September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History September 8th: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia

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September 10, 2014 at 10:52 #14246

Reply to Morag by Nisa

Ha Morag I will begin where you ended: with the hope that later on in life everything will be illuminated. I share your hopes but from what I’ve learned for now is that we the postmodern people are doomed to chase illumination and at the same time negate that there is illumination. Well, it is what it is. I for one, would welcome a bit of enlightenment credo in academia, if nothing else, I believe the rate of disillusioned cynical people would plummet 😀 … But to get back on track. It seems the discussion with Libby has helped us all in some way with our thesis work; finally! You have a very interesting topic for a thesis! And you are completely right, The Wolf is not just an animal, it’s one of the most powerful archetypes and symbols in all Western cultures. I love wolves of course (I’ll tell you a secret: it’s actually my spirit animal, so there you have it, confirmed, wolves mean a lot to many people) and symbols get filled with all kinds of meanings. And the wolf hunt issue in Sweden often masquerades as you well know, underlying national tensions. Which brings us to the question of nation as a scale; as historians we are aware how important history is for legitimizing nations and ethnogenesis; whose history do we environmental historians write? We can make cozy detours and claim that we are analyzing governance and governments not nation-states and nature as an agent but at some point we will clash with the nation as a scale, probably without even knowing it. And that’s the tricky part. Ok but don’t worry, we will manage since the future is bright and our theses will be great.

September 10, 2014 at 10:57 #14247

Nik thank you for your comments on my reflection! And also thank you for reminding me that I’ve failed to mention the worst imperialist of all: capital and how capital loooooves hard sciences and us humanists are an obsolete species, like a dead-end in some evolution branch. I guess I didn’t want to make my day anymore fecal when I was writing the assignment 😀

September 10, 2014 at 14:36 #14259

Reply to Ellen:

I think that Libby Robin gave you a very good advice by pointing to the relatedness of the world and thus your micro case and the world around it. Moreover, I believe that is one of the remarkable features that environmental history holds as a discipline: to show the persistence and change of connections between regions, humans, plants and other entities. As the human mind is too limited to grasp the whole system of relations, environmental history can at least offer glimpses into it, litte models which enable people to understand their world better and act in a more sustainable manner towards it.

Indeed it is important not to let the present interfere too much with your analysis of the past. That is one of the most difficult roles of a historian as we learnt last semester: by “reenacting” the thoughts of someone in the past like Collingwood argued one could understand and repeat events which are long gone. But that does not mean that you can not draw a line between the climate crisis of the 18th with the one in the 21st century. In your last chapter you could offer your readers the differences and similarities in responding to a radically changing climate. It would be interesting to see if people were more away and flexible during these times than we are today in our modern, techno-fixed societies.

September 10, 2014 at 14:45 #14260

Nik, it must have been exiting for you listening to Libby Robin when her ideas are so applicable on an area you “know” trough your work. It was interesting to read about your view on Baringo, Kenya and the erosion management through the centuries. What you are describing from the early 20th century seems like a common mistake of the modernity (and I won´t go in to the relation between modernity and colonialism): to identify a wrong, apply one grand theory and then prescribe a single cure (solution) for every symptom. It is powerful but usually not working in a much more complex world built on multi causality. A seemingly good aim or intention is sometimes as much a danger as an evident bad one, cause of the lack of attention to defaults in the knowledge about how things “used” to be as well as cause and effects. Doing something “good” like protect “nature” and biodiversity “can’t be bad” and then it is easy to forget to ask your selves critical questions about it. Like Libby Robin talked about, to know “the context of the knowledge”. It seems like the government in Baringo had and have a utopia of the mind, about how the landscape should be and how it was in the past, which is not based on research knowledge. What are the reasons the government and the NGO: S put through today to continue on the same path as before when resent research has shown an alternative picture of the past? I guess allot comes down to power relationships in the end? Why do you think native Kenyan researches in a lower rate publish in those highly regarded journals? Does the research focus differ in any way?

I think eco and organic food producers have hit the market from below from the beginning and thus in a sense is a grass root movement for human and animal health and for the benefit of the environment. I think it has been a struggle for small companies and farmers competing on an unfair market with the greater forces. If it is true what you are describing about the organic food market in Slovenia (which I know nothing about) then it is a pity that people can´t afford the organic food but also that it is a political question with much prohibition in it.
/Ellen Lindblom

September 10, 2014 at 14:59 #14261

Forgot to copy the third paragraph so here it is 🙂

I was thinking a bit what center and peripherie could be in your case. If you are studying people in a small village in Dalarna, then there is probably an uneven exchange (*Hornborg*) with the nearest town and another one between Dalarna as a region and Stockholm as the economic and political center of Sweden. If you want to write a thesis about the history of Middle Sweden this might be a very important perspective to take as there was (and probably still is) a greater flow of goods, money, people and work hours flowing from these early peripheries to the centres. But as you are writing a history of the various responses of individuals in one region to a changing climate, you might be able to not to get too invested in asking this question. For being a critical analyst it might more important to demonstrate that depending on the social status people could deal easer or worse with changing weather events, just what you are planning to do. In a way, you could contribute to “an early history of climate injustice” (something for a chapter title, no? 🙂 )

September 10, 2014 at 17:25 #14262

Reply to Morag, By Yongliang Gao

I also feel stumbled like you, not only by reading Libby and her husband’s book chapters, but since the commencement of the global environmental history program. I get a feeling that the program is not very much related to the environment but to environmental policy. The feeling becomes even stronger as time goes by. I’m surprised that you’re gonna write a thesis about the wolf, which is a pretty novel topic to me. What surprises me even more is that you plan to research the wolf in Sweden. I don’t doubt this is a fantastic topic, but I wonder can you find credit literatures to frame your theoretical structure or will it be easy for you to communicate in Swedish.

I like the metaphor that you treat the agencies and global responsibilities as faceless actors. I think most people in this world have realized the environmental situations we are facing today, very little effort is employed to deal with them though. As an GEH student, I feel frustrating because even if I strive to make a tiny contribution to build a better world day after day, the world just doesn’t go to the way as I hope. One of the big hurdles seems to be political power, I wonder if it’s our responsibility as environmental historians to prioritize environmental policy whatever research we are doing.

September 13, 2014 at 02:44 #14316
 Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche

Sarah Rodrigue-Allouche
Libby Robin “The rise of the idea of biodiversity” 2011
Tom Griffiths “Ecology and Empire: towards an Australian history of the world” 1997
Reflections on the literature and the participants’ comments

It is unfortunate that some technical issues have prevented me from fully hearing the seminar’s content, as Libby Robin seems to be such a fascinating scholar. However, by reading the literature and my colleagues’ reflections I gain a lot of perspectives helping me in the process of my own thesis writing. My thesis is about the permaculture movement and its philosophical roots, and I am especially interested in researching about the idea of ‘natural agriculture’. Some communities have claimed to return to a natural form of agriculture with a low impact on the ecosystems, mainly for spiritual or philosophical reasons. However, is it really possible to practice agriculture without impacting the Earth and its ecosystems? Many studies have shown that even hunters-gatherers societies had an impact on their environment.
Australian environmental history is especially interesting to me since permaculture initially originated in Australia. Indeed, the founders of permaculture were inspired by Aborigines Australians and by their way of relating to the land, which they found to be a conservation model. Before the arrival of agriculture there was no such thing as farming on the Australian continent, although as Tom Griffiths reminds us there was a form of proto-agriculture practiced and Aborigines might have had much more impact on the Australian ecosystems than the Whites first assumed. Both Robin’s and Griffiths’ articles are extremely interesting and relevant to today’s debates in environmental history. They raise issues such as history of power and ideas, the scale on which we reflect and the different interpretations that result from various perspectives. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on how this seminar helps me getting through my own research.
First, regarding contextualizing one case study in a global framework, an issue raised by Libby Robin, I agree with all of my colleagues that this contextualization is necessary. It is not for no-reason that our master is called “global environmental history”. As James Lovelock stated in his Gaia hypothesis in1989, the Earth can be compared to a superorganism able to self-regulate. Quoting environmentalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.
Just like Nisa, I find Robin work’s inspiring to contextualize my thesis work in a global frame. It is especially interesting when studying the history of agriculture because agriculture varies so much from one place to another. Indeed, different climates, soils and ecosystems generate different agricultural practices. Robin herself mentioned in the seminar that the only local crop before the arrival of the Whites were macadamia nuts and that the importation of many overseas crops in Australia caused an ecological disaster for the Australian soils. Indeed, I think we need to look at the history of agriculture on a global scale and not on a local one. Ellen writes that Robin told her how important it was to communicate with other levels of reflection, and I can only agree with that.
Regarding the applicability of the history of ideas and history of power approach in thesis work, I believe Griffiths and Robin have given many relevant examples of how power has often shaped the conception of the environment. Griffiths for instance elegantly points out the need of a new Australian environmental history, one that would not be dominated by power relationships. As Nick points out, conservation and biodiversity are definitely White men’s words. Kristina stresses that one of the things she has learnt in this program is that concepts such as ‘environment’, ‘empire’ and ‘biodiversity’ shall not be taken for granted as universal. I find it intriguing that Bill Mollison one of the founders of permaculture describe the Aborigines as a model for conservationists, but the Aborigines were surely not thinking of conservation when relating to their environment. Importing overseas crops into Australia had a devastating impact on Australia’s biodiversity but the Aborigines practicing proto-agriculture and hunting animals before Cook’s arrival, probably also had a big impact on biodiversity. Many species of mammals had disappeared from the Australian continent before the arrival of Whites. Surely, an empire is not solely a geographical entity, as Nisa reminds us inspired by Robin and Griffiths: it is a political and philosophical construction which existence relies on power. Morag also emphasizes the fact that the very idea of conservation is surrounded by emotional, psychological and social elements. In the case of the history of agriculture, and more especially the history of the natural agriculture movement, the concept of conservation plays an important role. Natural agriculture is about growing food while imitating nature and respecting it, but is it really possible to do so? Which nature do we want to imitate? In order to gain a better understanding of it, we shall conceive the last five hundred years of settler societies “as only a short sequence of ongoing environmental and societal changes” as Michael wrote.
Michael’s reflection embraces well the third aspect of this seminar, namely the question of the frontier in environmental history. As Gao reminds us, culture surely shapes our way of envisioning a landscape. Robin discussed how culture influences people’s perceptions toward the environment, like how British shaped the way Australian understand their environment. The idea of a ‘frontier’ is nothing less than a cultural construction, a point also mentioned by Michael. The concept of frontier is very interesting for my own research, as many researchers have shown that hunters-gatherers societies have also impacted what is usually called the backcountry.

December 20, 2014 at 12:14 #15827

Summary of the reflections and replies of the students from the seminar and the lecture “The ecology of imperialism” by Libby Robin on 8 September 2014
examine interactions between science and society
I participated in the seminar for the “Current Debates” course, but did not have time for the reflections, although I remember that we did not follow the plan too well with three questions to discuss as the students had prepared, but diverted to a combination of our own planned projects, Libby’s ideas and the prepared questions from the student organizers. The articles for the seminar were about ecology, biodiversity empire and scale, referring in part on Australian (environmental) history. Most of the students had thoughts about scale, both in time and space, and globalization, considering these terms very interesting as general topics for the Global Environmental History program. Although it is hard to grasp a global perspective on many projects, it seems as the seminar opened the eyes for new ideas to weave in a local history. For example, Nisa thought of relating her project, on a small town in Slovenia, to other urban trends globally. To write either on a regional or global scale, rather than for a national level, was proposed by one student. I think one reason for idea is that many nations can be considered to consist of a variety of individual societies with different cultures and traditions. These can give rise to antagonistic relations between geographical areas (north versus south), or populations (agriculturalists versus nomadic herders). Australia could thus be viewed as a “settler” society or a cluster of bioregions. Thinking of Sweden, one of the challenging political, scientific and public issues of the increasing number of wolfs, is who should decide what to do. In the northern part of Sweden, ethnicity comprising questions regarding traditions, livelihood etc are delicate questions to manage.
Another subject for the reflections is the term “empire”, at first spontaneously imagined as a vast geographical area power by a nation, an empire or other institution, but can also mean another kind of category of power. One student mentioned “anthropogenic” as the power of the human society to affect the physical situation on the planet. Furthermore, you must then decide when and who in the “global” society you talk about; the people creating societies after the ice age, the people in the developed countries having a life style with a very high impact on the natural resources, or the large number of poor people in third world societies, having no options to make a difference to climate change. Referring to Griffith, Kristina reflected on the significance of the combined consequences of empire and ecology in environmental history, as these terms actually act jointly. Thus, ecology, as in the example of the white settlers in Australia, was such a powerful mean when overtaking the continent from indigenous population, although the Brits did not bring their “weapon” (dieases, pests) intentionally to get what they wanted.
The “one-size-fits-all” for nature conservation is also discussed. The idea of only one solution to problems arising from multifaceted historical, cultural and scientific sources has been or may still be practiced. With Kenya as an example, a student makes a comparison between the money used for a national program for the parks and the wildlife, and seemingly using the same program for the situation of the traditional agriculturalists’ and the rising problem with soil erosion where they live and cultivate. The locals recognize the origin of the situation, have a history and knowledge, but with increasing pressure from more people and the physical character of the ground, they need more knowledge to their specific problem. In my opinion, a more thorough discussion of the problem together with scientists, local people and policy makers is a basic requirement for finding a solution. Here, Robin’s statement “the context of the knowledge” is a good example of what is needed.
The term biodiversity was also ventilated in the reflections. An interesting question to start with is the definition; do people understand it, and if they do, does its implications and practices for sustainability mean the same for all institutions involved? Furthermore, is biodiversity universal? A question that arise to me is that if biodiversity and ecology are connected, biodiversity may not be a static state, so how and who to decide programs for the future? But for now it seems to have been dominated by Western scientists’ view, as view on a Australian car bumper sticker “bodiversity is a whitefella word” (1997) referring to the discrepancy between Aboriginal and White settler scientists’ opinion. One question that struck me was why Kenyan scientists has a lower number of publications in well respected scientific journals. Yes, may be their research has another focus, but the obvious reason must be a question of education level and economy in developing countries. Even in the Western scientific society, getting funded for research is extremely competitive. To me, a way to help indigenous knowledge to be incorporated in the Scientific sphere of Europe and America would be to study and explain the scientific reason for why and how their knowledge work.
There seems to be a general opinion among many students when reading the reflections also from other seminars, that science and scientific solutions to problems of natural character, like nature conservation, often make the situation to be solved even worse. I agree that indigenous people with long traditions and experience from practicing, what we would call today “nature conservation” and sustainable agriculture, have a valuable knowledge that should have been taken into consideration and still should do. Nevertheless I argue, that in a more rapidly changing world, with increasing population affecting both space and resources, a scientific understanding of the indigenous knowledge must be part of the discussions when looking for solutions. My understanding is that science originated in the humanities hundreds of years ago, and is a natural evolution of the capacity of the human brain, although obviously, it is not sophisticated enough yet to predict the impact of its competence. What would we have been today without the techniques for printing, recording and communication, for example, for studying the humanities!
Climate change is of course a central topic for a debate in global environmental (modern) history. As Carolyn Crumley has shown with her long term study in Burgundy in Franc, people already in the medieval time were aware of the effects of changes in the climate, at least those who directly were involved in nature based activities, like farmers. Without the methods to record and analyze they made notes for future use. But what about the effect on the weather, the quality of the air and water during the emerging industrialization? When did the workers in the dirty and polluting industries, that is, those who first were afflicted, start to reflect on the change in nature and its causes?

January 8, 2015 at 13:00 #15928

Reflection to Libby Robin’s seminar, Markus Nyström

During the seminar, Robin urged us to contextualize our thesis, to make it matter in the bigger scope of things going on in the world. I could not agree more as to how important this is. I started my academic studies with literature, mainly because I love reading. But one of the main reasons why I am not taking my masters degree in literature is that I do not think that that subject will allow me to write/do research into issues of a larger importance, a larger context. Literature studies – at least in the flavor that I encountered at Uppsala university – is often too narrow. Environmental history, on the other hand, is a new and thus more open (inter)discipline where issues of environment and sustainability is basically unavoidable in thesis work. I chose to focus my thesis on mining, not because of the topic’s academic interest really, but because I believe a thesis into this topic can make the world a little better – however naïve that sounds. In the best of worlds, and if I am successful with my thesis, it will actually do some good exactly because I contextualize my object as part of a global development.

Another interesting point of discussion on the seminar was that Robin emphasized that new historical findings can change or disturb our preconcieved ideas of a linear development throughout history. The lesson being that we should keep an open mind and not be afraid to push for new interpretations. I could not help but to think of the example of the archeological findings in Voullerim, Jokkmokk. Here, 5000 year old remains were found of a settled community. Bones of salmon and moose were found. Because the “official” (colonial) story of the sámi people had been that real sámi were nomadic reindeer herders, the interpretation was that these findings were of “swedes”. This was not sámi archeology, but swedish. The museum of the area picture blond salmon fishermen with long hair, rather like ideas of vikings as blond, longhaired warriors. This finding, in other words, led to the question of “who was first” – sámi or swedes – even though “sweden” would not exist for another 4000 years or so, and even though the idea of sámi as only reindeer herdin nomads was a forced political construction by the state.

I believe the point that Robin tried to make really boils down to academic stringency. To be prepared to be honest and reevaluate ones preconstructed ideas, as well as being critical of paradigms and “truths”, is important for the academic.

January 8, 2015 at 13:39 #15929

Comment on Michael Deflorian’s reflection

It is interesting to compare different languages. Michael’s point that the word “frontier” does not exist in German applies to Swedish as well. Swedish also have “gräns” or “gränsland” as the closest translation, or possibly “front”, even though “front” is a more military word than the more civil “frontier”. I think of Star Trek with its slogan “Space – the final frontier”. Frontier is not a war-word here, it is about exploration and expansion of knowledge and values, and settlement.

I too, like Michael, wonder if there can be a frontier apart from the colonial expansion use of the word, and I, too, believe not. However, in contrast to Michael, I do believe there are frontiers in today’s world. The word “frontier”, most certainly in most vivid use in the american context, really seem to entail expansion, of one kind or another. It implies dominance and linear development. There is often talk about, for instance, the “technological frontier” or the “science frontier”, which implies expansion within these areas. They are not geographical but knowledge-based frontiers. In a Baconesque interpretation, they are frontiers of our (humanity’s) subjugation of nature under our will, which resemble the idea of the American Western frontier narrative where “wilderness” was subjugated to “civilisation”. Throw in a little of Alf Hornborg’s machine fetishism analysis into the mix, and one could make the argument that this “thought structure” of colonial frontiers are actually resulting in a material, geographical neocolonialism within today’s capitalist system.

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