Probing no-man's land

The Earth Transformed - Moralizing the Environment

May 1, 1998

Concerned as they are with the interrelations between local and global processes and the interactions between human societies and the natural environment, geographers ought to be well placed to offer a holistic perspective on such complex issues as global warming, atmospheric pollution and deforestation. The task, however, is very complicated: the academy has grown so accustomed to separating the natural from the social that the middle ground between them has become a sort of no-man's land occupied by all sorts of monsters, from socio-biologists to cyborgs. The problem is accentuated by the fundamentally different styles of thinking and writing that one finds in, say, environmental science and cultural history: for all the efforts of contemporary neo-Darwinians, it is exceedingly difficult to bridge this gap. And yet this in-between place is where we find many of today's geographers.

In The Earth Transformed, Andrew Goudie and Heather Viles offer "a concise, non-technical introduction to the ways in which the natural environment has been and is being affected by human activities". In a little over 240 pages of text, liberally sprinkled with colour photographs, maps and diagrams, the authors cover a wide range of topics, from fire's impact on vegetation, ozone depletion and acid deposition to the implications of coastal erosion and climatic change. The book is intended as a primer for introductory courses on environmental science and geography; in essence, it is a greatly simplified and more colourful version of Goudie's successful undergraduate text, The Human Impact, which is now in its fourth edition. Following the authors' style, we can boil down its message to three essentials: environmental problems are generally more complex than is often assumed; with sufficient data and common sense, we have the means to do something about them; finally, to do so, we need to have a better understanding of human societies as well as natural systems. This last point is particularly significant: we may know that felling trees can cause soil erosion, for example, but unless we know why people cut down trees, we cannot solve the problem. The authors of too many environmental textbooks treat society as a black box: they know it is important but they do not have the tools to open the box. And yet even the definition of "environmental problems" is far from self-evident: we can measure rates of soil erosion till the cows come home, but that alone will not tell us what is a problem, or for whom or where its origins lie.

In this context, the study of the social construction of environmental problems and their solutions becomes an important issue. This is the starting point of Moralizing the Environment, an elegant case study of the social construction of agricultural pollution based on intensive research on dairy farms in south-west England. Although the identification of environmental problems is often presented as simply a matter of objective scientific investigation, Philip Lowe and his co-authors argue, there is more often than not profound disagreement about the nature of the problems:

"What counts as a pollution incident or a quality standard is essentially a social judgement, albeit one that is informed by available scientific evidence." What starts as a technical issue - how to regulate the flow of effluent from dairy farms - becomes in this interpretation a problem of social analysis, requiring close consideration of not only the regulatory regime governing farming practice in Britain in the late 1980s and 1990s, but also broader changes in attitudes towards pollution among farmers, regulators and environmental activists. The view developed by the authors draws upon a range of methodologies and perspectives, notably those of ethnography, social interactionism and actor network theory. Although the authors suggest that their strategy is "to describe, then analyse", this Latourian flourish must be taken with a pinch of salt: this is a book that approaches its task in a thoroughly theorised manner. Although there are close descriptions of the management of slurry on Devon dairy farms and of the changing nature of mechanisms of official regulation, these descriptions form part of a wider argument: that the politics of agricultural pollution changed decisively during the 1980s.

Whereas farm waste had once been regarded as an insignificant side-effect of agricultural production, public debate in the wake of water privatisation promoted a vision of agriculture itself as a source of pollution, contaminating the air, land and water of the countryside. From being a non-issue, farm pollution became politicised; and the establishment of the National Rivers Authority ensured that it would remain so. Through ethnographic accounts of the perspective of the actors involved - the NRA inspectors, dairy farmers, agricultural advisers and environmental activists - the authors construct a rich account of the world of waste management. The conflict between moralities - the moral economy of the Devon farmer versus the environmental morality of the regulators - lies at the centre of the analysis. Yet it also pays close attention to the subtle negotiations that characterised the interactions between these and other groups, suggesting that there are limits to a purely discursive analysis. Moralizing the Environment is required reading for anyone curious about how environmental problems come to be defined as "problems". While the book presents what is in essence a case study, it has much wider implications for the study of the relationship between attitudes, conduct and policy in the environmental field. Here the distinction between the natural and the social is itself a problem to be investigated: what to one person is natural waste, to another is an environmental crime.

Felix Driver is reader in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Earth Transformed: An Introduction to Human Impacts on the Environment

Author - Andrew Goudie and Heather Viles
ISBN - 0 631 19464 9 and 19465 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00 and £14.00
Pages - 6

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