Borderline contribution that obscures vital space

ISFrontiers
February 2, 2007

This book is at the frontier of legibility and clarity. Its meaning is frequently unclear, and its use of language is convoluted. As a result, its contribution to a fascinating area of cultural, political and societal development is dimmed. This is a great pity.

One example will illustrate this problem. In the chapter on symbolic frontiers and nature as commodity, Michael Redclift tells us:

"Some writers even argue that space should be seen as enactments or performances: as construction of the human imagination, as well as materiality." Overlooking for the moment the vandalism done to language by the word "materiality", what does this mean? If the author means that space is given some significance by the activities of people over several centuries in terms of what they do to live (economy) and of what they do to grow as human beings (literature, culture, music, tradition and the like), then it would be helpful if he would spell this out in ways that allow us to connect with geography, sociology and anthropology. It is not necessary to dress these things up in esoteric and obscure language.

The primary purpose of Frontiers is "to look beneath events, and people's accounts of them, and to place these accounts within a relatively unfamiliar context - that of the formation of different kinds of civil societies, in conjunction with "natures constructed to a large extent by human hands". The book addresses this task through five case studies.

Chapter three examines "the origins of common-pool resource management in the Pyrenees, and the difficult balance between delicate ecological systems and the pressure of growing human populations". Chapter four is concerned with the forest frontier in English-speaking Canada in the mid-19th century and "the inexorable process of settlement, which brought social conflicts but also a desire to establish social order in an apparently disordered world". Chapter five delves into political conflicts over land and water in coastal Ecuador; chapter six turns to the Yucat n peninsula in Mexico and its political conflicts; and chapter seven explores the "process of tourist discovery" on Mexico's Caribbean coast.

The geographical and historical context within which these case studies are located is fascinating, but the book does little to further our understanding of frontier societies coping with social and political change.

The chapter on the Pyrenees takes up a theme familiar to geographers and historians: "This chapter examines the relationship between the organisation of communities and the management of the environment in the geographical and historical context of the Spanish Pyrenees." There follows a descriptive account of economic life in the region and its changing emphases over recent history. Although interesting, this adds nothing to the very large literature on marginal communities and their relationship with nature, environment, social organisation and political forces.

James Hunter's The Making of the Crofting Community (1976) charts the intricate social and political circumstances of life at the margin of northwestern Europe in an area of poor weather, poor soils and political oppression - and does so with charm, fluidity and clarity. It is possible to examine place-specific cultural experiences and relate these to wider social and political influences and the evolving relationship with nature and the environment. Redclift touches on these themes, but he does not achieve the impact of earlier authors.

In his conclusion, Redclift makes important points about globalisation and the environment: "Global processes and institutions appear to annihilate space, jeopardising local co-operative efforts to conserve nature. Together with culture and history, the management of space seems to have been forfeited to the expansion of global markets."

This merits more discussion, especially of the many social and ecological movements that manage a degree of disconnection from markets and global corporations. It is more than possible that the real frontier in a globalised and homogenised world will be marked out by individuals and communities that place themselves at the edge of corporate influence and markets and "paddle their own canoe" and propagate a radically new relationship between society, nature, the environment and economy.

Sadly, Redclift takes us back to the world of nebulous language and convolution. He remarks: "The frontier then is a canvas for a kind of revisionist understanding of the dialectic, loosely associated with the work of Hegel and Marx... it is more like a painting or a camera lens through which modernity is drawn and refashioned."

This book is a triumph of complexity over substance, and it is a great shame that the history, geography and culture of the Pyrenees, Ecuador and Canada were not allowed to shine through the obfuscation and illuminate our evolving relationship with nature, the environment and the political process.

John Whitelegg, professor at Stockholm Environment Institute, York University.

ISFrontiers: Histories of Civil Society and Nature

Author - Michael R. Redclift
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 237
Price - £36.95 and £14.95
ISBN - 0 262 18254 8 and 68160 9

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