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The Problem
KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Philosophy and History of Technology, History of Science, Technology and Environment.
Ashoka University, India.
2015 (English)In: Seminar, ISSN 0971-6742, Vol. 672Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

THE twenty-first century has brought concerns about the future of the earth and human-nature relations to centre stage. This has happened in ways that make the environment as a theme ubiquitous in our lives. Leaders of both the industrialized and emerging economies talked across the table on global warming in Copenhagen in 2009 and will do so again in Paris later this year. This is a far cry from the first UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in September 1972 that was attended by only two heads of government from Sweden (the host) and India. It is also unlikely that any world leader would repeat the words of the late Ronald Reagan that, ‘If you have seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ Today, leaders in polities as diverse as Russia and the US, China and South Africa, vie to win for themselves the tag of being earth friendly, green and caring.

Needless to add, public rhetoric is not always easy to match with action. All nation states and peoples share the same planet but rarely the views on its future. Stockholm saw a divide between those who claimed population as the problem and others who saw inter-state inequity as a root cause of environmental decay. Today, the same divide assumes a new form. The fulcrum of the world economy is moving from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific with countries like India and China emerging as global economic players for the first time in over three centuries. In the last decade, the BRICS countries (still only a fifth of the global Gross World Product) have been the engines of economic expansion. Countries once under imperial domination may differ in many fundamental aspects, but together they share their refusal to pay the environmental costs of other countries’ industrialization. This is the case with Brazil and South Africa, India and China.

The post-Cold War expansion of economies opens up new opportunities for a better life for many, but also takes forms that deeply strain the web of life and nature’s cycles of renewal and its mechanisms of repair. Richard Tucker’s lucid history of the US impact on the tropics was titled Insatiable Appetite. Rubber and fruits, timber and beef demand in the country that accounted for over 40 per cent of gross wealth product in the mid-20th century (and just under half today) remade the land, water, flora and fauna of the tropics, often in deeply damaging ways. Over eighty years earlier, a prescient Mahatma Gandhi wrote to the left wing Indian advocate of industrialization, Saklatwala, on the larger implications of India following the development path of England. It would, he confidently asserted, strip the earth ‘like a pack of locusts.’ No doubt his words in 1928 ring true, but it is also difficult for any formerly colonized country to ignore the hard reality that political freedom to be meaningful needs the artifices of economic growth to protect and sustain it.

The fact is that the idea of a path away from an industrial order, though it has many adherents, has rarely won space in the plans of those who rule and seek to guide the destiny of states. Stalin’s dictum that if his country did not catch up it would be reduced to a cipher, has takers in many who find little else attractive in the Soviet dictator. ‘Catch up’ often entails conquering internal frontiers. This has been the leitmotif in Brazil (which saw the Amazon as a frontier), in China (as in the desert and plateau regions) and in Indonesia (where mass resettlement was aimed to unify and weld together its peoples). Surprisingly similar collisions take place at another location of the development spectrum. Internal frontiers and marginal regions are also present in countries like Australia, Canada and Sweden, where extraction of gas, timber and minerals makes few exceptions for landscape damages and local community priorities.

If the 20th century was about the rivalry of an ascendant American power, with militarism in the first half and state socialism in the latter, there is little doubt that a rising Asia will see more, not less, intensive resource use and higher levels of material development. Will the newly rising powers avoid the kind of resource destructiveness of earlier powers and how far can they moderate their impact without giving in to an upstairs/downstairs world?

The larger dilemma is how to evolve in ways that lessen or moderate the ecological footprint of peoples and societies. Are there other, better ways to generate wealth in a manner that does not rupture the webs that sustain life? It is a positive sign that debate has moved beyond alarmism and denial to look at why, how and when changes took shape in the past. This is essential for a better future. The past cannot give any easy ‘turn-key’ lessons but can generate insight indispensable for all. We need the long-term view into the past in order for us to find a long-term sustainability into the future.

Increasingly, this has meant a dialogue across the traditional divide of the humanities and the natural sciences. The complexities of the natural world and human social life demands studies in which we need to understand and connect across the scientific terrain. The interconnection of species and interrelation of the atmosphere and life forms of earth requires an informed analysis of how the knowledge of science mediates human action. The determinism imbued in arguments of how human futures are trapped by nature’s forces needs to be confronted by an understanding of how societies in the past dealt with large-scale disasters, pollution, and waste. Scientists need to integrate complex social analysis into their work. The humanities in turn can gain much by drawing on scientific insights even as they make us sensitive to multiple, often contested, ways of knowing nature. It is not a question of keeping to either of the favoured long-term perspectives into the past – of preferring the emergence of humankind, the agricultural revolution, the introduction of fossil fuels, or the European exploitation of global resources on other continents. We need a multiple vision of time as we understand the challenges of the present. In short, we need to speak across and beyond disciplines.

This is easier said than done. The planet is one unified ecological entity, a home of life powered by the sun. Yet, it is divided into different nation states. Political borders of nation states (or former empires) by which research is often organized, funded or conducted can scarcely do justice to ever-changing markers across land- and waterscapes. Monsoons, earthquakes, or migrating birds make no exception for such borders. Nor do people. Looking at longer-term trajectories – labour, knowledge, capital, and goods have flowed across landscapes irrespective of politically bounded spaces; they have moved with or against tides and natural ruptures. This has been especially true in recent centuries, periods when the global wealth (the gross world product) doubled (1500-1800) or when it rose fourteen fold (1800-1900).

But even these changes cannot be seen in isolation in time and space. New historical and archaeological works indicate considerable landscape shaping by use of fire by early hominids, and the colonization of islands, as in the Indian Ocean, even many centuries ago, led to large-scale extinctions of local fauna unable to adapt to new pressures. Not all changes were entirely negative and much of southern Africa and South Asia had extensive grasslands remade by a mix of anthropogenic and natural influences, so much so that it is difficult to draw a line between the two. Even many plant cultivars (yam or cassava or sugarcane) or trees now gone wild (such as neem in mainland India) or animals (such as the grey squirrel in England or the dingo in Australia) spread due to human interventions in history.

Fluidity is a fact of human history. Economic exchange and human mobility has cut across bounds of empire and nation state. Unsurprisingly, new historical works go a step further and often cut across boundaries of space, time and species in a search for better explanations. Maize, in its march across Africa post-1492, became a major factor in changing more than just nutrition and food habits. The Bay of Bengal unified, not separated, the east coast of India from South East Asia, with migrant labourers remaking lands and waters to create a sense of home. Import of horses across the western Indian Ocean and the central Asian land routes was a major factor in South, Central and West Asian history for centuries, as they were paid for in coin. Domestic animals taken from India for the British forces in the 1890s may have helped the rinderpest virus hop across the waters, leading to a huge dying-off of the wild ungulate herds. On a more prosaic level, the plague virus taken across the Eurasian land mass in the mid-14th century brought demographic collapse in its wake, sparking fears similar to AIDS in the 20th century and ebola in the 21st. Mosquitoes and the diseases they spread played a greater role in 18th and 19th century wars in the Americas than those in battle may have suspected. And the potato and its spread helped revolutionize agriculture across much of Europe and Asia in more ways than any one might have imagined in its native home in the Andes. Plants and pathogens, succulent tubers and sturdy mounts, shade giving trees and edible feral animals, are all part of our connected and ever changing history.

The flow of commodities and cultural contact has had deep impact on the ecosystems of the earth in ways often little realized. The markets for opium in China, integral to Pax Britannica in the triangular trade, powered the transformation of fields in Malwa and market places of Bombay. Rubber making a trans-oceanic trip from its native home in Brazil was part of Britain’s struggle for empire.

In another era, much of the Mughal power was built on its ability to be the hinge between Monsoon India, with the rice paddies and densely settled people and Arid India, with wide open spaces and herds of horses and cattle. The Mughal, Safavid, Ottoman and the Ming/Manchu empires in the 16th and 17th centuries accounted not only for a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, they generated enormous demand for resources from afar. Jahangir’s court in Agra (1608-28) brought in narwhal whale ivory from the Arctic, goshawks for hunts from Europe, horses from central and West Asia and shatoosh wool from the cold plateau of Tibet. Estimates of China and India’s share of the global wealth in 1700 place it at 55 per cent.

There is still little doubt that the era of European dominance, based as it was on maritime power and control of sea routes and powered by merchant capital, was qualitatively different from many earlier land based empires. There was no one Vasco da Gama moment when dominance was established, but there is little doubt that between the late 18th and the mid-19th century, there was a decisive shift of power.

Two large ecological changes signified this: the hunting down of Africa’s elephants for ivory to make piano keys in Europe and the diminution of the great whales by steam powered ships with harpoons for whale oil. Less noticeable, but presciently pointed out by a pioneering environmentally minded economic historian Malcolm Caldwell in his The Wealth of Some Nations, were two other developments. The British built the first coal fired empire in history and yet, even before its collapse, there was a qualitatively new power in place. This was the United States which had few direct colonial possessions but relied on economic and military power over other states. More important, its main fuel source was oil and gas. At the end of WW2, the US accounted for 45 per cent of the gross world product.

Yet, as is often the case, empires not only exploited resources, natural and human; they also created controls, often for self-interest. Trautmann’s recent work argues that elephants as a source of war animals were part of a four-cornered relationship in early India – between kings, forest peoples, other peoples and the elephants. Though this was most pronounced in India by the 3rd century BCE, there were similar trends at work in other Asian societies. More recently, it has been argued that early European island colonies were in favour of controls on land, water and forest use lest changes in the water cycle lead to dearth and disorder. The US, in its ascent to global power from the 1890s to the 1940s, took steps to alleviate overuse of vital strategic resources. The creation of the Forest Service (1900s) and the National Parks (1876), and even earlier, the protection of the bison (or American buffalo) and the treaties to protect migratory birds in the Americas were steps in this direction. In Bolshevik Russia, the early post-revolution years saw Lenin sign a law for protecting rare fauna in 1919. Within a decade, Africa had its first parks in the Virungas (Congo) and Kruger (South Africa) and India soon followed in 1935 with Hailey, now Corbett Park.

The relationship of power to exploitation and protection was both complex and multilayered. New works show how many parks from America to Africa rested on assertion of dominance over nature by white settler states over resident peoples. Often saving nature also meant the obliteration of rival livelihoods and cultures, a process that finds echoes in the still intense conflicts and contests over access and control. What is important is the deeper historical process that underlies not only conflict zones but also often circumscribes the kinds of cooperation that are workable or practical.

One consequence of the dialogue of the historical and ecological disciplines is that geography and history are once again on speaking terms. The new awareness that we live on one planet is graphically captured in the iconic photo from Apollo Seven of a green blue planet against the darkness of space. It is also evident in ways in which even specific focused studies in anthropology and history, ecology and planning, now draw links to the rhythms of nature, and the complex ways they are tied in with the consequences of human action. El Niño, first studied in the late 19th century, is now seen in conjunction with other climatic patterns as well as the changing ways in which societies adapted to them. New knowledge that brings geological time frames into contact with historical transitions in the human pasts throws fresh light on well known historical events. Geoffrey Parker argues how the two decades after 1640, a time of immense turmoil in the Mughal Empire, was also the driest spell in a thousand years, thereby connecting dearth and unrest. Richard Grove points to an extreme climatic anomaly in the late 18th century. Peaks of famine mortality coincided with the most severe and prolonged El Niño events of the last millennium. Yet alternations of dry and wet spells or of hot and cold years of the past now have an added dimension, the distinct impress of human actions that may precipitate irreversible change.

Climate change due to changing greenhouse gas levels, though first debated in 1851, today evokes wider concern and debate. So too does specie extinction, known widely since the cases of the Dodo in Mauritius or the Moa in New Zealand, but probably now taking place on a larger scale than since the five great prehistoric extinctions. The larger impact of the extensive extraction of fossil fuels, of redirecting river courses, cutting channels across isthmuses, of petrochemical production and use – all these and more raise afresh an old question. Will human ingenuity and adaptability (including conservation and environmental repair) prove equal to the task? And a larger issue: are these mere small holes in the wider fabric of nature or a tearing apart of the web that sustains life and ecological systems as we know them?

Given the rapid escalation and global scale of human induced environmental change, we need analyses viewed in the deep-time perspective. What aspects of our present times are unique and what are common to the human-nature entanglement across ages? Arguments for a return to earlier golden age landscapes, arguably with ecosystems in balance, are now more difficult to find. Human life has always made an imprint on landscapes; ancient societies too could cause large-scale landscape change. Pollen and fossil charcoal analyses in the Kruger and Limpopo National Parks show how human induced fires can have both positive and negative impacts on the changes between savannah and forest cover, depending on the vegetational phase. Similarly, in contrast to today’s wildfires occurring late in the dry season, the burning of lands prior to European settlement in northern Australia was carried out for a great many purposes. Ethnographic sources and diaries show that these happened early in the dry season and contributed to a heterogeneous habitat, favouring some tree species and reducing others, including the animals that fed from them.

Forests were not only wiped out by the onslaught of human extraction for timber, woodlands also regrew. Croplands of millets and maize, wheat or rice sustained not only humans but also a range of taxa such as birds and insects, small mammals and reptiles. New research suggests far more complex human-nature relations than the simple model of degradation through the process of development.

Similarly, the deep-rooted misconception that, in former days, people tended to stay in one place – that mobility was the exception and settlement the norm – has been empirically disproved. Or, shall we say, historians have learned to listen more to archaeologists. People move and, with them, also knowledge, goods, plants, habits, disease and any other aspect of human society. Conventional perceptions of societies expanding uphill from the settled lowlands are now confronted by new research on hill-based polities expanding downhill – as from the Himalayan plateau into northern Indian foothills, to form significant polities. The movement of cattle, livelihood patterns, or farming practices alter ecosystems. On larger scales – in marine, savannah, or forest ecologies – they may be disturbed and significantly changed.

The rapid flux of capital investment has passed like a scythe through Brazilian forests, Nigerian oil fields, and South Asian mineral reserves. Such global flows are susceptible to complex influences, at times causing unexpected consequences. Opportunities for mineral extraction in the Arctic have generated expectations of large untapped oil resources, resulting in researchers and activists sounding the alarm and producing informed responses about environmental effects. But, with shale oil reserves in the US now being tapped and the Gulf countries more willing to tolerate lower selling prices of oil, extraction in the Arctic suddenly looks far less promising as capital moves away.

The deeply interlinked ecologies of water and land make it clear that rivers are as much about water as about sand. Massive amounts of sand and silt are annually spread across surrounding lands, adding fertile soil or destructive sand. Over millennia, flora, fauna and human life have adjusted. The modern infrastructure of canals and dams can barely contain such monsoonal ecologies. Added to this is the industrial and household sewage that causes the death of river courses as the Yangtze and Ganga, Yamuna and Mekong, Irrawaddy and Indus.

This issue of Seminar cannot answer these large issues but can help pose them in new, better, more insightful ways. Some authors address the need for long-term, deep history in order to understand critical environmental issues that are relevant today. Others are located in a specific moment in historical and ecological time, but place it in a larger perspective. What do we really mean by words like collapse and how unique is the day and age we live in? There is a less well known trope of human adaptation and recovery from adversity and it is worth asking how far it is useful to reflect on and learn from.

In a recent dialogue of regional specialists, Peter Perdue, a leading China scholar, was reluctant to view environmental crises as irreversible and pointed to longer-term cycles of recovery as in the case of shifts of capitals and populations and adoption of new crops and practices. Related to this is the idea of vulnerability: is it planet wide or species specific, and can we historicize it to make it more amenable to action or meaningful thought?

There are certain larger, secular trends that are planetary in nature. Recent decades have seen mounting evidence of the human role in climate change, not merely via the carbon cycle but other related modes of global warming, often related to the long Industrial Revolution since the late 19th century. Less spectacular, but equally critical, is the decline of species across the world’s oceans and in a host of terrestrial landscapes, prompting some to compare the scale of human driven extinction to the die offs of the past, as at the end of Triassic era. A third issue which rarely figures today but loomed large in the 1980s – the impact of possible nuclear war on the global ecological system. Whichever way one looks at these mega trends, climate change, species die out and nuclear threats, the reality is these require careful and rigorous thought.

Writing in 1962 in a book that would not only warn about the threat of petrochemical contamination, Rachel Carson declaimed about ‘the obligation to endure the right to know.’ She was referring to the pesticides which have, as she said, silenced the voices of birds that heralded the spring in America. Incidentally, Carson never called for a ban on chemicals. As a leading marine biologist, she argued against reductionism and favoured a holistic approach. Our aims here are more modest than hers. The small crew of scholars and practitioners here is drawn from different countries, disciplines and schools of thought. But they share with Carson a willingness to begin with the particular and draw links to the larger general insight in the long view of time.

We do hope the dialogue of ecology, the science of life and of history, the study of human pasts and presents will be productive. The structure and functions of nature in a simple material sense can no more be viewed in isolation from human actions. In turn, the latter increasingly hinge on not just how we achieve peace with one another but establish the lineament of a peace with nature.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
New Delhi: Seminar , 2015. Vol. 672
National Category
History Archaeology Ecology
Research subject
History of Science, Technology and Environment
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-182467OAI: diva2:904564

QC 20160224

Available from: 2016-02-19 Created: 2016-02-19 Last updated: 2016-02-24Bibliographically approved

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