Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

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March 17, 2014 at 10:12 #11956

Student organiser: Sabbat Sunday and Fu Yachi

Reading: 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)

Instructions: Read the text and follow instructions given by the student organisers. A 1 page reflection according to instructions given by the student organisers must be submitted on 18 march 18.00 in discussion forum. You must also comment a fellow student’s text (3rd in the list of course participants after you that attends the seminar) before 19 march 18.00.

March 17, 2014 at 13:39 #11962

Seminar 17.3.2014 – Oliver Rackham
By Nick Hirschstein

Question 3: how has pseudo-ecology been a problem besides ancient Greece?

Overall the existence of pseudo-ecology could mean a problem for any kind of historical ecology. It jeopardizes the integrity of historical documents and essays and could mean that every source, document, book needs to be checked whether it is basing opinions or statements on the so-called factoids. With that in mind we have to regard that everything that is written about ecology can be based on false information, since the oldest sources were not meant to be a source in the field of ecology, now that becomes a realization it means that there are a lot problems underneath the surface.

With Rackham’s reading in mind, I was remembering that in one of the earlier courses last semester there was an extensive discussion of environmental degradation not only in Greece, but in the entire Mediterrean region, which kind of follows the same line of argumentation. The argumentation was that there was one coherent theory on why this region was experiencing soil-degradation. However even though we see it as one region, I would argue that it’s hard to see the region as one ecosystem. This theory has some of the characteristics that Rackham mentions, with gross generalizations and maybe the lack of original data. I would highly doubt that this one scholar has visited the entire region and made observations as well experimented to support all his arguments, since the region is too large and would need a very detailed knowledge of the landscape. So it seems more likely that this scholar has assembled a lot of research done by others to create one coherent theory. Even though Rackham is talking a lot about older sources as well, this particular theory was quite new, so this is still a current problem.

There are probably another quite some other examples that experience the same problem where the researchers are not actually been to the field where they research, and probably if they have been, only once.

March 18, 2014 at 10:05 #11963

Discussion seminar March 17 with Oliver Rackham – Greece and revisionist environmental history
Reflection by Kristina Berglund

Yesterday’s discussion seminar with Professor Oliver Rackham as well as the assigned article dealt with the ecology and pseudo-ecology of ancient Greece. As a revisionist historical ecologist Rackham presented some of the main theories about the ecology of ancient Greece and discussed how some of these theories might be described as pseudo-ecology. Before further elaborating on this I have to say I think it is fascinating how it is even possible to say anything about what happened so many years ago, the existence of plants, trees and what the climate was like. It is amazing to think about how we can know all this, and also how we in can learn from this history.

In academia as well as in everyday life, people lacking deeper understanding of a particular field or question reduce information into generalizations and simplify the information in order to make sense of it. These generalizations are done all the time, and are often helpful to get an understanding of a certain event, problem or issue. However, when these simplifications become what Rackham calls ‘factoids’ it becomes more problematic. These presumed ‘facts’ are in reality not true at all, and as they grow bigger they can form a pseudo-theory, in the case of Greece a ‘pseudo-ecology’ – “a coherent, logical, reasonable, and widely accepted system of belief having no connection with the real world”. Rackham argues that due to many different reasons, landscape history and maybe particularly the landscape history of Greece, is particularly susceptible to this non-objective, untrue ecologies.
Rackham points out that the ecology of ancient Greece does not look very different from Greece today – today being defined as Greece up until the extensive changes of the 20th century. Many traditional accounts of Greece’s ancient ecology as e.g. being a ‘Garden of Eden’: a lush, green area covered with high growing trees, are thus not valid in Rackham’s view. What would have been of further interest for me would have been to hear Rackham elaborate more about what he thinks about the changes in landscape and ecology after the 20th century and onwards to today, and why this part of history is not included in his accounts.
Not having enough personal knowledge on Greek ecology either today or in ancient times, the main point I take with me from this seminar is the importance of critically analyzing facts and narratives we often take for granted as self-evident. To ask whether different information we absorb really is ‘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. I bring with me from this seminar the significance of taking in as much different sources of information as possible before making conclusions about a specific question – whether the question regards the reasons for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the existence of wolfs in Sweden, or what ancient Greek ecology looked like. Although this is not something new or particularly ground-breaking, I think it is important to remind ourselves about it.

March 18, 2014 at 10:14 #11964

Oliver Rackham Seminar: Morag Ramsey

Oliver Rackham’s seminar focused on the impacts of factoids and pseudo-ecology when it comes to fields such as our own. While the article for the seminar was from the mid 1990s, it still holds relevant advice to those who are not super familiar with ecology and the potential pitfalls that come with studying historical ecology in particular.

In this instance, pseudo-ecology is a brand of ecology based on factoids, which are fondly described as “a statement that looks like a fact, makes sense like a fact, commands the respect due to a fact, and has all the properties of a fact except that it is not true.” (Rackham, 1996) This is obviously problematic if one is searching for ecology or history based on reality.

Rackham uses a case study of ancient Greece to emphasize how pseudo-ecology comes to pass. It is clear when reading Rackham’s article that he feels 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. In addition to Rackham’s article, “Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece,” he distributed a handout with tongue-in-cheek advice on how to write pseudo-ecology and pseudo-history. Between these two sources, Rackham’s criticisms of pseudo-ecology were very clear. In fact, I associated what Rackham described as pseudo-ecology and pseudo-history, as being very close to the topic of ‘traditional history writing’, which we discussed last term in Benjamin Martin’s class. In our prior class, we looked at the limited sources and efforts historians could formerly use to write, and how it has changed today.

This emphasis on thoroughness while writing and doing research sometimes seems like slightly obvious advice, but I feel it is important to consider especially when entering into new academic waters. As for many of us in this Masters program, much of the material is relatively new or from a different angle, thus being given somewhat obvious advice can actually be quite beneficial. As for myself, being given examples of how soil erosion is prevented in many different ways and how that transformed academia on Ancient Greece may help me think critically about my future historical and ecological assumptions. It seems easy to see a lack of critical thinking in hindsight, but I am sure it can be difficult to navigate everything as a researcher at times with different ideas all over the place. So hopefully being given straight forward advice about the matter will encourage more critical thinking and the chance to implement Rackham’s advice.

March 18, 2014 at 13:45 #11972

Rackham draws an important and clear distinction between ecology and pseudo ecology, and his fundamental argument is powerfully made.

It is vital to note that many of the literary writers who he cites are not historical ecologists and are not attempting to be. When they write about past natures they are doing so for quite different purposes and in a quite different register and mode to that which historical ecologists are attempting. Just as it is wrong to use literary sources uncritically as a tool for historical ecology, so it is perhaps beside the point to accuse literary authors of getting the historical ecology wrong. This is not to disagree with Rackham’s analysis but to suggest that it is only potent when aimed at those who profess to be writing accurate historical ecology, not to those who are writing in different literary modes. Dante would be the most obvious example here.

Rackham’s exegesis of the fact that deforestation was not widespread in Greece until the 20th century is important, and serves as a salutary tale warning against making assumptions about landscape history.

March 18, 2014 at 13:58 #11973

Reply to Nick:

Thanks Nick, I think you’re absolutely right to say that Rackham’s article reminds us of the fallability of lots of ecology, particularly when using older sources.

The only thing I might add to what you say is that I think it is possible to differentiate een the difficulties inherent in any academic approach to understanding a broad problem, and the specific flaws Rackham notes. The difficulties of generalizing in ecological terms about the Mediterranean, as you describe, are still there even if all of Rackham’s advice is followed.

March 18, 2014 at 14:04 #11974
Sabbath Sunday

Seminar 4, Mon 17th March:
Ecology and Pseudo-ecology, an example of Greece.
Reflections by Sabbath Sunday

Question: How would you argue that pseudo-ecology is a problem in understanding ancient history besides Greece?

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 therefore, is 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 of 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 which were supported by agriculture.

Finally, I have understood from Rackam’s presentation that revisionist history has now been overtaken by mainstream research assessments of such scenarios as pseudo-ecology through multidisciplinary cooperation in search of the right information. Environmental history is one of such disciplines that will continue to delve into new areas of research to uphold this view.

March 18, 2014 at 14:07 #11976

How would you argue that pseudo-ecology is a problem in understanding ancient ecological history besides Greece?

A reflection by Yongliang Gao

For me, the problem is raised by multiple causes. But it is fundamentally rooted in the attitude that people possess other than the scholars do. I would say that preconception is the foremost problem for understanding ancient ecological history. In fact, scholars, which in many cases the social scientists or natural scientists, possess affluent evidences that are able to demonstrate ancient historical ecology from diverse senses. The preconceive idea, which people have towards historical ecology nevertheless, is hard to be oscillated.

As Rackham reveals, people incline to get an ecological understanding through unprovable materials (i.e. poem, painting or other textual/pictorial materials) rather than scientific evidences such as fossils, specimen and etc. This is because legendary stories often haunt the textual/pictorial materials, which are attractive and widely promoted to the public. The scientific evidences, however, are insipid and dreary, which usually serve only for scholars. This means, although the scientific evidences seem to be more trustworthy compared with the ‘unscientific’ materials, people often turn blind to them. My opinion is that unless revisionist scholars are able to employ tempting approaches for promoting the scientific evidences, people will continuously use the ‘unscientific’ materials as the primary means for understanding ecological history. Consequently, pseudo-ecology will survive unremittingly.

Besides, if pseudo-ecology exists universally, it is necessary to critically reexamine world ecological history. To rethink it essentially raises another problem, which is to what extent can we trust the data and information from previous literatures. If we are uncertain of the ecological documents we are referring to, no matter how capable we are of in designing the ecological history research, we will undoubtedly produce another pseudo research. My concern is whether scholars can establish a feasible system for testifying and evaluating the former data and information.

March 18, 2014 at 14:24 #11977

Seminar with Oliver Rackham, Reflection by Fu Yaqi

In the seminar, Oliver Rackham presented to us what his idea about the situation of ecology in ancient and nowadays Greece. He firstly introduced the climatic and geographical characters of Greece and associated these with real ecological conditions Greece could have. Places which he mentioned especially are Crete and Cyprus. He also provided us three theories in explaining Greek ecology and by showing pictures gave us what the image of Greece in the eyes of Nicolas Poussin in 1648 and the Lost Eden authors.

What’s the real ecology in Greece? In discuss about ecology in modern Greece, it’s not hard to find traditional explanations are easily to fall into the degradation theory: that in brief, vegetation is suffering degradation now, and usually yesterday is better than today in ecology. However, the fact is not that simple and pessimistic, these degradation scholars may make pseudo-ecology unconsciously. Rackham’s finding is inspiring, he found “a consistent change from Greece Yesterday to Greece today is the increase in wild vegetation, especially trees” (Oliver Rackham, Ecology and pseudo-ecology, 20). In order to proof this finding, he selected photographs and pictures between different ages and compared them. And from his comparison, he surely noticed the fact that trees were not in decline, but in the opposite increasing by time, especially pines. Simultaneously fires caused by vegetation were in an increase, which may well be another proof of the inadequacy of deforestation.

In ecology, ancient Greece was not less complicated than modern time. The difficulties partly lay in the insufficiency of primary sources, and exaggeration by explanation. Some methods like pollen, if used in ancient ecology research, would be difficult in application as well. Different connotations of words between languages and ages, however, made misunderstanding thus causing wrong estimate, for example, the words wood and timber were not separated by Greek but the differences exist in English. Rackham’s essay corrected some stereotypes which we believed so deeply as to taking them as common sense. For example, trees protect soils from erosion is commonly believed by us but not true in Greece, for erosion is a catastrophic process there according to his finding.

It should be cautious when we want to use modern theories, ideas and frameworks trying to understand the ancient time in ecology. As to the question “did the ancient Creeks have an attitude to ecology”, unlike some other scholars, Rackham chose to answer it humbly: I do not know (Oliver Rackham, Ecology and pseudo-ecology, 33). His attitude is what I appreciated. We can not assume ancient people have the same “ecological awareness” as us, while their cosmology, methodology and epistemology, if not distinctively separated, at least in some parts are different from nowadays us. Keeping eyes on their peculiarities is far more important and appropriate than trying to “assimilate” them into our theories.

March 18, 2014 at 14:55 #11979
Mirabel Joshi

Reflections on the seminar with Professor Oliver Rackham 17th of March 2014.

Lately I have been in doubt on why I have chosen to apply a historical perspective on environmental issues and Rackhams argument about the difference between ecology and pseudo-ecology reminded me that it is to be able to expose what biases and anachronistic attitudes has formed the worldview which the environmental problems of today (and those to come) are germinated in. Rackhams concept of pseudo-ecology and to expose factoids came to me at exactly the right time when I was trying to find a good way of explaining how ideas and narratives of the environment in the past and the present often are to generalised and biased to be useful, maybe even destructive. Rackham would of course say that I am confusing the concepts of ecology and environment but I actually mean environment here. 

The concept of pseudo-ecology is a good tool to use when trying to explain the formation of worldviews which the different understandings/narratives of the environment are part of in general terms by using particular examples such as the Greek ecology of yesterday and in antiquity. Rackhams article is a reminder of how useful and fascinating it is when different types of sciences can ”read”  and ”decipher” the landscape and write history from this like how a botanist can expose the claim of that a landscape has been altered by burning or grazing by understanding the vegetation in an area. However this is Rackhams point, most often the history of the landscape is not sprung from ”reading” the landscape but from reading a book. It is simply not enough. 

Rackham also asks in what sense we understand written sources that mention for example the forest, in the legal sense, in the sense of deer, in the sense of trees, in a British sense, in a Greek sense etc. To ask the question of ”in what sense” when approaching historical sources is very useful and has been pointed out in various different ways throughout the masters program in particular by Benjamin Martin and Gunnel Cederlöf however it might be a point that can’t be stressed to often.

  • This reply was modified 9 years, 8 months ago by Mirabel Joshi.
March 18, 2014 at 16:12 #11981

Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History
Yu Wang
The seminar with Professor Oliver Rackham as well as the assigned article dealt with the ecology and pseudo-ecology of ancient Greece:the example of Ancient Greece is very interesting topic. Professor Oliver Rackham mentioned in his book that the Ancient culture was unsustainable, and Greece has gone to the bad. He believed in that Ancient Greece was not all that different from Greece Yesterday.But have to notice that the climate change imposed from outside had an real effect on it. Olive Rackham also reminder us to notice a clearly differernt danger in Greek is, What an Ancient Greek would miss from Greece today is not forests but wetlands. Most of the fens and many of the lakes were thoroughly destroyed in the 19th and 20th centruies.Degradation has at last caught up with Greece. I agree with him that, we used to make some mistakes when we do the deep discussion. We used to too much rely on written documents and also too much only focus on trees diseases, neglected some other plants, animals which is also parts of Environment. For example the problem for Greek today is not lost trees but wetlands. And I also agree on another point he mentions on his paper that, expect the history of the landscape to be simple, over-generalize, gathering different phrase, information, fragments from different countries different time period, create a kind of ecology history in our mind. For example,we students are all come from different places in the world, studying in Sweden doesn’t mean we should also take Swedish ecology condition as only right dissicussion background.

March 18, 2014 at 16:51 #11982

I regard Oliver Rackmans approach on ecology and pseudo-ecology as interesting and helpful for people like me who are going to touch and interpret ecology in their research but are not ecologist. Rackmans discussion about factoids and platitudes was an eye opener for me in that sense it made me think problematizes over my own perceptions and thought “knowledge” about “natural” landscapes and plants. Scientific platitudes are hard to discover and problematize without deeper knowledge about a subject, like the notion of ever changing landscape that Rackman was talking about on the seminar (simplified he argues that landscape change often is dramatic and quick if it appears) – something that is common knowledge and doesn´t need to be proved. I guess scientific platitudes can occur as a problem in interdisciplinary studies and research, but then we also have the question about trust between disciplines a foundation for interdisciplinary research. Thus I guess the authors Rackman is criticizing (e.g. Hughes) is not educated ecologist has he is and it is up to every researcher to check and critical analyze their sources.
Without being an ecologist I agree with Rackman how to treat written (historical) accounts. Can we trust the author of the written account in having knowledge about what he or she is writing about? What was the function and purpose of the account when it was written? Was it e.g. to describe a tree accurately or is the tree merely a fictional setting in another purpose? How have crucial words for my purpose as a researcher changed over time? As the meaning of the word wood that Rachkman him selves’ points out as an example.
Rackmans point of wives is a healthy addition in the debate according to me and it is also why I think this kind of subjects is useful for global environmental history as an interdisciplinary field, in cracking myths to encourage and remind people of the importance on questioning basic notions and “facts” in whatever subject, for not to build parts of the research on factoids. This will make better adjustment suggestions from environmental history research in the present on environmental issues and a serious debate.
It is also good to not romanticize about past, as the thought of ancient Greece as a lush Eden does, which Rackman is discussing. Such romanticizing over a brighter past makes a shadow fall over humans in the past or the present in changing the environment to something worse than before, in cases where is it not the entire trues. A balanced picture with not only blame on humankind as a destroying force is a more encouraging and healing approach for discussion on environmental issues.
This discussion from me is maybe not addressing and answering one of the specific questions we got for the seminar, but I found it more useful for me to problematize on the issue of usefulness and importance or not of Rackmans point for our interdisciplinary field.

Ellen Lindblom

March 18, 2014 at 18:50 #11983
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Question: How would you argue that pseudo-ecology is a problem in understanding ancient history besides Greece?
Sorry for late post, had some computing problems.
I am glad we had the chance to interact with Oliver Rackham yesterday because I think we have mostly explored environmental history from the social sciences’ perspective these last few months and have not studied much of the natural sciences unfortunately. However, the natural sciences are crucial for understanding our surrounding species, the way plants and animals evolve in ecosystems, namely what we call “ecology”. It seems that if we do not have scientific data about the world then it becomes pointless to write history. We need information from the past if we are to understand the way the world evolved to become the place we now live in. Particularly in regard to global current issues such as the massive spreading of plant diseases, scientific data about the past is necessary.
Rackham mentioned different methods in order to study a landscape, some are scientific methods such as pollen analysis and artifacts’ analysis, but other methods are more questionable because of their lack of accuracy. For example, the study of written sources is extremely questionable, since we do not know how much we can trust the person who wrote and sometimes it is hard to know what the author was really writing about. Using the Bible as a source for historical ecology seems to me very problematic, the Bible’s authorship remains a mystery for most people, and creates a gap between believers and non-believers: some believe it was given by God, others think it was written by men, indeed this a great issue regarding the accuracy of the source.
Pseudo-ecology is a great issue for understanding ancient history because we are constantly overflowed with information about the past, some is true but some is not. It is very hard to make a distinction between what we can trust or not. It would be helpful to understand ancient history better so that we could understand more of our present, but unfortunately some mysteries remain mysteries. Facts are scrambled among a sea of factoids and many conclusions have been drawn from assumptions.
The field of environmental history is a young one and would require much more research in order to understand it better. I think we should be very cautious about what we say when it comes to ancient history. Many people today in the trend of a “paleo-lifestyle” make assumptions about the ancient past. It should be recommended to be more cautious about ancient history data.

March 18, 2014 at 20:11 #11984

Reply to Yaqi Fu’s reflection by Kristina Berglund
Yaqi, I agree with you that Rackham’s humble attitude is appealing, and I find it impressive how he at the same time manages to present his arguments in a convincing way. One of the things I also took with me from Rackham’s lecture is the importance of being critical towards the things we take for granted, and view as self-evident ‘truths’. The critical eye can be both fruitful and eye-opening, and I think it cannot be emphasized too many times how we have to be open to view things in different lights than we are used to. I too think that we have to be cautious when applying ‘modern’ theories onto ancient happenings. However, it also depends on in what purpose one is doing it, sometimes the purpose might not be to examine the ‘truth’ about this historical event, but instead tell a story or make a point of some other kind. Thanks for your thoughts!

March 18, 2014 at 20:12 #11985

Response to Sunday Sabbath by Morag Ramsey.

Thanks for the thorough response Sabbath.

I found Rackham’s account of ancient Greek ecology very interesting as well, and I had very little idea to what extent contemporary ecologists and such relied on written documents from the time. While there are obvious traps to look out for with oral and written history, I found it fascinating that pollen samples could confuse people’s interpretation of data as well, as Rackham’s article mentioned the similarities between maquis, savannah and tree pollen samples.

Your response reminded me, once again, of how interdisciplinary studies are being stressed to us throughout this course. As you mentioned, Rackham encourages a multipronged attack when it comes to assessing information, such as including using modern scientific tools with reading ancient maps.

I hope you are right that environmental history will be one of the disciplines that contributes to demystifying certain factoids!

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