Start › Forums › Courses › Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History › September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia
|September 8, 2014 at 16:19 #14183|
Reflections and replies on today’s discussion with Libby Robin.
|September 8, 2014 at 16:21 #14184|
NISA DEDIĆ: REFLECTION ON THE LIBBY ROBIN SEMINAR
I will mainly reflect on our morning discussion with Libby Robin since to me at least it seems that it was more relevant to our discipline and future research in global environmental history. I will also try to connect my reflection to one of the assigned questions, i.e. the question regarding the applicability of the history of ideas and history of power approach in my thesis work.
|September 8, 2014 at 16:28 #14185|
Nik Petek, Reflection 08.09.2014
Ecology and Empire – Libby Robin
Today’s seminar was really interesting and was a reminder of the work written by Gunnel Cederlöf, the seminar of which I unfortunately missed. People do not usually combine the terms ecology and empire, but as a quote Libby mentioned said: “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” (slightly paraphrasing). The dominance is already evident from that quote, which comes from an Australian context, but is equally applicable in Kenya, where I work, and in other formerly colonised countries. In fact, even though Kenya has the preservation of the environment as one of its top priorities, with several institutions looking after it and environmental programs being strong at many universities, the great majority of the research which requires lab equipment and expensive fieldwork is done by researchers from developed countries. These are also the researchers that publish in “high-end” journals, whereas the research done by Kenyans is hidden in institutional libraries.
How conservation and biodiversity are white men’s terms is particularly visible in the history of Baringo, the region I am working in. Since the colonial government was established in the early 20th century, the region has been subject to a great number of conservation and landscape-rehabilitation projects due to the extreme erosion, common droughts and low soil fertility. The government blamed the local people, saying that their herding practices and the high number of livestock (particularly goat) destroyed the landscape. The officials in the government considered the landscape once a breadbasket, because whole trading caravans could be fed. These conservation projects have not stopped with Kenya’s independence, but continue to the present day. Conservation stopped being the white man’s word, but became the word of the rich government officials and the NGOs (national and international).
Even though a lot of money has been pumped into conservation projects in the region, literally all of them failed, and the region is no better off than before. Moreover, the conservation projects used one-size-fits-all templates, although in the late 18th century the locals managed to have a thriving agricultural centre in a landscape that was already eroding. But how the locals managed that was ignored by the conservationists and government officials. People in Baringo are aware that the sediment is eroding extremely quickly, the evidence literally surrounds them on every step of the way, but can do very little about it.
However, even though the people are blamed to have caused this great degradation of the landscape in the past 150 years or less, research has shown that it has been happening for at least the past 400 years (so it is highly likely that it has been happening for longer) and the type of sediment there is naturally loose. This means the erosion could be natural and the human factor is just accelerating it.
That conservation is a white man’s word is also visible in other spheres of life, like the supermarket, where food labelled “organic” or “bio” is significantly more expensive and the general audience cannot afford it. So in countries like Slovenia, where 99,9999999% people are white (slightly exaggerating the number), conservation and biodiversity also become the rich man’s word. That is not to say that they are not concerned with the environment and do not want to/cannot participate in actions and organisations that take care of the environment. But you become excluded from certain spheres of society. Moreover, the cynical folk that we are, we think that “organic” and “bio” are just marketing schemes. That the conservation and biodiversity markers are organised under a market economy, like Michael is researching, does not help it.
|September 8, 2014 at 18:02 #14186|
Reflection by Kristina Berglund – Libby Robin seminar 8/9
The focus of the seminar was Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, a book that aimed at bringing together “apparent innocence and power” (ecology and empire), and to reinterpret imperial history through the lens of ecology. Although ecology and empire often is seen as contraries, one as natural and one as social, they did “forge a historical partnership of great power which changed human and natural history across the globe”, in the words of Griffiths.
|September 8, 2014 at 22:34 #14187|
Reflection by Yongliang Gao
Today’s session is a must-have one for environmental history students, whatever field you are studying in. Personally, I am writing a thesis about cultural heritage management and tourism development on the Silk Road in China. Although I haven’t chosen a specific region/site to conduct the research, the term ‘local community’ and ‘national state’ always haunt me while proceeding my project.
The literatures I’ve read so far on cultural heritage management are highly centered on national or international scale, very few scholars managed to concentrate their research on a local scale, though some have outlined the dilemma between the two. I do acknowledge the national administration of a cultural heritage site considering the financial and bureaucratic vantages that a nation possesses. But neglecting the local community would not harmonize the managerial work for the site, but trigger conflicts between the local and nation state as the local people are the owners of the landscape and have indigenous knowledge about the landscape. To exclude the local would very likely cause social chaos and with a lack of local knowledge remained.
To study cultural heritage management in China is tricky as the land is all controlled and regulated by the state, even if one owns a land, the property right is limited to 70 years. In fact, the state can do whatever necessary to a land, even though someone legally owns it. That is to say, the cultural heritage study in China should be first viewed from the national perspective. As for the local, to what extent can they participate in the management depends on the attributes of the local site (population, social status, position, etc.). This is a pretty daunting truth for people doing this kind of research in China because we have to raise the national interest above the others.
Except the issues above, I think Libby Robin also accentuated her talk on how culture influences people’s perceptions toward the environment, like how British shaped the way Australian understand their environment. For the literatures that I have read, I found a very common argument almost in every landscape management research, that is “culture has/play a/some sort of role in shaping a landscape”. An argument like this sounds like a crab to me. Whenever I see it, I get sick of it because literally no landscape can be built without culture involved. To avoid arguing culture like this, I am building up a model that could quantify the cultural impact on landscape shaping and management. My purpose for constructing the model is to identify and compare the cultural impacts on the landscape by demographic characteristics (like age, gender, education, income, marriage, number of children, etc.) in order to grasp how different groups view culture on the landscape they dwell. By comparing statistics generated from the model, I will hopefully get to know how should I represent different opinions for different groups. This is really hard to explain so far as everything about the model is ongoing and nothing is settled, but I believe it might work.
|September 9, 2014 at 10:39 #14206|
In this task I am inspired by Kristina and Morags question about our own thesis work.
Libby Robin made one comment to me, during the seminar, regarding my thesis; doing a very local, micro study I should also have communication with other levels. Put in other words I should connect my findings to processes in “the world” and not only isolate the subject in my thesis from other places, processes and levels, if I understood Robin right. This was a thought that came to my mind already on the session we had with Alf Hornborg. Hornborg talked about displacement of environmental issues and how it exists where it does in relation or direct connection to something else.
The next question I told my selves after Libby Robins seminar, is if I am going to have any crucial or deal breaking concepts in my thesis that I ought to know “the context of knowledge” about”? Such as “biodiversity” that Robin has studied. “Biodiversity” a concept I had not thought of before and problematized upon as a political tool as anything else. Maybe I need to think about the concept of “climate chock” in my own work, and take a step back from it and look at it? Because nowadays with the climate change crisis (another concept Libby talked about) I have to be careful to not be blunt about distinctions and also not to let the contemporary climate debate affect me in my work. The same goes for “social crisis” as a concept in relation to climate chocks.
Just some thought. Ellen Lindblom
|September 9, 2014 at 11:16 #14207|
Libby Robin Reflection- Morag Ramsey
I found while reading Libby Robin and her husband’s contributions to Environmental History that I continually stumbled upon issues that I will soon face when I begin thesis writing. In particular I was struck by how the history of power and history of ideas must have interacted and what that will reveal. It made me want to search for the “biodiversity” in my own area of interest. I am hoping to look into conservation in Sweden, in particular when it comes to the wolf. I already suspect that there are emotional, psychological and social elements which combine to make decisions based around this animal, but now I am curious to see how science has been used to justify policy surrounding this particular effort at conservation. I was also interested in the idea that “a crisis itself frames its own solutions.” (25) and I will now try and apply this lens to my work.
I also found this morning’s discussion about indigenous versus settler Australian’s identification with their country very interesting. While I have not concretely connected such ideas to my own thesis yet, I feel they are bound to surface. This idea of land ownership, land use and ancestry being tied to national identity is a difficult idea to navigate successfully. I think better understandings of the ideas of ‘self’ and ‘community’ and how they are connected to the environment can only strengthen the way we negotiate solutions for environmental degradation.
I agree with Libby that a closer examination of those who suffer the most from climate change may bring about more positive change than continuously blaming the ‘developed’ world with no following positive action in return. I am reminded again and again of the complicated relation between individuals and their actions and larger institutions and global connections that dictate certain standards. Libby was speaking about how policy makers are just people with the same emotional response to certain issues as others. At times it seems that dealing with such large international problems that come along with environmental concerns creates faceless actors. I grapple with how to understand such faceless actors in terms of agency and global responsibility. Perhaps later on in life everything will be illuminated?
|September 9, 2014 at 12:45 #14208|
Reflection on Libby Robin (2014): Ecology and Empire to Biological Invasions: 25 Years of Environmental History
In the following I would like to reflect on three aspects of the last seminar: first, the importance of the history of ideas and power in my thesis, second, the nation state as a scale for an analysis in environmental history and third, the question if there is a frontier outside the colonial context.
Coming to my own thesis, I conclude that the history of ideas and of power can not be analyzed apart from each other. From a Foucauldian perspective any idea, or call it knowledge, can only become dominant in a society if it is coupled with power, that is through systems of inclusion and exclusion of knowledge, and consequently, of people in their ability to speak and act. Similarly, power can not work without working through certain kinds of knowledge. Especially since the modern times it is hard to imagine that people’s attitudes and practices can be forged without the (re)articulation of certain ideas, be it the Enlightenment, democracy or environmentalism and the workings of certain institutions like prisons, schools or national parks.
Tom Griffith made a very interesting point by claiming that most of outstanding environmental historians of the US write in a nationalist manner. By doing so he probably did not mean they intentionally wanted to contribute to a grand story of the nation state. He rather tried to demonstrate that by taking the national frontier as the only scale for an environmental historian analysis, the perspective is already limited to events which took place inside the borders of a (developing) nation state. Events which changed the environment and societies in a certain area before or outside the constitution of such borders are excluded in that way. Thus, a historical analysis which only includes documents of human or environmental change during a certain time and in a certain place, can only be partial and is privileging some over others. Consequently, an environmental history about the American continent must start way earlier than the arrival of Columbus, the vikings, Egyptians or even Asians – and see the last five hundred years of settler societies as only a short sequence of ongoing environmental and societal changes. By doing so the historian might actually be able to cut out the imperial and the nationalist image of the past, and could contribute to a (at least more) universal world history.
Can we imagine frontiers beyond the unexplored, unsettled edges of a landscape? I think rather not. During the seminar I realized that there is no expression of “frontier” in the German language. The closes translation would be “Grenze” which is mostly used in the same way as the English word “border”. This might be only a minor difference but my initial explanation for that “missing word” might be the relatively minor involvement of German speaking states in the colonization of the global South. This is not to say that they have not been imperial, with the history of Nazi Germany being the most brutal expression of imperialism so far. But in expanding the German territory, the Nazis have mainly crossed borders of neighbouring states which was invaded inhabited space. Thus the absence of a German “frontier” let me conclude that it is a colonial word, strongly connected to the moving of settlers to other regions (in- and outside Europe). These colonizers were the ones who were exposed to the threats and uncertainties of new lands, not knowing where they would end or what they contained. Tthey con”front”ed a place which’s nature or history they did not know. For that reason, I don’t think there are still any frontiers in the modern world – at least on planet earth.
|September 9, 2014 at 13:17 #14213|
I was intrigued by the question of whether a successful environmental history can be written using the nation as the preferred scale.
I feel that trying to understand environmental history, or issues of biodiversity must almost always involve a level of awareness of the nation-state(s). Libby makes the point that ‘responses to environmental crises are not necessarily scientific, but are just as likely to be political or provided by management or policy framework 26’. She goes on to say that achieving the goal of conservation (a healthy ecosystem) demands amongst other things ‘a good measure of political will’ 26. Libby also makes the point that research itself is often dictated by funding from national governments, and journals have nationalist biases. Certainly restricting ones scope to the nation level and not incorporating other scales of analysis is not ideal blanket advice for all research endeavors. However, it is good to be aware of the political frameworks that impact environmental history, many of which are cast at the nation-state level. In addition, the manner in which research is conducted and results disseminated also have nationalist biases and casting ones gaze on those mechanisms can be very informative. Certainly the nation can be the main scale of examination when writing an environmental history, and while situating this discourse within global and regional contexts can add to the process it isn’t necessary.
|September 9, 2014 at 14:34 #14220|
There are various forms of imperialism and i don’t think it needs to be geographical. All we need to do is look into academia and we see that quantitative disciplines (e.g. the hard sciences) have become the dominant disciplines at most research and learning institutions. Before World War II, the arts and humanities were just as interesting to people, and were considered in many ways noble. But the “noble” connotations might come from the fact that only the better off people could afford to study such degrees, whereas the other social classes would study the sciences to secure a job later on (I think left-overs of this are still present in the UK). The humanities, arts, and sometimes also social sciences are being discriminated against in funding and in terms of how much attention they receive from the public and the media. Science has taken over the role of the dominant academic branch. In a discussion between social science+humanities+arts vs. science+math, the hard sciences will be given preference in most spheres of life, also because they are the ones advancing technological change which brings profits. From here we come to another imperialism, where science is dominated by the market and what people and the market wants. That is, science has to research what the grants are designed for. As one of my former professors said, there is less and less space for any researcher to conduct research that he/she is interested in.
|September 9, 2014 at 15:59 #14226|
Reflection by Yaqi Fu
The topic of empire and ecology is interesting. There are many things that we would memorize in speaking of an empire, the people, the land, the government and what more. Ecology exists simultaneously with empire. In Tom Griffiths’ article, he tried to combine these two large factors in the explaining of Australian History, where he posed the idea of ecological imperialism. It seems that ecological imperialism emphasized the history that presented before and beyond the living of human in such a continent, where human’s history was more based on the settlers and the colonization by the British people. Tom illustrated that the history of ecology can also be written into imperial history, and the scale of environmental history in most of the cases is well beyond nation.
Biodiversity and the idea of biodiversity would be two quite different things, of which the complex relation is just as history and the idea of history. Biodiversity, a complicated name for nature, caused wide range of attention when the environmental crisis showed up, and unexpectedly became one of the measurements for such crisis. People get to know biodiversity, and love it, and try to build it as beautiful as imagined. Simultaneously, the hard work of biodiversity in human’s affairs gives itself grand reputation, as showed in Libby Robin’s article, wilderness, became an important part of national identity in the US at the age of building national park. Crisis of desertification get connected with crisis of civilization. On the other side, biodiversity also has an influence individually on human’s healthy. No matter in malignity, in fact or in flattery, biodiversity as I see will have more influence on human, where global scales and international collaborations would be more necessary in dealing with such big ecology.
|September 9, 2014 at 18:52 #14227|
Reply to Kristina:
So you and I have actually discussed all this material quite a bit already in preparation for the seminar, and now I feel like we are doing a very thorough job of this indeed.
I drew connections between Gunnel Cederlöf and Libby Robin as well. I struggle a bit with how I will deal with the multiple scales in my own research. I hope reading and writing will help clarify how the scales interact with one another in a way that will make sense in a thesis. I anticipate getting bogged down with the regional detail and trying to latch on to a more global scope later on in the research, but we will see!
I actually usually envision the British Empire when I initially think of ’empire’. In any event, Robin’s comments on reimaging empire and other key concepts still rang true. I think it is pretty exciting to examine concepts from different perspectives and widen my general critical thinking ability, hopefully we will only get more of this in later seminars.
|September 9, 2014 at 20:26 #14228|
Reply to Nik Petek by Kristina Berglund
Nik, are you always this cynical? 🙂
|September 10, 2014 at 07:55 #14237|
Reply to Anna by Yaqi Fu
I think your worry about the nation-state scale in environmental history is quite reasonable. Nation-state is the scale and the awareness of us that influences the writing of environmental history. The scale would be small if we try to build the big ecology in a global context, but the awareness of us is unavoidably connected to and immersed in a national state, and even more, our funding as well. The idea about national state is relatively fresh, which emerged no earlier than the early modern time in Europe. It would be helpful to know what functions of such a scale in human’s affairs, and to put it further, in the nature. In human’s affairs, a national state cares not so much about the justice and legislation, but more on the profit and benefit of its own. If so, in the investigation of nature, who can guarantee the results in such scale will satisfy the world beyond the nation-state itself?
The dichotomy between nature and people is interesting and I am surprised you remember the words which Libby said:“ sometimes the nature is different because people are in it but sometimes humanity is just nature.” In such elaboration, nature is a part of human’s affairs. I think it’s true that nature is always viewed in the way according to human’s interest. Nature is like human’s clothes, housing, which support human’s body and soul. But people would wonder why some other groups of people are so ugly and so weird when they wear the same costume, and live in the same beautiful house. The angry and worried people want to know if these barbaric people destroy the beauty of the whole costume and the house, and want to get the recovery of the beauty, and to make it more clean and splendid which is like sustainable development. Nature is sometimes intertwined with human is such way. :)
|September 10, 2014 at 08:55 #14242|
In response to Ellen Lindblom:
I really like the phrase you use “communication with other levels”. I also wrote my response about what Robin said about scales of research and levels of perspective. I think it is such a good idea for you to read about and follow the research theme of climate shocks, also to read about other forms of societal shocks and how climatic shocks are unique/similar.
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