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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December 13, 2014 at 09:08 #15729

Nik Petek
Reply to Gao Yongliang

Yes, scientists need to come up with a better approach of how to disseminate knowledge of past ecologies to the general population, since it is the general population that will determine how the world views past human behaviour. – By this I mean that once a belief becomes embedded in the general population it is hard to make people look the other way, and scientists have to work that much harder to tackle these fallacies.
I find TV shows a good way to disseminate knowledge of past ecologies, however, scientists tend not to be the most charismatic people. So, you need to find somebody who understands your work and who also has the ability to get people’s attention.

December 13, 2014 at 09:30 #15730

Nik Petek
Reply to Fu Yaqi

I also think that the idea that ‘yesterday was better than today’ is still very much present in the general population and particularly in environmental studies. While many conservation, environmental and ecological studies are done because they are needed to understand the environmental systematics, some unnecessarily promote the return of an ecosystem to its past appearance, as if yesterday’s ecosystem is consistently better than today’s. This type of thinking also implies we can cut out an ecosystem from the landscape and treat it as devoid of relationships with the rest of the world.
It is of utmost importance to study ecosystems and their past, to better understand loss of biodiversity and how it works and used to work. But many people falsely think that ‘yesterday’ people were more capable of looking after the environment and were living in peace with it, and therefore we should bring back the past, which is impossible. It has been this kind of thinking that caused many ecological projects to fail, because they were based on pseudo-ecology.

December 13, 2014 at 10:38 #15731

Nik Petek
Reply to Mirabel Joshi

The concept of pseudo-ecology is very useful. I have to deal with it myself in the Baringo region of Kenya where I work. Through ideas spread by colonialists it became a factoid that it was the local pastoralists that caused the environmental degradation, when later environmental historians and palynologists showed that colonial reforms had a bigger impact and that the environment has been »degrading« for centuries.

Personally, I think a historical view of any environment is always necessary in order to best understand it and how it developed to its current state. It prevents false claims to become established such as that of degraded Classical Greece in the 1980s. It also shows that there is no pristine or original mode that the environment was in. Thus, no conservationist can claim that he/she is right in saying that this or that is how the environment used to be like. I am glad you found an inspiration again to applying historical methods to your analyses and to include them in your studies.

December 13, 2014 at 10:52 #15732

Nik Petek
Reply to Yu Wang

Sure, an ancient Greek would probably miss wetlands, but today we do not mean to study what ancient people would miss. Of course, it is important to notice what they would miss, since it would show what those people valued and how modern people have modified the landscape. But I perceive the study of ecology as more focused on studying the ecosystems – how they work, what species they have, the relationships between species etc. – in order to prevent complete destruction and loss of ecosystem diversity. It is to better understand what the current population is living in, and how to best live with the ecosystems surrounding human settlements and ecosystems that settlements are part of. The historical view is needed to understand how they changed, what disruptions they incurred, and what particularly can harm them.

While the view of an ancient Greek is important, he does not live on this planet anymore to take care of it or to destroy it.

December 13, 2014 at 11:10 #15733

Nik Petek
Reply to Ellen Lindblom

I think Rackham’s chapter should become a staple in every ecologyy/environmental course. It usefully exposes the use of wrong sources and the wrong interpretation of these sources – in this case historical – and at the same time tells the reader what to look for when doing ecological research. Although Rackham criticises non-ecologists, it is still a useful read for anybody who wants to delve or dip their toes into the ecological discussion. It is easy to read and quick, there is no scientific jargon involved, easily comprehensible and at times funny.

I have been in ecological waters for the past year and I have to say I was surprised by this article and the fallacies it exposed. As with Ramsey Morag it is always useful to be given some obvious advice, since that sometimes is the easiest to miss.

December 13, 2014 at 11:28 #15734

Nik Petek
Reply to Saelrodr

I would firstly disagree that environmental history is a young discipline. Yes, compared to studies like mathematics it is, however, environmental history has been with us for over 30 years and during that time it established itself well within history and within other disciplines as a reliable source of information. And during that time it has produced some amazing work. For Eastern Africa it was able to follow the spread of the sleeoing disease and how people have dealt with the spread of East Coast Fever. Historical sources can be reliable and very informative. It just s happens that the sources from Classical Greece and the bible are not. They are not in any way accurate or systematically collected data.
Secondly, I would agree with you that the collection of scientific data is necessary when studying environments. Nevertheless, personally i think the best results come from combining scientific and social science data, as is the case of historical ecology. Of course, this is only possible when and where people are involved and where the results of the study to some extent pertain to people. A purely ecological study (exluding humans) gains very little from a social scientific and humanistic interpretation added on top, when the study’s results do not directly relate to humans.

December 18, 2014 at 19:06 #15789

Markus Nyström, Complementary task for Oliver Rackham, 17 March 2014

At the heart of what Rackham argues against, I see the narrative of a “Paradise lost”; a Garden of Eden destroyed under the bulldozer of human destructiveness. Rackham, of course, criticizes this idea when it comes to classical Greece, and argues that the ecology of ancient Greece was probably pretty similar to the Greek ecology of “yesterday” (before the intruduction of industrial technology), and that psuedo-ecology and sloppy historiography has painted a distorted picture of the true ecology of classical Greece.

I think that the idea of an unaltered and pristine nature before the advent of civilization is a common one to modern environmentalist thought, not only in relation to Greece. Similar to nationalism in that sense, environmentalism can (but do not always do) take its departure from this romanticized past now lost. It is an environmentalism built on nostalgia – just like nationalism can be built on a foundation of nostalgia over a more or less imagined and glorious past.

It is a compelling thought, that something beautiful has been lost by our carelessness. And it is even more compelling in the case of Greece, I would argue, since Classical Greece has served as the bedrock of Western philosophy and science. The Greek philosophical tradition, lost in the mists of the middle ages and brought back to a prominent place in the Renaissance, could arguably lead to the idea that Greek ecology saw a similar fate as its philosophy.

Rackham focus his paper on, and warns against, ecological “factoids”. A factoid, he writes, is “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” (p. 16). He reminds us to be critical of sources, information and narratives that we might take for granted. Many of my colleagues comment on this point. I think Kristina Berglund’s comment on the subject, that this might be more important than ever today as we “live in a society of information-overload” is important to take into account too.

For how do we really decide what is true and not? I have never even been to Greece, and even though I have quite an extensive knowledge about trees (in Sweden), I do not find a single tree that he names familiar to me. Why, then, should I take his narrative over someone elses? My point is that, following Rackham’s warnings to its logical conclusion undoubtedly makes you end up in questions concerning epistomology.

Rackham argues for a stricter historical methodology than classic historiography, where written records are what matters, not taking into account the positionality or intentions of the writer of the records. Rackham instead argues – convincingly, I might add – that the environmental historian ought to make better use of the (natural) science of ecology, and natural science’s methods and results. Historiography, in his view, as I interpret his article, is still narrative history, but the sources are tried and tested for validity against each other. The assumption is that if, say, Plato writes about oak trees of Rhodes, an island on which scientific inquiry has determined that there were no oak trees in Plato’s time, then Plato is wrong. Natural science is that against which narrative sources should be put to the test.

Is this problematic? Yes, to some degree. The point is that many of the narrative sources (Plato, in my fictional example) did not write with the intention of describing ecology. Of course, this makes them many times unfit to use as foundation for environmental history, as Rackham points out. Ancient writers could have used ecology as literary tropes, for instance, as ways of infusing pathos or metaphors (which we may not know or understand today) into their narratives. For all we know, Plato writing about the oak trees on Rhodes could have been a hint towards a popular joke in his day. This problem reminds me of a methodological problem of my former main field of study, literature, where former generations of literary scholars sometimes went to great length to try to determine the “level of truthfulness” in fictional works. Not only was this an inquiry that lead to uncertain results at best, but it was also an inquiry which fundamentally misses the point of the fictional work. A fictional work should not be read as an allegory over reality, not all of them at least, just as Plato should not be read as a source of ecological knowledge. Like my colleague Archie Davies put it: “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”.

Of course, written records cover only those periods when people actually did write, which Rackham points out. The bias of historians to cherish and focus on written records lead to the idea of “prehistory”, a time “before history” which means history is that which is in written records. As (post?) modern scholars, and particularly as environmental historians with an understanding of colonial discourses, it is my conviction that we ought to abolish this particular piece of terminology from our shared vocabulary. Rackham speaks of “aboriginal landscapes” (p. 25) instead of “prehistoric” landscapes which is, I like to think, in light of this. Interestingly, Rackham also warns against “projecting modern ecological fallacies on the ancients” (p. 17). The way I see it, the strong focus on written sources is a similar fallacy as we are very much a writing culture. Projecting our own tendency today to write, and also to write with the ambition of writing “the truth” (as in academic works), to the past is an equal fallacy as projecting our ideas (or fallacies) of ecology onto ancient sources. If the projecting of modern ecological fallacies onto ancient sources is “psuedo-ecology”, projecting our own predilection for writing onto the past, studying only written sources, should be regarded as “psuedo-history”. It is quite intuitive that “prehistory” as a concept is flat out inaccurate.

Of the three questions presented by the student organizers before this seminar, I think the most interesting one is whether or how psuedo-ecology in understanding ancient ecological history besides Greece. My answer, in short, is: yes. Factoids are not something inherent only to our understanding of Greek ecological history, but to ecological history in general, independent of geography or nations. The question, rather, is how stringent the natural science part of environmental history has to be in order to pass as stringent enough interdisciplinary environmental history? Of course, the environmental historian can focus on attitudes and views of the ecology and environment instead of the actual nature and changes within the ecology. Rackham, though, criticizes this approach (p. 17), and I – doing exactly that in my thesis, partly – feel that criticism as partly unwarranted. It depends on what the historian is aiming and claiming to do. I would argue that here one could see a watershed within the field of environmental history – that of the truly interdisciplinary environmental history, where elements of narrative historiography and natural science is molded together, and that of the discoursive investigations into attitudes and philosphies of environment throughout history. Maybe the two should not be lumped together like they are today. Maybe one can speak of a “scientific” environmental history and one “philosophical” environmental history?

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