Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

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March 18, 2014 at 21:28 #11986
Sabbath Sunday

Reply to Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche by Sabbath Sunday

I agree with you Sarah that most of us do not have an academic background of natural science which would enable us to understand certain scientific issues like ecology as it is now seen to come into the discipline of history. Notwithstanding though, the multidisciplinary approach of environmental history studies, combines both human and natural sciences. I think that is why issues like pseudo-history and is being reconstructed by scientific means.

It is also true that pseudo-history is a complicated field which needs careful handling in order to come to with the real truth about happened and how it happened. However, according to Rackham the mainstream approach rather than revisionism has been adapted in the process of finding this truth. He gave several clues like studying the geological factors that affected past and present Greek ecology, human (anthropogenic) activities in time and space, the climate of the region, the pollen analysis and others. Yes, other sources like the bible records and the Greek philosophers’ writings cannot overshadow the above methodologies, but all in all, to make a better record of ancient and present Greek ecology requires a multifaceted approach involving scholars from all disciplines including modern philosophy as we find it in environmental history.

Although linking different disciplines is still a challenge, it is the only way out to iron out pseudo-data. Thank you Sarah for raising these contentious issues.

March 18, 2014 at 21:53 #11987
Mirabel Joshi

Response to Ellen

The question of scientific platitudes in interdisciplinary studies is interesting, as is the issue of trust. However in an interdisciplinary study could it not be that it is harder for factoids to pass as the landscape, as in this case, is studied using different scientific ”lenses” and methods, perhaps within different scientific traditions, making it harder to let ”old truths” hold without discussion?

I totally agree on your point that no good comes out of romanticizing about past,  what is the point of throwing more blame on our sorry selves for destroying Eden? From Rackhams perspective, from what I understand it, this is not the issue however. Rackham is interested in revisionist history writing not from a sense of environmental consciousness but in the name of science and truth. This, I find, is an interesting twist in environmental history as the underlying scientific intent can vary a whole deal in the field which houses historians, archaeologist, ecologists, economic historians, ecofeminists, philosophers, and so on.

  • This reply was modified 9 years, 8 months ago by Mirabel Joshi.
March 18, 2014 at 22:36 #11989

Reply to Mirabel’s post
By Yongliang Gao

In fact, I am supposed to reply Nick’s post according to the participant list. However, it seems someone had taken a faster action than me. Therefore, I decide to comment on Mirabel Joshi’s insightful post since her name stays just below Nick.

Like Mirabel said, Rackham reminds us at the right time of exposing factoids and rethinking ecological (environmental) history. In my opinion, what confuses me, as a novel researcher in environmental history, is how to distinguish the ‘certain’ from the ‘uncertain’ rather than denying pseudo-ecology utterly. For me, pseudo-ecology in some degree is useful as it releases information regardless of the validity. What worth being blamed for is the manner that the previous historians reflected the information.

Besides, I agree with you on “different types of sciences can ‘read’  and ‘decipher’ the landscape and write history”. I believe that to have a complete understanding of ecological history (where you called environmental history), it is highly necessary to absorb knowledge from diverse disciplines since it is an interdisciplinary topic. My concern is that we all have different academic background. When we soak in the enormous knowledge, we may take contradictory stances and think differently, so do the sophisticated researchers. This is irresistible because the topic encompasses too much knowledge and no one is able to master them all. In that case, the topic itself would easily steer to ‘pseudo-ecology’. Although differentiates from Rackham’s definition, it is pseudo-ecology in essence. Moreover, I think there is no way to terminate pseudo-ecology. What we can achieve is to evaluate the ‘pseudo-ecology’ in multiple fields and to reflect and extract the real part. Studying historical ecology is rather obscure, but it is exactly the beauty of the program, isn’t it?

March 19, 2014 at 08:42 #11990
Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Response to Kristina’s post
Thank you Kristina for your thoughtful post. I agree with you that it is nothing new for us as students of environmental history that we should be extremely careful about the information we get when we live in a world of endless overflow of information. Indeed, in our first semester we had the chance to take a course extremely useful with Benjamin Martin “Theory and methods in thesis work” where the importance of being critical towards every historical source has been highlighted. Rackham himself stated that we should multiply the sources of evidence before drawing conclusions. In historical ecology, we should keep in mind that what may be true for a place does not necessarily apply somewhere else. For example it is often accepted that trees protect the soil from erosion but this is not completely true in the case of Greece.
As students of environmental history, if we lack understanding of ecological systems, we should be extremely careful when reading about past scientific data. We might be tempted to oversimplify the facts in order to make sense of them, just as you pointed out.
I tend to regret that I do not have much knowledge in the natural sciences field and thus am subject to overgeneralize historical ecology and not being accurate enough in my interpretations of the past. Hence, I wish to learn more in the natural sciences field so that I can avoid to get stuck in the “pseudo-ecology” Rackham writes about.
To conclude, I agree with you that it would have been interesting to get Rackham’s opinion on present day Greece’s ecology but it seemed that he is more interested in studying the past without necessarily making a connection with the present or even the future. This is quite different from other historical ecologists such as Carole Crumley who work for finding solutions towards a sustainable future.

March 19, 2014 at 12:31 #11994

Reply to Morag Ramsey on Oliver Rackmans thought on Ecology and Pseudo-ecology

I agree with you on that matter that what is given in Rackmans text is almost obvious advises about throughness with sources and accounts, in researching and academic writing. Still it is as you point it out a very important reminder not at least in an interdisciplinary filed as ours. As you put it: when you all the time enter new “academic waters”.

As environmental historians we have to take in accounts from ecology. I guess tough because we depend on disciplinary trust we also have to criticize our sources and clarify when one does for example an ecological analyze on accounts not made by educated ecologist (obviously the same goes for other disciplines). In addition as you say there also have to be a conscious problematization when using written historical sources in research, where we are forced to use surviving texts. This is more obvious the longer we go back in human history and less written accounts is preserved if at all made in the present. Rackman had a point in his lecture about using as much and different sources as possible and then the conclusion will come out more accurate. Plato maybe tempting to use, he is famous and respected but we also have to add modern ecology research and other sources for balancing it all up and critically broaden the palette so to speak. Your thought on Benjamin Martins class about “the old way” in writing history is interesting and I see what you mean. I want to add also the question we had in that class on what makes history? – It is the authors and historians who choose what is remembered or even what regards as wroth to be remembered and how it is remembered.

All the best,
Ellen Lindblom

March 19, 2014 at 13:38 #11997

Responose to Joshi Mirabel’s reflection, Yaqi Fu

Thanks very much for your thoughtful reflection.

I saw in your reflection you are thinking about how to combine historical perspective with environmental issues. This is also an important issue for me. Improper ideas and misconceptions of the environment, which will mislead our solutions to environmental problems, however, are quite common in today’s scholarship. I agree with you that Rackham’s concept of pseudo-ecology is a good tool in explaining the formation of worldviews in macro scope where different understandings and narratives coexisted. In micro scope, the concept of pseudo-ecology will also help us find and solve specific problems. We need to be cautious not to make a pseudo-ecology by putting our subjectivity too much in our research. You mentioned a phenomenon pointed by Rackham that “most often the history of the landscape is not sprung from ‘reading’ the landscape but from reading a book”. In this sense I totally agree with you that this is not enough. We need to combine literature with the practical reading of landscape. I think it’s a big challenge for our environmental history.

I am interested in the question you pointed: “in what sense”, when doing historical research. I agree with you on that this is an important issue we need to pay special attention to and keep clear in our mind; otherwise we may unconsciously go beyond our sense, our scale, and even join in the troop of making pseudo-ecology. From my understanding, “in what sense”, moreover, is a higher standard because it requires us to be honest to what we know and what we do not, and know where we need to stop.

March 19, 2014 at 14:29 #11998

Reply to Archie’s comments (by Nick Hirschstein)

I agree almost fully with Archie’s statements on Rackham’s writing. With that in memory I think it would be useful to take something away from this that since historcal ecology is relatively new as a field, that there should be a very clear distinction between what is applicable as a source in this discipline and what it is not, and come up with original source that do fit the field. Reconsidering if writers such as Plato are reliable as source for this kind of research or create a method in which they are reliable to use as a source, maybe by some sort of quantification of literary sources. Next to that we should be able to come with enough original data these days, and not specifically rely on sources from 2000 years ago.

In the end, the point that Rackham mades about pseudo-ecology is one that bares truth to any reseracher


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 19, 2014 at 15:55 #11999

Reply to Kristina Berglund:
Hi Kristina, thank you for you focus on some of the main theories about the ecology of ancient Greece and discussed how some of these theories might be described as pseudo-ecology that was presented on Monday. You really remind me to notice some parts when you mentioned the topic of ‘traditional history writing’, you said we looked at the limited sources and efforts historians could formerly use to write, and how it has changed today. I think I totally agree with you from my study experence in China. I haven’t attend that course you mentioned yet, so I have no idea about the concept”traditional history writing”, what I thought is, “traditional history writing” means so called formalized academica history writing? Am I right?

March 19, 2014 at 15:56 #12000

Reply to Kristina Berglund:
Hi Kristina, thank you for you focus on some of the main theories about the ecology of ancient Greece and discussed how some of these theories might be described as pseudo-ecology that was presented on Monday. You really remind me to notice some parts when you mentioned the topic of ‘traditional history writing’. I think I totally agree with you from my study experence in China. I haven’t attend that course you mentioned yet, so I have no idea about the concept”traditional history writing”, what I thought is, “traditional history writing” means so called formalized academica history writing? Am I right?

December 12, 2014 at 20:09 #15723

Nik Petek, Relfection on Oliver Rackham
Complimentary task for Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History

Unfortunately, I missed Rackham’s seminar and am putting down only my reflections on the article on the ecology and pseudo-ecology of Greece.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this chapter because of its witty academic politeness when discussing the conclusions of other researchers and the style it was written in. Rackham is clearly a person with much experience in debunking bad ecology and writes with the same vigour as a person who has had enough of it. The comment on p. 34 on Zangger’s work is particularly revealing why he wants better ecological work.

The impression I have about the work of others is that they based it on very scant data – at least that is how Rackham presents it. While I suspect that each author provided more evidence (or factoids), since otherwise it would never get published, it does show how quickly an individual can debunk a badly assembled argument on ecology and socio-ecological relationships. The particular danger, which comes out from Rackham’s paper, is that people are dealing with material (historical scripts in this case) with which they don’t know how to handle. Already as an archaeology and anthropology undergraduate I was told not to take historical references at face-value, but to be critical of them and to analyse and contextualise each historical source. However, we were never taught how you can be critical and how you can contextualise and strengthen any argument using historical sources. Throughout my undergraduate and master’s degree, I continued to use historical sources and was trying not to take them at face-value, but it was not until recently that I was taught how to work with historical sources.

During a workshop on the use of archival resources, Prof David Anderson brought forward the notion of ‘triangulation’. By triangulation he meant that a researcher uses more than one historical source of evidence (not just archives, but also public media, oral history) and uses data from other disciplines. (Unfortunately, this brings us again to the criticism that some people will not know how to deal with and interpret the data from other disciplines). Through triangulation an argument will gain more weight and become more coherent.

Not knowing how to work with the data and be critical of it is not the only problem that Rackham encounters in the ecology of ancient Greece. Many of the issues Rackham talks about also appear simplified and are not dealt with in sufficient detail. Part of the reason for this problem stems from the lack of written evidence from Ancient Greece, be it either that the Greek writers were ignorant of ecological issues or that they did not survive to the present day. Another problem is that researchers think of former lands/regions as a single ecological area and sometimes in terms of the modern state that occupies that area. As Rackham himself states already, even an island like Crete cannot be subject to a single ecological discussion due to the various environs present on the island. But researchers (admittedly the articles he writes about are from the 1980s) deal with the whole Classic Greek world as a single ecological entity. The third issue Rackham exposes is the lack of thought given to various possibilities that could have happened or to the multiplicity of truths. The thought process he criticises is usually binary: if it is not a, it has to be b; and if it is not b, it has to be a.

To explain this problem I would like to refer the area that I am working in: Baringo, Kenya. Baringo is now suffering from heavy erosion. Before the research done by David Anderson, it was popularly believed that it was the extremely large herds of cattle and goat that ate all of the undergrowth, thus causing erosion. David Anderson, however, showed that it was the British colonialists who created native reserves, immobilizing pastoralists, who caused the overgrazing of the area. Less than a decade ago Kiage reported that erosion has been happening for the past 400 years – that is for the whole period that lake sediment records were available. Kiage again brought the idea to the forefront that it was the local inhabitants of the area that could be the major cause of erosion. Neither Anderson nor Kiage took into account the geology of the area and how it operates with the local climate. Baringo is characterised by unconsolidated, very fine silts and clays which are easily transported by wind (which is constant) and by water (which comes in sporadic downpours during two rainy seasons). Although I am still to investigate this and substantiate my claim, it seems reasonable to assume that both the geology and the local climate are the major actors in this erosion and might even be the root cause of it.
Anderson’s argument was it was not the locals, it was the colonials. Kiage’s argument was that erosion has been happening for too long to be the colonials’ fault; it has to be the locals. But neither of them is right, since their conclusion is very binary and does not take into account the whole picture. The discussion is very similar to that of Madagascar, where people have again been accused of causing erosion. However, with time the argument has grown more complex and it is now believed that it is natural.

One thing that Rackham shows, between the lines, is that no matter our agenda, as researchers we should aim to be as precise as we can, even if that precision means that we can’t say anything conclusive. We should not try and build an ecological and environmental argument, just for the sake of having one. Every researcher needs to be aware of the deficiencies of his/her data and acknowledge that.

December 12, 2014 at 20:27 #15724

Nik Petek
Reply to Hirschstein

Regarding your second paragraph on how and why the Mediterranean is degraded, I also heard of that theory but have never read into it. As far as I know about that, the Apennine mountain range has apparently been barren from the Antique because of the need for wood as building material and as fuel. But widespread deforestation across Europe has been speculated for the Neolithic or at least from the Iron Age with the modelling done by Jed Kaplan and some environmental archaeologists.

During a recent student conference here in Uppsala on historical ecology we were however told that to produce a grand narrative can be very dangerous. The example we were given was Joseph Tainter’s work, which became so generalised that it lost all credibility. But of course there is a fine line when disseminating knowledge to the wider public, where scientific specificity will not succeed, and to academia where one has to dot every ‘i.’ You need to be aware of your audience, but even with that in mind Tainter did a bad job. A grand narrative of the whole of ancient Mediterranean can only be false, since it gives a vast area a single history.

December 12, 2014 at 20:49 #15725

Nik Petek
Reply to Kristina Berglund

I have to admit, not knowing much about Greek ecology, that I thought that the factoid on Classical Greek deforestation was a fact. I heard it enough times that I thought it was true, since my undergraduate degree. Also, as I stated in my reply to Nick Hirschstein, it is generally thought that a lot of deforestation happened during the Antique – I admit this is not the same period as the Classical Greek period. But what I am trying to say is that I had the idea that the whole Greco-Roman period experienced widespread deforestation and ecological degradation.

But I have to acknowledge that the chapter is almost 20 years old, and a lot of new data would have been retrieved since then. So what I now think of as a factoid – the deforestation of Greece – has actually been substantiated by new archaeological and environmental research. So, while Rackham’s chapter is not outdated in terms of the research deficiencies that it points out, it is outdated in terms of what it is saying about the ecology of Classical Greece.

It is easy to succumb to factoids, especially if you are not a specialist in it, and people that do not understand the topic generalise to have a better grip on the topic itself.

December 12, 2014 at 21:08 #15726

Nik Petek
Reply to Ramsey Morag

I think obvious advice is always really good advice. Because it seems obvious and commonplace we usually forget about it. What Oliver Rackham showed in his articles is particularly valuable to students, like me, who are still learning to use various sources of information, not just archaeology (in my case). It also spurred me to think about my historical sources that I will have to use for my research. Lack of critical thinking is easy to see in hindsight, as you say. This is where self-criticism and self-awareness while writing is important and every academic should practice it. This is what James Fairhead practices and what he taught us. His seminar unfortunately post-dated that of Rackham.

December 12, 2014 at 21:20 #15727

Nik Petek
Reply to Archie Davies

While I agree with your statement, we still need to keep in mind that those writings and articles that Rackham criticises are used by academics from other disciplines. Furthermore, if those writings are not based on either a fact or a factoid, they themselves might promote factoids and unsubstantiated believes. But from Ramsey’s reflection I gather that badly substantiated claims used to be part of ‘traditional historical writing’. The articles Rackham refers to are from the 80s, when a different academia to today’s was in place, and while that might have been good academia then, it was certainly not good enough to survive the 90s.

December 12, 2014 at 21:44 #15728

Nik Petek
Reply to Sabbath Sunday

I like how you summarised Rackham’s argument and also made it widely applicable. It is always dangerous to use pseudo-historians as sources, but we also need to think about the sources they used. I would (thinking about it after reading Rackham) not advise to use Homer as a reliable source. The two writings that I know him for – the Iliad and the Odyssey – might have a grain of truth in them. But his main purpose was to tell an epic story, thus adding fiction and fantasy into the story. Neither should we consider any and every ancient Greek and Roman text as the absolute truth, the way they have been in the texts that Rackham criticises. As he himself states in the chapter, the British were conserving their forests as is clearly visible in the earthworks surrounding them, but nowhere is it mentioned. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But not every evidence is a reliable evidence. I think revisionist history was a necessary part of the historical discipline to garner self-awareness among historians themselves, and to make history a more reliable source of evidence.

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