El Niño's trail through time

Ecology, Climate and Empire
March 6, 1998

Richard Grove has been writing books for 21 years. His first was about coprolites, and it was a slim volume that for years resided in an appropriately small room in my house. Curiously, it was published when he was only 21. Since then his writings have multiplied and matured. He has developed a reputation for writing about environment and history in the context of low latitudes. His Green Imperialism (1995) and Nature and the Orient (1997) are now joined by this third volume. It is of the same genre as the first two, and some of the material will be familiar to alert scholars in that four of its six chapters have been published previously in broadly similar form in edited works or as journal articles.

Grove argues that there are at least two major reasons why the history of what he calls "the colonial periphery" is vital to an understanding of the development of perceptions of the global environment. First, it was in such places that it came to be realised just how speedily the environment could be transformed and destroyed, not least by European colonisation. This was especially true of oceanic islands like St Helena and Mauritius. Second, it was in the outposts of empire that there developed a concern that deforestation could lead to climatic desiccation and that active state forestry management programmes were thereby required. Colonial scientists had more sophisticated and profound views on the role of the human impact than did scientists at home. Grove argues that there are grounds for regarding colonial environmentalists and conservationists as being among the leading originators of modern environmentalism rather than the American trio of Henry D. Thoreau, John Muir, and George Perkins Marsh. Indeed he argues that "a good deal of evidence indicates that complex notions of state intervention in natural resource protection, many of them strongly connected with new and highly anthropomorphic evaluations of the environment, emerged and were extensively promulgated in the colonial context more than a century before George Perkins Marsh published his famous Man and Nature in 1864". Grove also argues that it was the insecurity of the state at the colonial periphery which allowed a sensitivity to the danger of ecological change to develop so precociously.

The idea that deforestation caused rainfall diminution is the theme of the first chapter and it is remarkable that forest reserves were established in the 1760s by the British in the Caribbean islands and by Pierre Poivre on Mauritius (then the Isle de France), specifically to maintain adequate rainfall levels. In the 19th century many great explorers, connected often with the Royal Geographical Society, pointed to the dangers of desiccation, including Moffat, Livingstone and Clements Markham. It was also a cause espoused by the reactionary professor of zoology at Cambridge, Alfred Newton, a great enthusiast for the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Great Bustard.

In the second chapter, using as an example the role of the East India Company in St Helena, Mauritius and Western India, Grove is able to argue that "although it undoubtedly promoted widespread ecological destruction, colonial enterprise also helped to create a context, conducive to rigorous analytical thinking about the processes of ecological change and to the formation of conservation ideology." Thus we have the role of Poivre in Mauritius, where the wonderful Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden at Pamplemousses, is a monument to him to this day. We also have the role of the predominantly Scottish surgeons of the Indian Medical Service. The role of the Scots is taken up in chapter three in the context of conservation thinking in Southern Africa in the 19th century. Shrinking lakes, veld deterioration, bush encroachment and drought were major concerns, and state controls were seen as necessary and desirable (though not, of course, to those who were displaced from their traditional lands). In some parts of Africa, as Grove shows in chapter five, there was considerable indigenous opposition to government attempts to control forest landscapes in Nigeria and the Gold Coast.

Possibly the most timely and original chapter is chapter four, which looks at the evolution of ideas about El Ni$o and climatic teleconnections - the mirroring of climatic fluctuations in one area by those in another, often separated by great distances - between 1770 and 1930. Because the study of teleconnections required a network of observations to be established over huge distances, the tentacles of empire had an important role to play. Grove is able to show the significance of the great El Ni$o event of 1791 and the concerns that colonial governments had about the destabilising effects of famine. He shows that concerns existed from the Caribbean, to St Helena, to India and even to the fledgling convict colony at Port Jackson. The Indian Meteorological Service did a huge amount of work on this topic, which culminated in the early years of this century in the work of Sir Gilbert Walker. Scientists, faced with a new El Ni$o event of some magnitude, have now taken up the threads first woven 200 years ago.

Grove has travelled widely, plumbed the archives, and read a huge diversity of secondary sources to produce the six essays that make up this book. It shows conclusively that thinking about global environmental change has a long history, as do views about managing the effects of anthropogenic climatic changes. Ecology, Climate and Empire is easy to read, deals with inherently fascinating material, and has lessons and messages for modern environmentalists to ponder.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonial and Global Environmental History, 1400-1940

Author - R. H. Grove
ISBN - 1 874267 18 9 and 19 7
Publisher - White Horse Press
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 237

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