The Green remembered atolls

Green Imperialism
September 1, 1995

In popular and governmental perception the environmental crisis is a phenomenon of the past 25 years. Similarly the response to that crisis - the rise of the environmental movement (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and so on) - is regarded as a recent event, even though some might argue for the beginnings of some form of environmental consciousness at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Britain and the United States with the foundation of the National Trust, the Wilderness Society and similar organisations. Environmental historians have, however, recognised that the roots of environmental destruction date back at least 8,000 years to the emergence of settled societies, but that the decisive event in developing worldwide degradation of the environment is the expansion of European influence after 1500. The main features of that expansion have been brilliantly outlined by Al Crosby in his two books The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism.

In this extensively researched and densely written account Richard Grove attempts to delineate the opposite side of the coin to Crosby: the emergence of an environmental consciousness during the period of initial European expansion. He argues that the origins of environmental thought should be sought in Utopian, Physiocratic and even medical ideas of the 17th and 18th century. Grove accepts Crosby's basic thesis that the impact of European expansion and the remaking of economies as part of intensive exploitation by the colonial power was environmentally highly destructive.

The evidence for this is overwhelming from as early as the 14th century in the Atlantic islands colonised by Portugal and Spain. Grove argues, however, that the impact of Europe, especially on fragile island ecosystems, was the driving force behind the emergence of environmental awareness among, in particular, a coterie of Dutch, French and English scientists. Grove draws his examples from a wide range of little-known sources but concentrates upon Mauritius under the ancien regime, the British in the eastern Caribbean and the roles of the British and Dutch East India companies. He has uncovered a wide range of thought identifying issues such as the impact of deforestation on climate patterns and the destruction of habitats leading to species extinction.

All of this research has produced a vast range of fascinating material of what can be considered as proto-environmentalism. The difficulty with Grove's interpretation is, however, the conclusions he seeks to draw from this material. In general he grossly over-emphasises the importance and influence of these thinkers both on contemporary events and on subsequent environmentalists.

This approach is apparent from the first page where he argues that "scientists and environmentalists once again have the upper hand in state and international environmental policy". Most students of modern environmental politics would not accept such an optimistic view, preferring instead to emphasise the power of industrial lobbies (for example, on CFC regulation) and the inability of political systems to deal with complex problems such as global warming despite the growing scientific consensus on causes and solutions.

Similarly Grove tends to attribute environmental motives to actions and policies which, at the time, had other motives. When the German kings of the 14th century issued ordinances for the restoration of previous "forest land" they were interested not in environmental matters but in the protection of hunting reserves and, of course, much medieval "forest" was not forested but merely an area where different law applied. Similarly it anticipates too much to describe British and French actions in the 17th century as "resource policy" or to argue that Tokugawa Japan embarked upon a "far-reaching programme designed to counteract the ecological consequences of a period of rapid economic growth".

This tendency to anticipate later environmental awareness and definition of issues (is it really accurate to claim that in the 18th century there was an appreciation of global climatic change?) is emphasised even more strongly in the final parts of the book. Grove rightly argues that colonial expansion "continued to serve the purposes of capital and the European market" but then goes on to claim that "it also began to promote a longer-term project", which suggests a degree of conscious planning which is surely unjustified. In a confusing passage he appears to argue that the search for "the normative location for social Utopias" led to a "simultaneous formulation of an environmental critique". This developed so that by the late 1850s there was a clear sense of "a global environmental crisis".

Although Grove has compiled a useful compendium of otherwise little known proto-environmental thought that complements Gladden's Traces on the Rhodian Shore he has over-emphasised its importance. The intellectual history of environmental thought is an interesting subject but it is essential to bear in mind its very limited impact on actual policy. European colonial policies were driven by the determination to exploit the territories they controlled for the benefit of the home economy. Similarly, ecological exploitation is the inevitable consequence of population growth, agricultural and industrial expansion and the increase in consumption. Scientists and others might comment on what was happening, even condemn it and propose alternatives, but their practical influence was limited in the extreme. Grove provides an interesting compendium of ideas but it is no more than a footnote to Crosby's wider view of the environmental consequences of European expansion.

Clive Ponting is a lecturer in politics, University of Wales, Swansea, and author of A Green History of the World.

Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860

Author - Richard H. Grove
ISBN - 0 521 40385 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 540

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