Two-way traffic in the Antipodes

Ecology and Empire
October 31, 1997

The publication 11 years ago of Alfred Crosby's Ecological Imperialism marked a watershed in environmental history, indeed it helped to make a comparative environmental history of the non-western world possible. Almost inevitably, though, in a fast-moving field front-runners find themselves felled, and, as John MacKenzie points out in Ecology and Empire, Crosby's version of environment and empire is both starkly apocalyptic and singularly blind (unlike some of Crosby's own earlier work) to the two-way traffic in plants, animals and diseases between Europe and the rest of the world. The ecologies of empire are too distinctive to be collapsed into a single "imperialism", while ecology itself emerges more as a melding of imperial minds and local circumstances than as a force dragging human history along by its heels.

Ecology and Empire is, however, much more than a commentary on Crosby. It is a bold attempt to re-position the history of Australia in time and space and within the bio-politics of white settler societies. With a few exceptions, the 15 essays focus exclusively on Australia or make substantial reference to it.

Australia clearly provides an important case-study of what, here, are termed the "ecologies of invasion". But as Tom Griffiths suggests in his introduction, for Australia this might mean beginning in 1788, with the arrival of the first European settlers, rather than in 1492, the date that signals the start of America's new environmental epoch. Or, as Stephen Pyne and Timothy Flannery suggest, the date might be pushed back, at least 40,000 years earlier, to the arrival of the aborigines and the transforming power of fire.

Disease, so prominent as an ecological trail-blazer in Crosby, finds scant mention in this version of ecological history (though it has a place when it comes to the discussion of settler livestock, as in William Beinart's essay on the Cape). Instead, fire and water (or the want of it), combined with fragile soils and a variable climate, are the forces that did most to shape Australia's ecological destiny. The driest of the inhabited continents, Australia is seen as having been particularly vulnerable to farming practices, aboriginal or European. The extent to which the Australian landscape has been successively made and re-made by settlers is a central theme of the volume and reflects a sea-change in the way that continent's history has been written of late.

But while some contributors are inclined to stress the destructive impact of the Europeans, who instead of "improving" Australia transformed a wildflower garden into a wilderness, others suggest that an environment as distinctive and unsubmissive as Australia's was not easily forced into a European mode of farming. Australia did not present the kind of open frontier associated with the American west, but rather a vast "dead centre" and an ecology resistant to the plough. A recurrent theme in these essays is the way in which Europe's plants, animals and agricultural practices, its ideas of science and ideals of landscape, not only helped transform Australia, but faced compromise and adaptation in this encounter themselves.

As Libby Robin points out, Australia showed up the limits of European intervention and highlighted the relevance of sciences, such as tropical medicine, agricultural and veterinary science, that dealt with the ecological constraints on imperial development. Australia learned, too, from the experiences, ecological sciences and land-management technologies of other settler regions, in North America and South Africa especially, but also in British India.

Both the United States and India figure, for instance, in J. M. Powell's essay on water management in Australia. Intellectual linkages with India as well as Scotland raise questions in Richard Grove's essay as to the utility of the concept of settler societies in discussing the dissemination of environmental ideas and practices. Other authors suggest that more cogent parallels and connections might exist with the attitudes, for instance to deforestation, in other Indian Ocean and Pacific territories. The partial survival of indigenous cultures and the importance of their environmental legacies and practices in areas of extensive white settlement, ensured that even in these much-changed lands something more emerged than a mere replica of Europe's forests, fields and farms.

The intermingling of native and indigenous ecologies and cultures, rather than the abrupt displacement of one by the other also suggests another parallel, that of Latin America. The historiography of that encounter is explored in a critical essay by Elinor Melville. Local knowledge and experience, whether in South America, South Africa or Australia, points to the interactive nature of what can too readily be assumed to be an invasion or imposition. The expansion of Europe was not, after all, a simple story of immigrant germs and imported biota.

The essays in Ecology and Empire present a remarkable mix of timescales and perspectives. The contributors look at the environment as a material reality and as an ideological construction; they variously represent it as an object of state policy and scientific enquiry, and as a place where racial ideas and national identities are formed.

In tightly focused pieces, which illustrate the breadth of the book's essays, Jane Carruthers discusses the significance of national parks in South Africa, and Brigid Hains examines the environmental ideas of two Australian heroes, the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, and John Flynn of the Flying Doctor Service. Inevitably, in a collection of this kind some essays are more thorough and thought-provoking than others, but even the sketchier contributions offer access to a growing body of regional environmental histories. There is, moreover, an attractive openness about the book and little attempt to impose a common standpoint.

The closing papers by John MacKenzie and David Lowenthal reflect in a helpful way on the essays themselves and on recent trends in environmental history. This is an important collection of pieces, and while too multifaceted to suggest a single riposte to the concept of "ecological imperialism", the book nonetheless offers well-argued case studies, not just to historians of Australia but to the burgeoning field of environmental history.

David Arnold is professor of South Asian history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies

Author - Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin
ISBN - 1 85331 199 5
Publisher - Keele University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 248

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