Paradise invented and lost

The Problem of Nature
May 2, 1997

Those of us who are old enough to remember The African Queen when it first appeared in 1951 might remember Katharine Hepburn's slick repartee in the film with the great Bogart. "Nature, Mr Allnut," she said, "is what we are put in this world to rise above." Most historians, from the time of Herodotus until quite recently, have faithfully followed this advice. So when did environmental history begin? Roderick Nash has claimed thatit was first taught in the wake of the hippy revolution and the explosion of Californian ecological awareness, and that it began, specifically, at the University of SantaBarbara in 1974.

After that, the story goes, the foundations of environmental history were laid by Donald Worster in Nature's Economy, a history of ecology, and by Alfred Crosby's book, Ecological Imperialism. This Americo-centric version of the rise of the discipline is one that David Arnold is inclined to accept and which has heavily influenced his selection of themes in The Problem of Nature, the first book seriously to review the literature of environmental history.

Arnold focuses on the environmental changes and often racist climatic discourses which have developed as a consequence of colonial expansion and what Crosby has called the "Columbian exchange" of species, diseases and populations. The periodisation beloved by the American school of environmental history is typified by the notion of a pre-colonial, ecological, golden age devastated by a post-1492 "conquest of paradise" - as Kirkpatrick Sale called his survey of the ecological impact of the Columbian voyages. Only Shepard Krech, in his magisterial The Myth of the Ecological Indian, has dared to question this politically correct consensus.

As an acclaimed medical historian of empire, Arnold readily adopts the narrow time-frame of the European empires. But there is a drawback to this approach; it has only limited relevance to Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia, areas that are now the subject of an avalanche of works in environmental history. And, in fact, leaving aside the term itself (and "environmental history" was a phrase almost exclusively used by archaeologists and Holocene geologists prior to 1970) the discipline really had its origins well away from north America. Even in the United States the first "environmental historians" were geographers who worked on non-north American topics - people like Ellsworth Huntington, Ellen Churchill Semple, Carl Sauer, (significantly an expert on Pre-Columbian cultures), and, above all, Clarence Glacken, a classicist-turned-geographer and the author of that wonderfully named text, Traces on the Rhodian Shore.

To find the first environmental historians we have to look to the early academics of the European empires, in places as far apart as Burma, Australia and west Africa. The immediate ancestor of environmental history was "medical topography" a discipline begun by army surgeons and a history that was directly useful to the colonial builders of garrisons and settlements. One of the earliest proponents was James "Africanus" Horton, who, in 1855, became the first African to qualify as a doctor in Britain. His medical topographies, written while a high-ranking colonial official in the Gold Coast, are a model of their kind.

Such writing eventually gave rise to a more reflective climatic history exemplified by J. C. Mackenzie, who published a visionary paper in 1913 entitled Climate in Burmese history. Similar research on Burma was done in the 1920s by Dudley Stamp, whose land-use histories became the model for a generation of researchers at Kings College, London. Most prominent was Gordon East who wrote The Geography behind History in 1938, and his pupil, Henry Clifford Darby, who published two books in 1940, The Draining of the Fens, and The Medieval Fenland.

These books spawned a school of English environmental history dominated by W.G. Hoskins's 1955 Making of the English Landscape and the agricultural and ecological histories of Joan Thirks, Victor Skipp and Oliver Rackham. Like many pioneers, most of them were marginalised at the time by the academic mainstream of history, and it has been only recently that certain books, by, for instance, Keith Thomas and Simon Schama, have popularised the discipline's bandwagon.

But as late as the 1950s the most innovative books in this genre were still produced at the colonial periphery, the most influential being G.V. Jacks and R.O. Whyte's 1939 The Rape of the Earth: a World Survey of Soil Erosion. This highly alarmist environmental history single-handedly set the scene for the postwar British colonial obsession with climate change and soil erosion. The common denominator in all these imperial environmental histories, and one that made them quite separate from the American tradition described by Arnold, was an obsession with catastrophic desiccation and climate change in the semi-arid and tropical lands - which largely made up the European empires.

This preoccupation with climate led to a distinctive periodisation in environmental history in India, Australia and Africa where, now, precolonial golden-age notions have long been discredited. Furthermore, we now know that the 1492-1800 heyday of European expansion fell during an atypical "little drought age" in the tropics, corresponding to the "little ice age" in the temperate lands. Similarly, many of the devastating drought and famine episodes in colonial Africa and India, while sometimes exacerbated by colonial mismanagement, were actually caused by episodes of the El Ni$o current and the Southern Oscillation, oceanic phenomena that control global fluctuations in climate.

Climate scientists have now started to rely on historians to help them understand the dynamics of the impact of climate change. Environmental determinism, so popular before the first world war, may be back with a vengeance. But environmental history, much of it written by women, is dominated today by the countries of the South, most of which are highly susceptible to the horrors of El Ni$o generated droughts.

In India, which has the largest single body of graduate students in the subject, environmental history texts apparently now outsell all other history books. In Australia, the fear of the ozone "hole" and the vigour of the green movement, have encouraged a school of environmental history rivalling that of the US in size, and centred on the Australian National University. In Nigeria, which precociously published African environmental history in the Journal of the Nigerian Historical Society as early as 1968, research continues to flourish at impoverished universities.

But though environmental history is now being taught in British universities, we still lag behind other countries in not having a designated post in the subject. Arnold, in bravely attempting the task of synthesis, may help to break this log-jam. As he says: "Western responses to nature have been a powerful factor in linking Europe to the rest of the world." It remains to be seen whether British historians will help us come to a more detailed, globalised assessment of the impact of environmental changes, on bothpre- and post-Columbian societies.

Richard Grove is senior research fellow, Australian National University, Canberra.

The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion

Author - David Arnold
ISBN - 0 631 177329 and 19021 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 199

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