields of social and political discourse” have also added to my understanding of environmental history and why it is and has to be interdisciplinary and integrative of ideas and perspectives from a wide range of fields.
I think that it was inspiring to meet with Sverker Sörlin, as Sweden’s only professor in environmental history. It feels good to have such a wise person as a central figure in the Swedish field of environmental history. I have since his talk engaged in some of his other work and listened to him attending debates and that has helped me in developing my own reasoning and arguments. This goes however for all lecturers; it is such a privilege to meet with these researchers and to develop ideas and exchange opinions with them and with my colleagues. As I see it, all these lecturers have two things in common: they are stressing the importance of historical analyses to be rooted in ecological dimensions, and in various ways provide perspectives on the role of environmental history in policy making, history writing, conservation, science etcetera.
I have enjoyed this course as it has strengthened me and my academic confidence, and this essay has been a good way to tie things up and has provided an opportunity to reflect on and analyse these ten interesting seminars. I think this will be a good essay to look back to in the future when I want to think about what my master program was all about.

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, T & Robin, L (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, University of Washington Press
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.
Merchant, C. 1990. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper one.
Moore J.W. 2012. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism, Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center 33(2-3).
Moore J.W. 2011. Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation and Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology, Journal of World-Systems Research 17(1), 108-147.
Moore J.W. 2010. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010, Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3), 389-413.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2009. Ancient futures: lessons from Ladakh for a globalizing world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (
Rackham, O. 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In Shipley, G. (Ed) Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. Routledge (E book)
Radkau, J. 2013. The Age of Ecology. Polity Press
Sörlin, S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction In: Sverker, S., Warde, P (ed) Nature’s end: history and the environment, 1-22. McMillan

December 19, 2014 at 14:11 #15821

Seminars Attended:

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

Complimentary Task:

31 March: Science, History, Ecology, and the Idea of Nature with Caroline Merchant

Seminars Hosted:

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.
I agree, because as has also been discussed in this course is that how we conceptualize nature is incredibly important when we take on the task of conserving it. Jane Carruthers talked with us about the history of Kruger National Park in South Africa, and I was really struck by how similar the situation was in Amboseli, Kenya. I was content to go on in that seminar about how we must carefully examine environmental protection initiatives which are so often accepted as inherently noble, but are in fact imbued with unequal class, power, and race relations. Carruthers challenged this criticism when she asked why National Parks must be scrutinized for their ability to benefit animal and human communities, and why their objectives must always be discussed as altruistic? Why for instance is mining in South Africa, another nationally important industry, not held to the same expectations? Her point I believe was that issues of morality always figure heavily in conservation, but determining whose standards to comply to is extremely difficult. I strongly believe that environmental research should be opening the debate about what exactly is it that we want of nature, who are we (and who are we not), and what are we prepared to sacrifice to get it?
Tim Ingold also brought this conversation to another level when we discussed his book Perception of the Environment. Ingold challenges conflating indigenous identity with descent, and the conflation of the longevity of land occupation with culture. He sees identity formation as a dual process wherein people “pass along lives of movement and exchange substance at the places where their respective paths cross or comingle” (Ingold 2000:145). What I take from this is that we are conceived not only by our inter-personal relations but also through our relations to our environment, our living landscapes. The point being that not only do we decide what nature is, but nature also decides us.

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.
Alf Hornborg is certainly an individual interested in global ecology, though he also proclaimed during his lecture that it is misleading to think of humanity as having one common environmental history. His focus was not a linear synthesis but an examination of the patterns. We discussed how core-periphery inequalities have been recurring among societies for thousands of years. Hornborg also used examples from Inca Peru and England during the industrial revolution to get us to examine how concepts such as landesque capital are fundamentally similar. He is using case studies across space and time to think about cultural mystifications of unequal exchange, all so we can begin to understand capitalism as a cultural phenomenon. At the same time Hornborg also wanted us to think of environmental history as political ecology by taking a world systems approach. He didn’t want to us to compare the environmental history of China, or Amazonia, or Africa, but to look at the connections through space and time so we can see how the present state of the world is the result of differential positions and dynamics in global economic exchange.
Joakim Radkau also discussed with us the idea that we are living in the age of ecology, and that it is best conceptualized as a new enlightenment. Radkau prompted me in my reflection to compare the environmental movement to the age of enlightenment, and I think it was a really useful insight. I said in my reflection that both ages we have ‘a more opinionated and educated public, and calls for social reform towards a more egalitarian and utopian society that does not sacrifice individualism’. In addition ‘like the enlightenment, environmentalism needs proceeding darkness against which to illuminate’. Radkau said that early environmentalism was an outburst of panic, and the age of ecology is an age of fear. Yet this prompted me to think of all of the really fascinating parallels that can be drawn between these two conceptual ages, and to ponder such questions as ‘What lessons can we learn from the French and American Revolutions that apply to the environmental movement? How can the altruistic and righteous ideals of the environmental movement manifest themselves in violence? How are people being mislead because of an unquestioned allegiance to the movement?’
Paul Sinclair asked Radkau during his lecture about whether or not he was using time as a uni-linear rather than a multi-dimensional way, and Radkau admitted he hadn’t thought about it much. Yet, I must say that his seminar got me thinking about aspects of the past that are alive and repeated in our present and how this will continue to be expressed in phenomena in our future. Furthermore, examination of these processes sometimes necessitates an approach that does away with the linearity of events and instead connects phenomena occurring at different scales and periods of time.

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.
Sverker Sörlin’s book Nature’s End discusses how all self-conscious reflections on the so-called environment that have taken place in the past can be studied as environmental history, and the approach in the book is to connect these narratives to wider strands of traditional history. In the Sörlin seminar, our class discussed how wider strands of traditional history are written from the perspectives of the global north, and thus environmental history is being written to join discourses of relevance in more ‘developed’ countries. I was fixated on how the history of environmental history is actually really disjointed on a global scale. The geographies of academic publications are unevenly distributed particularly with regards to formerly colonized peripheries, but equally disturbing is that those on the periphery are seen as importers rather than exporters of theory (Paasi 2005). In the lecture Sörlin talked about how 25 years ago there was very little environmental history being practiced as we know it outside of North America, but now there are vibrant congresses of environmental historians popping up in places such as Portugal and India. It is interesting to think how the practice of environmental history will change in the coming decades if it truly becomes more international.
Perhaps the challenge now is to build the capacity for ‘periphery’ regions to set their own research and development agendas. We must always be conscious of the fact that the geographies that environmentalism operates within are all to often hierarchical, and rife with inequalities.

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.
To bring this discussion to a full circle now, I propose that we urgently need to re-examine the ways we discuss and conceive of the environment and our position in it. In Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, she deconstructs the formation of our contemporary world-view that has re-conceptualized nature as a machine rather than a living organism. Merchant details how just as in the seventeenth century, today’s managerial ecology has done away with anthropogenic connotations of group sharing and embraced physical descriptions and equations associated with quantitative analysis. She rightly cautions that it is difficult, if not impossible to successfully program contexts and patterns into a computer. Merchant writes that taking components or abstracting data from the environmental context can alter the whole, distorting its behavior (1980: 252). She goes on to criticize systems theorists who claim a holistic perspective, because they wrongly assume that they are taking into account the ways in which all the parts in a given system affect the whole. She points out that the gestalt is not mathematized, and that we cannot quantify the ways in which each part in any given moment takes it’s meaning from the whole (1980: 291).
When Merchant talks about nature and ecosystems, the divisions between human and environment dissolves in that just as nature has been mechanized so too have societies. Science encourages this because it allows us to attempt to make sense of the world around us, and to predict the outcomes of behaviors. Yet, no model powerful enough yet exists that allows us to see the gestalt with any sort of precision or accuracy. Even in science the basis of many of our rationalizations are our own world-views which are complex in identification, formation, and dissolution.

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

Attended seminars:
Nationalism, conservation, globalization: History of national parks Carruthers
Globalization, environment and Livelihood: Ladakh Norberg-Hodge
The role of environmental history Sörlin
The Age of Ecology Radkau
Global Changes Persson
Healing the destructive divide between People and the Environment Worthy
Science and Poetry Midgley
The Collapse of complex societies Tainter
An ecology of mind Bateson

Reflection on seminar:
History, conservation and politics: Example of Australia Robin

Organized seminars:
Nationalism, conservation, globalization: History of national parks together with Kristina Berglund
The Age of Ecology

This essay is a summary of my reflections on the seminars I have attended for the course “Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History”. CDS and CEMUS together with the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History are jointly managing the course. Thus, these inter-disciplinary classes combine topics in humanities, such as environment and history, society, policy, globalization, philosophy and conservation. Not only did I find most of the lecturers very enthusiastic in the their seminars with us students, but with their broad knowledge, they were very interested in our projects and added valuable aspects for us to consider. I am also impressed by my course mates’ reflections and opinions and highly enjoyed reading their arguments.

Globalization of the environment
At first, most of us may consider we know what a national park is and that there is a worldwide general concept for policies and managing protected nature. Furthermore, if you ask, people’s perceptions and emotions of what nature is, what experience they expect and what value nature has to them, their ideas differ, depending on their social, geographical and background they .come from. In Africa, many nature park’ and reserves originated as protected hunting grounds, reserved for Europeans or local chieftains. They have long been associated with the problem of unauthorized trespassing and harvesting of natural resources for survival by the people living at the periphery of the reserved areas (1). From exterminating mammals, considered as vermin or threatening trophy hunting, national parks in the 80s almost became ecologically experimental outdoor laboratories. The focus of the first World Conference on National Parks in 1962 was how to protect biodiversity and that meant no human residency on within the parks (2). Scientists from developed countries took the leading role of conservation by managing biodiversity, while local inhabitants’ rights were still not taken into consideration, despite valuable human resources of experience and indigenous knowledge. This is now changing; from looking at isolated areas, international awareness about climate change, invasive species and extinction, NGOs and other institutions are introducing terms like resilience, socio-ecological systems and environmental justice in nature conservation (2). Reading Jane Carruther’s chapter in “Civilizing Nature” (3) and Conservation: Linking ecology, economics, and culture (4) I realize that the idea of national parks has a complicated, multifaceted history of colonialism, power contests and politics, cultural, social, as well as scientific policies and interests. Jane’s talk really made me aware of the complicated social and political history involved, but thus also inspired me to try to find out more about the history and present situation. One, in a way simple question was: what other “brand name” than national park should be used to better describe the purpose/function of a national park? Branding is a very important tool today and finding a new term to draw attention to the public about the concept of national parks is as essential as the function of biodiversity, natural resources etc. (5). Besides understanding the background for why, how and when national parks were established, globalization of nature in the form of climate change, spread of diseases, invasive species or extinction of fauna and flora, increased population and a variety of tourism activities, is as important. It has been exciting to learn about how the international environmental, biological and sociological institutions and NGOs try to focus on new management methods for environmental justice to make progress. I think that globalization of nature as well as policies and politics, have changed the purpose for establishing national parks, and one fundamental transformation is to include human assets as part of the concept for conservation. Biologists and sociologists still argue about the best solution to preserve biodiversity and improve human living conditions. Unfortunately, I believe that the increasing gap between the rich/West and the poor/south regions is socially, environmentally and economically alarming, as it is the greatest threat for the intention to convert to a sustainable society, in which access to nature in different forms.
Globalization can be an emotionally charged word, and agitate different groups of activists. Adding the explosive expansion of communications by Internet and Facebook, for example, these now even reach the public with grass roots in nations lead by dictators and in the third world, as with example of the protests against the new channel in Costa Rica that is supposed to reduce costs and time for marine transport (Sveriges Radio 23 Dec 2014). These news leads me to Radkau’s seminar on the history of environmental movements and how people worldwide respond to environment threats, now and might do in the future. I was impressed by Radkau’s wide knowledge from reading the book “Nature and Power” (6) (although it looked extremely boring with no pictures and only small text) with his review of many global environmental issues. “The age of ecology” (7) has the same quality of broad understanding of time and space. After the first green movements in the 70s as a response to , another, appeared in the 90s. But what started this new “enlightenment”? Chernobyl, Bhopal, , Exxon Valdez generated anxiety in people’s mind and are part of his explanation. He also mention points out the fall of the Berlin wall was an eye opener into a “hidden society” and a link in a chain reaction to political, religious and other ideological events. A basic goal, indirectly, for most of the movements he described is to protect biodiversity and inform about sustainability, though I think that many members or activists do not understand the underlying principles of these functions. I found it quite interesting though, that Radkau did not think that these concepts were always the best alternative, but what do we have instead? Is his answer to accept biotechnology to preserve threatened species artificially? Then a provoking question might be how evolution of those species continues compared to the same species left “in the bush”. His view on the importance of integrating agriculture, energy, transport and construction business and institutions as one unit to process in discussions and planning for sustainability being, I find very coherent. Besides involving a lot of re-thinking and innovations, novel environmental projects would create many new jobs. Other topics that we discussed were the concept of “think local act global” and energy production. Safe, sustainable, and/or renewable forms are not always compatible when you discuss what is best long term and efficient solutions. Most of us agree that buying local products (produced sustainably and ecologically) is good, but what about imported food from on another continent whose production supports many poor families and help them educate their children? A surprise from this seminar was that Rachel Carson more or less initiated the field of environmental toxicology and thus an awareness of the toxic impact on the environment, which transfers hazards to humans. Why didn’t I read “Silent Spring” before?
As energy production and climate change are connected in a globalized society, the world economy and financial markets, are the base in ever increasing production of commodities. Kristina Persson’s own think-tank ” Global Challenges” (8) promotes globalization with the aim to introduce a new leadership and initiate discussions from a holistic and enduring global viewpoint is set almost utopian high. With the title “Policy in the Age of Climate Crisis” for her seminar, she presented what she called the “three senses”; equal parts of ecology, economy and social responsibilities to counteract the present escalating inequality in living and consumption standards worldwide. I agree that if this combination could be practiced in reality, many problems would have a good chance to be solved. But, unfortunately, reality does not consist of idealists and for breaking down the power of multinational corporations, a new kind of market, already implemented and functioning is required. Kristina’s idea is to encourage big companies to compete about the most sustainable and innovative production line and to recycle and reuse material in the manufacturing. That is a far reaching goal, but more companies adopt “corporate social responsibility”, which could be developed further, as networking and public awareness are becoming “hard currency” in the business sphere. To create jobs for the rising unemployment, because of the more computerized and resourceful business, Kristina proposes that a variety of new service businesses would employ many people, one reason I imagine, could be more opportunities for innovative thinking and learning.
Holism for a healthy society and environment
Kristina’s campaign for equality and happiness, and her view for a globally sustainable growth, justice and relations, made me recount to the healthy and happy society that Helena Norberg-Hodge advocates with Ancient Future (9), but with the difference in that Kristina encourage globalization, while Helena instead endorses preservation of “localization”, in the case of Ladakh society. According to her book, the inhabitants in Ladakh are healthier and happier than in most other societies. But, social and culture factors, tradition and religion are very important factors for how you perceive your life is well-known, see for example Global Health Education Consortium (10). Gross National Happiness was set up in Bhutan 1972 as a measure for quality of life, rather than quoting monetary wealth as being the main factor. The result of this system set up in Ladakh at the time Helena was there would have been interesting to analyze and compare with results 30 years later. I agree that the Western financial system and the hard competitive market it has created, must change, but her story is very naive. Although she is acknowledged by receiving the Right Livelihood Award 1986 for her work in Ladakh, I ask myself about the source of her statement about people’s health in chapter three and what conclusions anthropologists/sociologists/medical studies would have made. The seminar was laid up as a “question courier” in which we got a question from our neighbor around the table to answer and vice versa. I replied to a question about the impact on local people’s knowledge from a modern education system. I underline that it is important to safeguard the familiarity and experience from religious and other traditions, theoretical as well as practical, as long as these are not hazardous to people’s health, right to free thinking and living standard. But, to deprive young people and a society, which believes in fearful superstitions, from the right to modern education built on empirical science, is unjustifiable. A system where community members rely on a powerful shaman or an astrologer or spirituals to cure diseases and predict future courses of events, as Helena describes in chapter three of “Ancient Future”, does not belong in a society that defend round the members’ right to adequate health care and general welfare in a modern=legitimate civilization. I learned when reading her text, the difference between illness and disease (in conventional medicine you may feel ill, but have no symptoms, but have a disease without feeling ill). Helena describes the proficiency of the amchi, to cure illness, thus considering mind and body and fellowship with the community when treating the patient. That the amchi is highly respected, could unfortunately also mean that patients do not dare to disagree with the opinions of the amchi.
The link between health and education (11) is recognized by the international community. Many traditional agricultural practices illustrated in chapter two, can probably easily be explained in scientific terms. I believe it makes a difference to an individual’s engagement, if she or he understands why and how their practices have been more or less successfully for generations? Reading chapters seven and eight about how Western style culture and money economy have changed the “old” Ladakh community, it is easy to understand why Helena dismisses the intrusion of Western tourism, infrastructure, food markets. Furthermore, the increasing population has as a negative impact on the local resources. In the article “Ecology and Health: A study among tribals of Ladakh” (12), the author proposes what to protect of indigenous knowledge and what is needed to improve health care systems and a necessary development of the society. I would find it interesting to hear Helena’s comments after reading this article.
Nora Bateson’s film about her father, Gregory, (13) is a beautiful dedication to a beloved parent from his youngest daughter. Beside philosophy, his ideas includes topics such as chaotic theories, anthropology, genetics and cross-species behavior and communication, all of which are mirrored to some extend in the film. What attracted me most was his opinion that we should try to see and understand outside our own sphere of training, education, social and/or cultural community. It might take some effort, as well as requiring to accommodate to unconventional or main stream thoughts, but by letting our mind be challenged, we can learn to detect new relations, get new insights and evolve as humans. What I also find appealing, is his desire and eagerness to learn all life, not only scholarly knowledge, but from fellowmen as well. He, and, for example, Kenneth Worthy (see below) are concerned about the lost connection between nature and man in the modern society. It is there to a certain extent (see below) and many rely on the bond when life is troublesome. His idea of what images you can make by just looking at the anatomy of your hand and fingers, is an illustrative example of his holistic vision and open-minded intellect. That said, I do not agree with his concept of hemoglobin as a universal particle; if it would have the same function on another planet, life there would consist of the same matter as on Earth. The molecule has evolved to be composed and shaped as it is today for a specific, biological function in a specific environment.
Sometimes I think holism can go too far, as when I see an advertisement for holistic Vitamin E! To me, the word holistic can make me creepy as there is something mixed-up when it is used in for promoting alternative medicine, food etc. However, reading about Gaia for the seminar on Mary Midgley, I accept the holistic view of Earth as an assembly of interdependent parts of physical entities, like plants, animals including humans, water, air, and inorganic material (rocks, minerals) could be a useful tool to explain . I must admit that I didn’t know what Gaia really means until I read the chapter from “Science and Poetry” (14). If it is easier for people to understand the interconnectivity and interdependency of all organic and non-organic systems of the Earth by relating to Gaia as one single organism, it is good. I value Mary’s discussion on science and social science (chapter 4) in which she makes clear that scientific thoughts are not alien to other disciplines, just a continuation of many different mutual thoughts together. I would hold that both fields have their origin in human aspiration to understand and explain what we experience. To me, philosophy and sociology can be mysterious, not science, although it is sometimes difficult to understand. Mary’s chapter on “atomism” as a bad thing for understanding society, that it makes us rely more on individualism than community, is also interesting. Still I find it easier to understand contexts by putting smaller parts together. I enjoy her comment on Dawkins’ view on poetry, as he is one of the most “scientific” scientists I have read and heard of. So, that lead me to the part of the seminar when we talked about the poetry or art related pieces we brought. I liked that very much; so much beauty, sorrow, lament, appreciation, metaphors and hope for thoughts on nature in the few examples that we brought.
Continuing on the theme of hope, I consider the Skype-session with Kenneth Worthy an optimistic recount on the believe in humanity’s spirit to participate in cleaning up the environmental mess we so flippant contributed to. From the parts that I read of his book, I do not fully agree what he says about the human community not being connected with nature (see further down). Kenneth has a doctorate in environmental humanities and teaches in ecopsychology, anthropology philosophy, environmental ethics etc. and in “Invisible Nature” (15) he reasons why we so easily do environmentally bad alternatives, while we know that they are destructive and we actually are attached to nature. From the introduction I notice his comparison between people’s detachment from nature back home in the US and his experience from Asia, where he lived for some time. Would he have noticed the same if he arrived in a Nordic country, or in Rumania or in Spain? A study at SLU showed that young people react positively to bird song in the cities and feel more healthy (16). The result was interpreted as it is important for us to have nature around us, to keep green areas even when more housing is needed. Another study together with SLU and a country council is studying the health effects of green and more natural spaces in connection with hospitals (17). To me, these described reactions show that we are more dependent on natural experiences than we think of or notice daily. On the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that we care about our environment. Also in Asia, South America and Africa are urban people more or less disconnected from nature. And unfortunately, I have the sense that in most rural areas, the young kids want to move into town to get a job. Yes, we have also lost connection with nature regarding what nature provides us with for our daily life, and I don’t think of food, but from where and how are commodities are produced (conflict minerals, cheap fashion? Are we really interested to make a change that will make it a little more inconvenient to live, or is it more important that we (the young generation)can check out Facebook continuously with our phone? It seems as the Asian life style, considered to be more respectful to nature, quickly disappears with the introduction of Western taste for life. Why? Maybe we don’t have the courage to see the reality and consequences of modern lifestyle yet, simply don’t have the time, or prefer a comfortable life style and the latest fashion? Worthy had a very interesting idea about encouraging citizens by helping them take a little step at a time, to be more environmentally friendly directed: any effort, although small, motivated by a rapid and perceivable reward makes a tangible significance. Did he have in mind “Nudging for sustainability”, the new trend, and could that really make a difference, in people’s mind and in practice? Unfortunately, I think we do not understand how deeply dependent we are on nature, not only for survival, but emotionally and for our physical health. I strongly believe in education in science, humanities and social sciences to ignite and save the appreciation for nature that most of us still have and need in difficult situations. Giving next generations an awareness and understanding of what natural really resources are, and how to use them efficiently and with respect to sustainability, is a responsibility of the society. If not, innovations and long-term solutions might be too late and the delicate connection we still have with nature might disappear completely.
How severe is the situation, if we lost solidarity with nature and understanding that its resources s are the base for sustaining our existence and future development? Tainter’s model “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (18), written more than 25 years ago is an economically based system theory based on benefits and costs for keeping a society well maintained. As I comprehend, it refers to an interdependence between socio-economic-organizational complexity in a society, which as it develops and improve the infrastructure, it simultaneously becomes more specialized and complex, that is becoming a civilization. That requires more resources to solve “problems” and for further development additional resources are needed. Future problems Tainter describes on YouTube from the International Conference on Energy-Economy and Sustainability in 2010, are for example, increasing costs for health care, impact by climate change, military activity and using new energy sources. When these have reach such a peak that the society cannot compensate benefits for costs it collapses. One illustration of his hypothesis is the West Roman Empire (around 470 A.D.), in which heavy tax increases were a major cause for its collapse. Tainter’s model contains general assumptions on human psychology, judgment and planning under certain conditions, which I think are quite adequate, but also on archeological findings, which I presume could be difficult to interpret correctly. Nonetheless, human societies at present have developed, many might say contracted, in a direction that was not foreseen. Technology including IT, weaponry and artificial intelligence, population increase, communication, globalization and the ever increasing demand for energy have changed the conditions that prevailed for the exemplified civilizations. Looking at the “problem” of energy needs, his standpoint is that increasing consumption of energy is necessary to avoid another, this time global, collapse. In my opinion, Tainter focuses on economic solutions for maintaining or developing a complex, for him, meaning an economically high-quality society via “energy” consumerism. Furthermore, he refers to the American society when he say that an “adult conversation” is needed, and is that comparable with European, African or Asian political systems?. He concludes that not spending more money on new technologies and inventions, which in fact demand even more energy (at the cost of i.e health care), is to go back to an “economic undevelopment” (p 211, 212, 215). But are there no other solutions? Tainter might consider a shift towards green fuel techniques and inventions as an “utopian alternative” (19), or could it be a paradigm shift from prevailing economic systems?. It is easy to follow his logic on YouTube on how complexity builds up and how he looks at the development of human innovation “art”, but I feel skeptic about his view on sustainability as “what people value”. I cannot quite connect that to sustainable utilization of existing energy resources and techniques, unless new innovations are developed in a raging pace.
I will end my summary with some thoughts from the Introduction of “Nature’s End: history and the environment” (20). As the authors point out, history mirrors the events, thoughts and concerns of the present time. There is a lot in the quote “… Nature as full of surprises who can “hit back” on ignorant humans…” (p 2). First, I just ask myself, why would nature serve humans? Then, that nature is not a reflective essence (why who and not which?) with a mind to predict and act intentionally. I can make a parable with misinterpretations, when animals, partly domesticated, react unexpectedly to humans ignorant of how to perceive and predict their body language, social competence etc.. I recently heard similar words of “hit back” when the authorities in Miami Beach talked about how to prepare the city from future flooding disaster by protective constructions, but not a single word about changing human impact or life style, to reduce the risks. By now, existing knowledge in ecology, climatology, earth science etc., facilitate more accurate predictions, but many of these are not welcome to be planned for by politicians and other decision-makers. Another important aspect of environmental history I find in the Introduction of the book; “it is also about action and about moral predicaments and determinations to guide action” (p 2). The words encourage me to believe that humans have the sense of being responsible, That environmental history has”…role as a bridge builder between the humanities and other disciplines”…(p 11) is a reassuring quote. Linking natural science with other disciplines to add knowledge about our right and responsibility as a species among others, is a very important notion to me. Inspiring the civic society to make decisions built on facts are decisive for the future. From page eight I read “The environment does not start where the farmland ends, …”. Of course not, nature is urban, rural, oceanic, aerial and much more, and can be enjoyed almost everywhere (guided tours in Stockholm city teach you where to find edible plants or herbs). With urban gardening, vertical farming indoor and outdoor, creating small biodiversity rich environments, not only for food supply, but as climate buffers, and for kids to learn, appreciate, enjoy and be inspired by. A small, but rich fauna and flora in a natural setting that is easy to reach, letting nature take some space back and simultaneously give disengaged groups in the society a chance to be more connected to nature is achievable. Many seminars have had this basic idea as a theme, just confirming that environmental history is about humanity (p 16). Imagine what could be read about it hundred years from now!
Writing a summary of the seminars have been cumbersome, but rewarding. Some seminars have been provocative to me, but loosened my attitude in questions to which I arrived with a resolute idea. I have got new insights, which I now have in my mind when planning for my project. There are of course topic I would liked to have discussed, like the question of population growth and that impact on the environment and society, role of indigenous floral knowledge in culture and biomedicine and how to engage the civic society to take more responsibility for their environment. But, I have a better grasp on environmental history now, and can thus build more knowledge myself.
1. Schmidt-Soltau K. 2009. Is the Displacement of People from Parks only ‘Purported’, or is it Real? Conservation and Society. 7:1, 46-55
2. Robin L. 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises, responses and expertise. 2011. Quaderni, 76, 25-37
3. Carruthers J. 2012. National Parks, civilization and globalization in Civilizing Nature: National parks in Global historical perspective. Gissible, Hohler, Kupper (eds). Berghahn Books Ltd
4. Conservation: Linking ecology, economics, and cultureEds. Borgerhoff Mulder and Coppolollo. Princeton University Press
5. (
6. Radkau J. 2008. Power and nature. A global history of the environment. Cambridge university Press
7. Radaku J. 2013. The age of ecology. A global history. Polity Press
9. Norberg-Hodge H. 2009. Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World. Sierra Club Books. San Fransisco
10. Global Health Education Consortium.
11. Feinstein L. et al. 2006. What are the effects of education on health? Measjring the effects of education on health and civic engagement: Proceedings of the Copenhagen symposium OECD
12. Bhasin V. 2005. Ecology and Health: A Study Among Tribals of Ladakh. Stud. Tribes Tribals, 3:1, 1-13
13. Bateson N. 2011. “An Ecology of Mind”
14. Midgley M. 2001. Science and Poetry. Routledge Classics. Polity Press
15. Worthy K. 2013. Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between people and the environment. Berkeley, University Press
16. Hedblom M. et al. 2014. Bird song diversity influences young people’s appreciation of urban landscapes. 13:3, 469-474
18. Tainter J. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New Studies on Archaeology. Cambridge ?University Press
20. Sörlin S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction p 1-22 In: Nature’s end: History and the environment, Sörlin and Warde (eds)

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
Date Topic Guest lecturer
17.2.2014 World systems, history and ecology J. W. Moore
3.3.2014 Ecology, history and unequal exchange A. Hornborg
7.4.2014 Landscape, history and ethnicity T. Ingold
28.4.2014 Science, society and power J. Fairhead
19.5.2014 Nationalism, conservation and globalisation J. Carruthers
26.5.2014 Globalisation, environment and livelihood H. Norberg-Hodge
9.6.2014 Policy in the age of climate crises K. Persson
8.9.2014 History, conservation and politics L. Robin
17.11.2014 The Age of Ecology J. Radkau

List of seminars for which complementary work was done
Date Topic Guest lecturer
17.3.2014 Greece and revisionist environmental history O. Rackham

List of seminars led
Date Topic Guest lecturer
28.4.2014 Science, society and power J. Fairhead

Diary of seminar reflections and feedback given/received

The Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History unit was an exciting interdisciplinary approach to the study of current issues involving ecology, the environment, conservation and socio-ecological systems. The purpose of this unit, for me coming from a socio-archaeological background, was to grasp the scope of current and past research pertaining to the environment, what it does and what it can entail, and what remains unanswered. Through the seminars and readings, I was able to map out the vast research into environmental and ecological studies, allowing me to find space for my own research. The unit achieved that we, students, started thinking critically about how environmental research can be done and particularly to think about the environment more widely, not just in a single term, such as ‘conservation’, but also to include ‘imperialism’, locate the conservation of a particular place in a world-system etc.

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
The unit was large in terms of the topics that it encompassed, but three seminars stood out as providing the best arms for tackling future topics. They dealt with the writings of Ingold, Rackham and Radkau, as they were problematizing bad ecology, ecology’s history and the concepts it uses.

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
Fairhead, Moore, and Hornborg were, to a different extent, all dealing with the topic of power, the economics behind it, its causes and effects. Hornborg and Moore complement each other as both promote the study of ecological effects of capitalism across borders. Hornborg (2012) focuses on trans-national unequal exchange of resources between rich and developing countries. This allows developed countries to build up a technological advantage at the expense of the developing countries. Moore (Moore 2011; Moore 2010b) promotes the study of world-systems and argues that capitalism is not just a socio-economic system but also an ecological one with a deep impact on the environment. Moore, additionally, is propelling the idea of the oikeios, where humans and nature live in the same sphere, rather than seeing the Cartesian division between the two. He continued to stress the Cartesian division during the seminar, even though his articles were several years old. Hence I reflected that “the study of the Anthropocene is improving and now sees humans bounded together with the environment. Since the rise of the material culture theory and phenomenology in archaeology, the discipline has become more relationship focused. The theoretical shift in archaeology caused disciplines working closely with it (e.g. palaeoecology) to accept the new theory, which allows for the study of the Anthropocene in a world ecology” (N. Petek, reflection 18.2.2014). Like Moore, who stressed the importance of the world as a whole, Hornborg denounced the nation-state as a unit of analysis in environmental history. While I agree with Hornborg that “the nation state, which is unchangeable and devoid of external contact, is not a useful unit of analysis, it is a necessary concept. The nation-state is the centre of political power nowadays, and it is also a place where the general public should have the power to propose laws, enforce economic change, etc” N. Petek, reflection 4.3.2014). Thus, a nation-state should be part of the analysis but not as the only unit of analysis devoid of contacts and relationships outside of its borders.

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
Two seminars focused on conservation as their topic. Carruthers’ work (2012) was particularly interesting and it was thought-provoking to read in the edited volume (Gissibl et al. 2012) how national parks are used in various ways, from conservation of the environment to the assertion of independence in the case of Slovenia. I was interested in the non-standardisation of the concept ‘national park’. Even though the parks around the world have little in common in how they are organised and run, or what their purpose is, “they have a convention every 10 years where they discuss topics of education, tourism, sustainable development, etc. I am not sure of the effects of these conventions, but would projects that spring up from the convention be seen as globally standardising national parks?” (N. Petek, reflection 20.5.2014). According to Carruthers, national parks remain remarkably pliable in terms of what they can be. My reflection on the globalisation of national parks prompted the reply: “What (who) decides which ideas get implemented and which don’t [when discussing projects that spring up from national parks conventions]? I guess it boils down to who wields the power and knowledge, so I think we can claim that it is the western scientific paradigm that constructs the ideological framework” (N. Dedić, reply to N. Petek 22.5.2014)

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
For me it was really useful to attend seminars prepared with Norberg-Hodge and Persson, who both work outside of academia with politicians and the general public. I found it intriguing to see how the information gathered by researchers gets diffused to the public and into politics, and how they want to affect the people working and living in those spheres of life.

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.

An intention of mine through each seminar was to try and link the discussion back to my own research topic and region. I was able to do that in four out of ten reflections and I found it interesting to discover in how many ways I could take or expand my research, and where the connections lie. I think the unit has the potential to become an essential course of a master’s programme. It encourages thinking and exploration of topics from different standpoints. Furthermore, since it is student-led, it forces the students to think about how they will present the topic and how to approach it.

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.

Carruthers, J., 2012. National Parks, Civilization, and Globalisation. In B. Gissibl, S. Höhler, & P. Kupper, eds. Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective. New York: Berghahn, pp. 256–263.
Fairhead, J. & Leach, M., 2003. Science, Society and Power: Environmental Knowledge and Policy in West Africa and the Carribean, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gissibl, B., Höhler, S. & Kupper, P., 2012. Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, New York: Berghahn.
Hornborg, A., 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World, London: Routledge.
Ingold, T., 2000a. Ancestry, generation, substance, memory, land. In T. Ingold, ed. The Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge, pp. 132–151.
Ingold, T., 2000b. The temporality of the landscape. In T. Ingold, ed. The Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge, pp. 189–208.
Moore, J.W., 2010a. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 33, pp.225–261.
Moore, J.W., 2011. Ecology, capital and the nature of our times: Accumulation & crisis in the capitalist world-ecology. Journal of World-Systems Research, 17(1), pp.107–146.
Moore, J.W., 2010b. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010. Journal of Agrarian Change, 10(3), pp.389–413.
Norberg-Hodge, H., 1991. Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
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., 2014. The Era of Ecology, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Robin, L., 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises , responses and expertise. Quaderni, 76, pp.25–38.

January 7, 2015 at 13:14 #15922

Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
Final Assignment: December 2014
Morag Ramsey

Attended Seminars-

1. Mon 3 Feb: Introduction to the course & India and the Environmental History
of Imperialism & book launch (Cederlöf, 2014)

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.
Two of the most helpful lessons have been to be wary of assumptions, and the general encouragement of interdisciplinary efforts in this field. While at times I struggled with what I perceived to be a contradiction between these two ideas, I believe I have come to terms with this. I will begin with explaining the different ways Current Debates encouraged me to reconsider the basics, and to train my thought process. Then I will go on to reflect on how it helped shape my thesis.

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)

Attended seminars:

3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
3/3 Alf Hornborg: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
6/6 Kristina Persson: Climate and Policy
8/9 Sverker Sörlin: The Role of Environmental History
22/9 Libby Robin: History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia
3/11 Joseph Tainter: Collapse of Complex Societies
17/11 Joachim Radkau: The Age of Ecology
8/12 Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature

Complementary Task:

14/10 Kenneth Worthy: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Enviroment

Chaired seminars:

6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
6/6 Kristina Persson: Climate and Policy

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
It’s too bad that I don’t have the notes from the first meeting in our programme with me while writing this reflection. Anneli asked us to write down how we would define environmental history and what we expect from this Master programme. I think I strongly associated the discipline with the historical explanation for today’s environmental problems and the posing of social alternatives to them. Now, after three semesters, I would say that my idea of environmental history still resonates with these goals but in a different way. The discipline, I would say, does not begin but rather end with outlooks for “problem-solving”. More precisely, I see it’s starting point at the moment of “environing”. Referring to this I wrote in my reflection on Sverker Sörlin’s discussion of our discipline: “In this way writing environmental histories can actually be a way of closing the gap between humanities and the social and natural sciences: by elucidating how people have been situating other things around them in the physical world and how this affects their idea of the ideal self, society and world”. From such a perspective our current state in the world is the expression of a certain “environment” which is the present formation of an ongoing environing process. How this thought leads me to a political ethos should be discussed in the latter part of this “diary”.

Divided mind, divided nature
I guess if there is one theme which we encounter most in our studies it is the one of “division”: between mind and nature (Bateson), between individuals and their environment (Ingold) or between the Western way of living and its global consequences (Hornborg and Worthy). These divisions play a central role in environmental history, most dominantly as the postulated main cause for ecological deterioration. In retrospective I can detect a certain caution of using this word in my reflections: not because I claim that these divisions do not exist but because I started to consider “divisions” and its opposite (“harmony”, “connection or what you want to call it) as social constructions. This does not mean that they are not useful in describing the current state of the world and its becoming – environmental history would probably not exist without the alarming image of modern societies losing touch with their natural environment. But I think we should not forget that “divisions” are concepts which should make something comprehensive; they are not realities which can be found in an objective way. That is why I think environmental historians should not dedicate their time to “prove” that humans are “divided” from “nature” (like Kenneth Worthy tries in his book for example) but rather how this “myth” has played a powerful role in history. In contrast, environmental historians could argue for a more dynamic use of these concepts in order to comprehend human relationships with other entities. A quote from my reflection on Gregory Bateson illustrates that well: “Does the line need to be clear or can it be dotted as well? The last idea gives me hope: as we humans have always drew lines we should think of how tight we want to do that. In one instance we can think of ourselves as non-distinguished from nature, in terms of the planning and constituting of societies that are “sustainable”, “resilient” whatsoever. But in another instance we could or I would say even should see ourselves as quite individual and human: because we invented ways to be not in the same struggle for survival as animals and our ancestors were, through technology and collaboration in its broadest sense. The question then is not how can we achieve a life with all other beings or just “among us” – it entails the search for the “good life”, something only us humans can conceive in order to continue dwelling in the world”.

Academics should look in the mirror and then forward
Another motif I can find is the one of demanding something one could call “ontological and epistemological honesty”. In this regard the reading Mary Fulbrook’s “Historical Theory” was eye-opening: I realized that every academic work is based on certain assumptions about how the world is constituted and how knowledge about that world can be required; and more importantly: that a lot of disciplinary and interdisciplinary clashes are the result of differences between these assumptions. Throughout my reflections I have been alert of that and critiqued authors who I felt were trying to “sell a certain truth” to their audience without revealing their academic assumptions. This has been the case with Alf Hornborg and Joseph Tainter. Although both have been very convincing in their argumentations they were lacking a clear positioning in terms of ontology and epistemology. This is, I fear, the case for most works in environmental history. This does not need to be a problem if one thinks that historical analysis should aim at revealing an “objective image of the past”. But if one takes a more social constructivist view (like I started to do during my studies) such a “traditional” position becomes teethless in terms of societal change. This can be best illustrated with Joseph Tainter’s fatalist conclusion that our civilization will sooner or later collapse because humans will always choose to sustain their accustomed way of living – which inescapably requires an increasing amount of resources (Tainter 2012: 01:26). As I reflected: “This becomes highly problematic in particularly one regard: a certain image of human is projected back into history and ahead into future – which diminishes any space to think about different ways of thinking, valuing and practicing as an individual, group or society. The past, the present and the future become nothing but different versions of the same story”. If there is one insight we should have gained from the postmodern turn it is that history is contingent. And it is this understanding which makes our discipline so powerful compared to others.

A personal struggle against ecological modernization
While reading through my writings I notice that the knowledge which I acquired in the field of environmental history over three semesters has led to a pulsing anger against proponents of ecological modernization. “Anger” is an emotion which might not be considered as adequate for an academic reflection but it would be an understatement if I would call it something different. I see the reasons for this in the lack of broad historical analysis in that political vision. As I defined ecological modernization in my reflection on Kristina Persson’s lecture: “In a nutshell, the driving forces of production and consumption are inherently good – it is due to the misallocation of capital and values that companies and consumers contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions and the harming of the environment in general. Thus the solution is to steer both forces – the market and consumerism – into the right direction, that is green new products and services. What is suggested is a rather reformation than a transformation of economies and societies. “Change” is understood as altering the components of the system and not its logic”. As a young environmental historian I can not accept this political strategy, simply because it not only neglects a longue-durée analysis of modern society but excludes any discussion on the rather harmful involvement of technology, capitalism and economic growth. It is – just as mentioned in the critique of Joseph Tainter above – another version of the same story of Western civilization. Unfortunately, ecological modernization is on the best way to become a new paradigm in politics. The best example offers Kristina Persson herself who has become a minister for “future challenges” in the new Swedish government.

Environmental History and its missing link with politics
The longer I study environmental history the more I am surprised that the discipline is not at the forefront of a critical movement for an alternative discussion, politics and lifestyle on environmental issues. Sometimes it seems to me that environmental historians have been too occupied with describing the environmental past of human societies that they miss any reflexion on the present or future. Maybe I am pointing to that because I studied political science before and started to wish for a different way of politicizing environmental issues. If we want to change what the impact our societies has on their environment we need to understand how the material world changed in accordance to the shifts in human ideas and norms, which is nothing but what our discipline does! This does not imply that this is easy: lots has happened since the developing of the modern world and history and politics have left out natural aspects for too long. Not to say that environmental history can bear “the” answer to how to alter our complex relationship with the natural world. But if there is something which it can tell society already it is the contingency of our environmental past. It is what I once called, doing “history forward” which entails “not take any institutional environment for granted but to conceive it as something that had become – and has to be rearticulated to stay in the present.”. In that sense, environmental history could work in a genealogical way: by elucidating the socio-environmental paths history has taken until today and emphasizing the openness of its future course. It is here were environmental history crosses with the concept of environmentalism. As Joachim Radkau writes in his “Age of Ecology”:“Environmentalism may offer an alternative, in so far as it emancipates from the ‘American way of life’ and returns to its original aim of improving the quality of life; this would imply a new sense of self-esteem and a reevaluation of traditional lifestyles suited to the ecological conditions of particular countries” (Radkau 2013: 428). This reconsidering of traditional lifestyles does not have to be an “either or” against the dominant lifestyles of today. It rather implies as I wrote somewhere else “a reflection on current and traditional ways of living and then choosing the most convenient, simple and harmless ones to combine them”.

Finally: mediating between truths about the environment
To conclude, from a political perspective environmental history becomes a most powerful tool in the way of considering but also re-considering the past, the present and the future. Coming back to myself, as this overall reflection should be quite personal, I can say that what I am studying has strongly influenced what I do now and want to do after I am finished with my Master. By being granted with the space of reading, writing and also living in new directions, I have environed myself with new ideas and practices, abolished old ones and granted space for future ones. In terms of career I found a certain confidence in working with the issue of climate change. Not as someone who tries to defend a particular truth against others but rather as someone who shows why and how we constitute these truths and who moderates a discussion about which truths we should agree on in order to deal with it in a better way. I think this is what I can tell people from now on when they ask me the – potentially uneasy – questions “what I want (or even can) do with a Master degree in that subject”: bridging the gap between the taken-for-granted and the not-yet-imaginable in the relationship between humans and nature. I think that this optimistic feeling is already a success for this “experiment” of a Master programme in Global Environmental History.


Radkau, Joachim (2013): The Age of Ecology. Polity Press.
Tainter, Joseph (2012): Collapse of Complex Societies. Lecture. URL: Accessed on November 12th 2014.

January 18, 2015 at 17:15 #16001

Nisa Dedić
Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
Final Assignment: January 2014

Attended seminars:

3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
17/2 Jason Moore World Systems, History and Ecology
3/3 Alf Hornborg: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
6/4 Tim Ingold: Landscape, History and Ethnicity
19/5 Jane Carruthers Nationalism, Conservation, Globalization: History of NPs
26/5 Helena Norberg-Hodge Globalization, Environment and Livelihoods: Ladakh
8/9 Sverker Sörlin The role of Environmental History
22/9 Libby Robin History, Conservation and politics: example of Australia
6/10 Mary Midgley: Science and Poetry
14/10 Kenneth Worthy: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Enviroment
17/11 Joachim Radkau: The Age of Ecology
8/12 Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature.

Chaired seminars:
26/5 Helena Norberg-Hodge Globalization, Environment and Livelihoods: Ladakh
6/10 Mary Midgley: Science and Poetry

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…
While I was reading through my reflections of the past course sessions, I was struck dumb by how much my reflections were conditioned by my mental and emotional well-being and how much my academic interests and methodological preferences actually overlap with my general presence in a certain period in my life. This is the first strand and lesson of my story: the more I strove for objectiveness, the more I wrote my reflections with a kind of metaphysical desire; like I wanted to ground my feet in reality but it turned out like I grounded them in desire of a certain reality. In the moments when I allowed myself to wrote a relaxed reflection, just doing an introspection of a kind, I found my reflections more like something a person interest in history and not a metaphysicist would write. This leads me to the first knot in my strand,
&&&history as anxiety&&&
i.e. Sörlin’s quote that “history fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” (Sörlin 2009, p.2). This knot of several thoughts I have so far put forward tells me that historiography is always societal, if not exactly personal, like it might have been suggested in the beginning of my weaving (though it would have been most interesting to have had a session on psychoanalytical reading about historiography…). I do not claim that history is just a product of past emotional states or that a certain historiography is an emanation of anxieties, both collective and individual. Rather, I think that if historiography indeed reflects anxieties and interests current at the time, then it tells us more about the past than just the bare glorified facts; not only glimpses into the historical reality, but also the interpretation of the reality and the best part: the desires of the time. In every historiography there is a collision of the retelling of the past, the interpretation of the now and the desire for the times to come. I will come back to the question of anxiety and desire, but for now I continue with the second knot:
&&&history as science&&&
The big, open wound of humanities in the modern academia. Of course, this second knot departs from the first one; the anxiety of a discipline in the modern world as a battlefield in the aftermath of a battle between postmodernism and neoliberalism, though the allegiances are not clear. Please excuse the military metaphor, yet somehow searching for inspiration does feel like scavenging for something that is not dead yet and presents a remnant of hope for the future. Anxiety of the discipline of history, even much so of environmental history. To elucidate I will shamelessly quote myself from a reflection on the session with Libby Robin: »[a]s environmental historians we inhabit the worlds in between the hard sciences and the humanities; hence, we have to be wary of “scientifization” of history (what I have in mind here is for example the environmentally deterministic narrative of history…«. Thus in order not to slip into all possible deterministic pits and traps (geographical, meteorological, economic, cultural, ideational, cynical – my own personal cesspit – etc.), we have to think about what is the ultimate frontier of reality; environmental history has to inhabit that irreducible, elusive area that throughout the course literature I think only Jason Moore actually dared to spell out (whereas elsewhere it is simply presupposed). In Moore’s terminology that is the oikeios, which is defined as the »fundamental ontological relation between humans and the rest of nature« (Moore:2001, p.127). The historical-ecological method reveals to Moore (or he sets out with this revelation? The circularity of method is a well-known aporia) that it is the historical development of capitalism that is the organising principle of this fundamental ontological relation; thus in the capitalist oikeios the relation between humans and the rest of nature is organised on the basis of commodification. When this relation becomes untenable, since it exhausts itself according to Marx’s Law of Underproduction, a crisis of capitalism occurs. History is thus understood as the unfolding of capitalism; dare I say cycles of capitalism? This brings me to the third knot:
&&& history as teleology &&&
This is another issue I keep returning to and never coming to terms with. Teleology that inevitable path (irony right there…); what I mean by this is locating something in the present and then following this path as a chicken follows a path of corn and finally locating the source, or lets rather say, until the trail exhausts itself and then the root, the source is simply that frontier we are still able to recognize, even though the path precedes it, goes beyond it, continues. However much I align myself with Marxian thinkers, which Moore is, I find it hard to understand history just as a series of capital accumulation/ capital crises occurrences. The ontological relation in this case is as I see it based on a vulgar materiality; surely materiality is more material than that? But from all the historical methods I have been acquainted with during this course, I find Moore’s the most workable and delineated. Moore’s analysis of environmental histories practice so far, is helpful in order to understand how the mind/matter divide manifests itself in the practice of history writing. He diagnoses two wide fields of practicing environmental history: one that focuses on biophysical conditions that enabled socio-environmental transformations and the other that focuses on consequences of human activity upon biophysical nature. As already mentioned, the historical-ecological method Moore employs aims to break with this divide with capitalism in nature motto, but the risk of slipping into economic determinism and teleology makes me wary. It seems I am not the only one: many people find this vulgar materialism unappealing, but unfortunately by avoiding the vulgar materialist trap many fall into the ideational pit, which writes history as thoughts floating somewhere above the messy, banal past on the ground. We have been acquainted with many intellectual historians during our course, but in this line of thought Kenneth Worthy (2013) and Mary Midgley (2001) come first to mind. Both start from a modern point of dissociation, atomistic Western individualism and write it backwards into the texts of *great* thinkers. Such a teleology is not only dangerous, but is a slip from a precipice into using the past to construct a morality for now, a guilt ridden morality at that. Yet, Midgley as a philosopher follows the strand of atomism more discreetly and thoroughly; she follows Democritus and proceeds from him to contemporary scientists and shows how atomism and individualism legitimized each other from the 17th century onwards. Worthy on the other hand makes hasty conclusions; since my thoughts on this are not so fresh anymore I will quote what I wrote in my reflection: »the competitive individualised and stratified society of the Greeks is explained via a hasty explication of competitiveness between various Greek polis. The Middle Ages are as usual dealth with in a veeeery hazy manner; you know, yes the medieval world-view was more organicist, but then comes the Renaissance and colonialism and Enlightenment and we have this separation again as the Greeks«.
Moore’s historiography risks inserting universal laws into the past, which then conditions certain events to happen within a capitalist oikeois; Worthy’s and Midgley’s intellectual history risks raising canonized philosophy into causal events. A triumph of mind over matter! Let me try to delineate the focal points of Western dissociation from nature based on the authors: 1. the *birth* of philosophical inquiry as the birth of Western history as the path of dissociations from nature, 2. the culmination and crystallization of the questioning subject in the Cartesian res cogitans/res extensa, 3. the Cartesian dualism as the force behind the imperialist conquest of nature (of course humans included). Can we as environmental historians take up this frame to make us understand where we are now and to understand why we are here now? I asked Worthy this question and he answered (not in these words precisely, I do not remember anymore his words exactly) that he would sacrifice “objectiveness” in order to gain political momentum with his work. So many strands now, time for another knot:

&&&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.

Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge
Ingold, T. 2000. Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge
Marx, K. edited by McLellan, D. 2000. Selected Writings. Oxford University Press.
Midgley, M. 2001. Science and Poetry. Routledge Classics. Polity Press.
Moore J.W. 2012. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism, Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center 33(2-3).
Moore J.W. 2011. Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation and Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology, Journal of World-Systems Research 17(1), 108-147.
Moore J.W. 2010. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010, Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3), 389-413.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2009. Ancient futures: lessons from Ladakh for a globalizing world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (
Sörlin, S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction In: Sverker, S., Warde, P (ed) Nature’s end: history and the environment, 1-22. McMillan
Worthy, K. 2014. Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide Between People and the Environment. New York: Prometheus Books.

January 20, 2015 at 01:07 #16115
Sabbath Sunday

A Dairy of Reflections on Seminars and Lectures: Current themes and debates in Environmental History: by Sabbath Sunday

Seminars attended:
1. Mon 3 Feb: Introduction to the course & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism & book launch: Cederlöf, G.
2. Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology: Moore J.W.
3. Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange: Hornborg, A.
4. Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History: Rackham, O
5. Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature: Merchant, C.
6. Mon 14 April: Landscape, history and ethnicity: Ingold, T.
7. Mon 28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy: Fairhead, J.
9. Mon 26 May: Globalisation, Environment and Livelihood- Ladakh, Kashmir: Norberg-Hodge, Helena.
11. Mon 8 Sep: The role of Environmental History: Sörlin, S.
16. Mon 17 Nov: The history of Ecology: Radkau, J.

Seminars organised:
Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History: Rackham, O


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.
Carolyn Merchant’s philosophy calls for reawakening of women to realize their positions in human ecology in relation to their attitudes towards all environmental systems that form nature. Environmental activism and philosophy like ecofeminism is an attempt to restore/rehabilitate the humiliated ‘Mother Nature’ to an ethical state of harmony and respect. Women should be at the forefront of fighting for nature because both nature and women have been dominated from time immemorial. However, this can only be achieved through a sustainable perspective of development and gender equality, because humans have always depended on the products of nature.

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.
Chapter eleven, ‘The temporality of the landscape’ is another of Tim’s discussion about ecological anthropology. His argument is based on the fact that, human and non-human activities on the landscape are continuous processes that give it shape and definition at a given time. He demonstrates his argument with the imagery of music and a painting to enable the reader to understand how temporal, landscape processes work. When music is playing, not all instruments are heard but each one comes up at a moment where it is designed to appear and this does not affect the intended harmony but improves the final presentation. Similarly in the farmers’ painting, many activities are shown and not all people are doing the same job. There is even one who is asleep under the tree after his job is done but all in all, work is finally done. In this case Tim displays the argument that while geological processes like erosion, river and sea action continue to shape landscape, also human activities or ‘taskscapes’ also contribute to the process of landscape modification which is never completed. Human ‘taskscapes’ carry with them a lot of symbolism with foot prints of how far they have adapted themselves to their environments through their culture. I am convinced that this view is very instrumental in enabling humans to jealously guard what they have created for themselves during their ‘taskscapes’, thus living sustainably with nature.

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
Question: How can we define happiness? Is happiness a crucial foundation of a sustainable world? Discuss this based on ‘Ancient Futures’ by Helena 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
Worster, D and Crosby, A.W. (1988). The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, Cambridge University Press.

January 20, 2015 at 15:41 #16139

Attended seminar:

1) Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
2) Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology
3) Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
4) Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History
5) Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature
6) Mon 14 Apr: The Perception of the Environment
7) Mon 26 May: Ancient Futures
8) September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia
9) September 22: Sverker Sörlin’s History is a Nightmare
10) October 6: Science and Poetry

Submitted complimentary tasks:

1) Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
2) Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology
3) Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
4) Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History
5) Mon 31 March: Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature
6) Mon 14 Apr: The Perception of the Environment
7) Mon 26 May: Ancient Futures
8) September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia
9) September 22: Sverker Sörlin’s History is a Nightmare
10) October 6: Science and Potery

Led seminar:
1) Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

It’s very rewarding and exciting when I started to write this final reflection. Rewarding is because I have learned a lot from this course and it’s the time that I can summarize what I have gained from it; and exciting, how can I help not when I going to harvest with my own hands, nay, with my mind and words? Current debate, if concerned about the time, it is not current debate but one year’s debate since it did not operate currently, but lasts one year long wherein we have studied and debated about; and on the other side if concerned with the contents which we have debated about, it’s not current debate, but a debate covering issues which are more everlasting and eternal: time, space, human society, environment, environmental history, scale and more.

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.

In Gunnel’s lecture, I was interested in three general topics, one is the formation of identity, one is the idea of space and one for the perception of nature. And I made some reflection in comparing China to India. In “world systems, history and ecology”, the idea of “Cheap food” attracts my attention. I do not believe that some agricultural revolution can bring golden time back to us, nor do I believe we, our human can leave hope on cheap food. In “Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange”, my reflection discussed about the pros and cons in adopting a world system’s approach to global environmental history. The world system theory helps us take consideration to a broader range in environmental change. We can borrow useful thoughts from the outside. But a global perspective is not an easy one, at least it may give an image of unconvincing when it tries to use theory and method in solving problems globally. Seminar with Oliver Rackham is the fourth seminar which is also the seminar that I was responsible for. I gained from this seminar how ecology situation changed in ancient and modern Greece. What’s real ecology in Greece? Oliver’s answer was different and inspiring from the stereotype that most of us had, that we may fall into a degradation pattern: today’s technique is better whereas environment is worse. Oliver’s research gives us the real situation: “a consistent change from Greece Yesterday to Greece today is the increase in wild vegetation, especially trees”. (Oliver Rackham, Ecology and pseudo-ecology, 20) that discovery made me reflect how we should take modern theory and method in ancient study. I like Oliver’s attitude, he said “I do not know” to the question “did the ancient Greeks have an attitude to ecology”. Such sincerity and humbleness is a key to real knowledge. In “Science History, Ecology and the Idea of Nature”, I selected the question “How does Merchant help us understand Global Environmental History?” I have got the trail of changes of human’s views on nature and on the relationship between human and nature. One change which I reflected is from mother to witch. I can not agree with that the witch part of nature or the turn to witch appear only after Renaissance. I think in the ancient time, the witch part of nature existed as well as after Renaissance and Merchant did not investigate it so well or may lack evidence. I also got the idea of eco-feminism from the reflection on which I commented. Eco-feminism combines individual and nature, and takes women into consideration on the role of nature played. In “The Perception of the Environment”, I reflected about indigenous people and landscape study on which I argued as landscape and indigenous people are two different things and it’s not easily combine these two into one field. The seventh seminar for me, of which I chose the question from Wenzel “Why was the Ladakh society so vulnerable by Western culture?” to answer. Localization is the therapy for Ladakh society according to Helena Norberg-Hodge’s opinion. She hoped that the local people can resist western influence and get back to their traditional life. But as noticed, the western influence is hardly resisted. Ladakh is located on the boundary which is easily influenced by its neighbors. The western technology helps to save labors and to make life convenient. Vulnerable is Ladakh, and more than Ladakh for the world we lived in is now changing to more and more relied on technology and technique. We are living a life that our old generations are not familiar with, nor we ourselves. From “History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia”, I got a new understanding of the relation of empire and ecology. Tom Griffith tried to take empire and ecology into the narrative of Australian history in which he posed the idea of “ecological imperialism”. This scale is largely beyond nation and ecology, but combined these two factors together. The scale of biodiversity existed in ecology. The Australian history in Tom Griffith has many layers of scales and it gave readers a very different perspective form traditional nation or else ecological history.
Sverker Sörlin’s seminar, “history is a nightmare”, of which I discussed the “nightmare” and the relationship between nature and environment in Sörlin’s perspective. It’s interesting to know that Sörlin separate nature and environment according to the rule of sustainability. But I could not always agree with the “nightmare” position. I would rather argue for the meaning of history. The last seminar I attended is “Science and Poetry”. I discovered the power of nature in poems whereas found human’s power outside poems is so powerful which is usually jeopardizing nature from human’s hands.

Above all is my brief reflection about the path I have gone through from ten seminars, the path of ideas and thoughts. I have rediscovered I almost talked about every thing during this course. And some topics come more than once. First, what is environmental history? In briefly, I would define it as the study of human and nature’s relations during historical and pre-historical time. The time period is broad. The study field is also vast. But one thing I think is very important in environmental history: the relations. I would not think without the relations, only human or nature study can be environmental history. Environmental history must combine the two scales: human and nature, no matter big or small, and investigate their relations. Second, what’s the scale of environmental history? As I mentioned, nature and human are two general scales for this history. But is it too general? I would say: yes and no. Yes is because there are various small scales in environmental history, a nation, the biodiversity of it, of which the change of the biodiversity, and in the changes you can classify according to historical time: ancient, early modern, modern and more… Saying no, it’s because it should have something in general scale that can give us the macroscopic idea in the relation research. Otherwise it is only pieces of words which are either too trifle or too simple.

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”.

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, T & Robin, L (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, University of Washington Press
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.
Merchant, C. 1990. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper one.
Moore J.W. 2012. Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism, Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center 33(2-3).
Moore J.W. 2011. Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation and Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology, Journal of World-Systems Research 17(1), 108-147.
Moore J.W. 2010. The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010, Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3), 389-413.
Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2009. Ancient futures: lessons from Ladakh for a globalizing world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books (
Rackham, O. 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In Shipley, G. (Ed) Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. Routledge (E book)
Radkau, J. 2013. The Age of Ecology. Polity Press
Sörlin, S. 2009. Making the environment historical: an introduction In: Sverker, S., Warde, P (ed) Nature’s end: history and the environment, 1-22. McMillan

January 22, 2015 at 17:27 #16183

Final Exam
Current Debates and Themes in Environmental History, VT/HT 2014
Markus Nyström

Seminars attended or complemented (11):
Gunnel Cederlöf, February 3
Jason Moore, February 17
Alf Hornborg, March 3
Oliver Rackham, March 17
Caroline Merchant, March 31
Tim Ingold, April 14
Kristina Persson, June 9
Libby Robin, September 8
Sverker Sörlin, September 22
Mary Midgley, October 6
Joseph Tainter, November 3

Seminars organized:
Joseph Tainter, November 3 (and guest lecture in January 2014)


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?


Cederlöf, Gunnel (2013), Founding an Empire on India’s North. Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerse, Polity
Hornborg, Alf (2012), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World
Glogal utmaning, website:
Ingold, Tim (2000), The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, dwelling and Skill
Midgley, Mary (2001), Science and Poetry
Moore, Jason (2011), “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation & Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology”
Moore, Jason (2012), “Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism”
Merchant, Carolyn (1990), The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution
Tainter, Joseph (1987), The Collapse of Complex Societies
Sörlin & Warde (2009), Nature’s End: History and the Environment

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