Ecological History in Six Questions
1. Why should I, as a scientist, study ecological history?
George Orwell makes a powerful statement in his book (1984), "Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future". One cannot help ponder over this, and be moved once realization dawns. At some level, it feels like a fairly obvious, even innocuous statement, but the more one mulls over it, the more dimensions get added. A mental debate later one figures out that the first half of the sentence is straightforward - the latter half is the tricky portion. Can this be a syllogism - if A = B and B = C, then A=C? If those who control the present control the past, and if those who control the past control the future, can it be that those who control the present control the future? Thought games apart, one can at least establish that there seems to be a complex relationship between the past, present, and future. What if we substitute "control" with "understand"? How about, "Those who understand the present, understand the past, and those who understand the past, understand the future"? That somehow does not sound right. Should the argument be flipped? Don't we need to understand the past to understand the present?
I think it is safe to assume that we would need to understand the history ('past') of at least domains of knowledge we are interested it in. Particular tenets of history as a field of knowledge would be relevant, interesting, and necessary for sociologists, politicians, scientists, technologists, and anthropologists. Taking just scientists, to just understand and describe the status quo in science, one would need to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the history of science. How a theorem, a theory, or a hypotheses came in existence is essential to understand the theorem or theory. What exists is afterall a consequence of what has occurred. At a broad level, the series of steps in an algorithm are a history of the algorithm, so to speak.
A lot of ecologists, typically, start their foray into ecology as natural historians. As birdwatchers, enthusiastic seekers of critters, and even scuba divers and snorkellers exploring coral reefs and kelp forests, and describing them. Ecology as a field owes its existence to its natural history forefathers. They knew and understood that the floral and faunal diversity of any biogeographical region is a consequence of its history, of a series of random and orderly events. Ghosts of glaciations past. Of seasons and climate regimes. An understanding of how a species came into being, its evolutionary history, of why it is where it is, are as important (if not more so) as describing or explaining aspects of its existence. A knowledge of land use, land reforms, people in the region, cultures, communities and assemblages, hunting, laws and their change over time, resource availability, use and change over time, in isolation and taken together provide insights into aspects that would be ignored by scientific enquiry but cannot be ignored for science, ecology in this case. Additionally, while one does not need history to understand ecology, it is possible that ecology and history taken together (ecological history) may be essential to address conservation problems.
The readings given for this exercise were [Guha 1989], [Dove 1992], and [Grove 1995]. [Dove 1992] is a response to Francis Zimmerman's essay, "The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats", which I have not read. He (Dove) argues that the word 'jungle' or 'jungal' is different from the word 'jungala', although the former is a derivative of jungala or has some etymological and actual association with jungala. Similarly, jungala has some relationship with anupa. Anupa is associated with land that is wet (marshy) while jungala is arid, semi-arid, dry, or semi-deciduous land. The existing notion of the time was that the king should stay in the jungala which is a veritable cornucopia and thereby celebrates jungala. The jungala is not mentioned as a permanent forest type but something that is sparingly grown such as grasses. There is constant movement and the system is dynamic with cultivation, fire, and abandonment.
The author states that blackbuck thrive in such a landscape. According to Zimmerman, the Aryans follow the Cervicapra (blackbuck). Thus, the jungala is exactly the reverse of the jungle, which is a misperception according to Zimmerman. Dove argues that this is no misperception and jungala gets transformed into the jungle and that the Aryans did not follow the antelope. In actuality, according to Dove, constant burning in landscape lead to the creation and maintenance of the savannah, thereby setting a landscape for the blackbuck. In other words, Zimmerman says that the people follow the blackbuck, while Dove says that the blackbuck follows the people due to their association with the savannah. This leads to a breakdown of the nature-culture divide.
[Guha 1989] looks at a different setting with the interactions between the local people (through the lens of the peasants) and the British in colonial India, following the trajectory of the Chipko Movement. He has identified three fundamental tenets in the history of this system. Firstly, he opines that the origins of conservation lie in the colonial state and its hunger for timber for the railways. Secondly, local resistance is turned around and made into participation by the British, and lastly, local community structure is broken down due to this.
The final reading was a chapter by [Grove 1995], where the author tracks the emergence of state conservation in India and some tropical islands such as Mauritius and Carribbean, where European colonialism existed at some point, The author connects the rise of environmentalism in India, at least, with the advent and dynamics of the East India Company medical services through different parts of the country. He basically suggests that there were fissures and cracks within the colonial state [Rangarajan]. He shows that surgeons and botanists working for the East India Company were aware of the deleterious effects of laissez-faire on the ecology of the time and tried sounding warning bells.
The readings, along with the class discussion on the nature-culture divide, kind vs. degree, etc., helped understand how complicated and nuanced ecological history as a field is. These lead to the notion of context dependence in ecology and how history is a dialogue between the past and the present. Through these, we were able to identify that ecological history is a dialogue between the past and the present for an ecological system, that it is the relationship and interactions through time between humans and the non-human world, and we would need ecological history to tackle conservation problems. This is not very different from the initial impression I had but helped me fine-tune my thoughts as well as introspect and learn from other thinkers, with concrete examples.
[Dove 1992] Dove, Michael, R. The Dialectical History of "Jungle" in Pakistan: An Examination of the Relationship between Nature and Culture.
[Guha 1989] Guha, Ramachandra. 1989. The Unquiet Woods : Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. Ch.3. Scientific Forestry and Social Change.
[Grove 1995] Grove, Richard, H. 1995. Green Imperialism : Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860. Ch.8. Diagnosing crisis : The East India Company medical services and the emergence of state conservationism in India, 1760 - 1857.
2. What is nature?
It would be simple to write 'nature' off as 'anything that exists'. While this may not be wrong, it is too simplistic and needs qualification. Maybe, one might be better off defining it as a collection of things, as a system, rather than any one thing. But then, is it not more than a collection or system? Can we not call the whole universe, and everything it contains - matter, energy, space and time - as nature? By that, we have a rudimentary definition - the physical world as bounded by space and time and composed of matter and energy is nature.
But then, one is in a quandary. Is nature just physical? Well, no. Anything that has a property can be defined as 'having the nature of'. In that case, one realizes, there is no one definition of nature. It is context dependent - very similar to a universal set. Once this is established, one has the flexibility of exploring. Anything in existence in the universe that is not made by humans or is artificial can be termed 'natural'. That is, nature is everything that exists or has some physical, non-physical or hypothetical property. It is a set of objects (living and non-living) having one or more properties. It includes humans but excludes any material or other constructs of humans. But then, is a garden not nature? It may be designed by a human being but when reduced to its elements, the trees, plants, shrubs, and grasses are unequivocally natural. How about a paddyfield? It may be an artificial ecosystem, but can one deny the plethora of wild organisms that are its denizens are all natural?
In class, we discussed "virtual nature" and about commodifying nature. The broad lessons here were that : 1. nature does not exist outside a cultural context, and 2. it is important to address 'whose nature?' We also discussed the notion of balance in nature, that natural phenomena evolve and reach a climax. This was contrasted with the notion of chaos and entropy, that nature was in a state of constant flux, based on which the field of deconstruction ecology emerges. We established that the concept of balance in nature is static, predictive, involves policies and strategies, and is universal. On the other hand, deconstruction ecology states that nature is dynamic, involves adaptive management, the process involves constant reworking of goals, and is local or particular, when compared with the notion of nature's balance.
The readings suggested for the day were [Hughes 2009] and [Rangarajan 1998]. In a nutshell, the former is a narrative looking at Rajas during the Raj while the latter observes the Raj encompassing the Rajas. It may appear hard to differentiate the two, but however subtle, the differences exist. For instance, the focus of the former is the Rajas while the latter is the Raj. However, both look at similar questions - attitudes and perceptions towards forests and animals in colonial India. They focus on carnivores and the tiger in particular. The authors imply that both the Rajas and the Raj seemed to be commoditizing nature, although the effects and extents may vary. Where tigers are concerned: they seemed to be a commodity to the Rajas associated with status and privilege, whereas the British treated them either as vermin or with indifference, depending on the era and region. As for forests, to the Rajas they were simply reduced to habitat for the tiger and nothing more, and hence treated with indifference, whereas the British assigned tremendous economic value to the forests and considered them a symbol of their power - through timber and railways, as well as subjugation of peasants, among other things.
Additionally, the kings (and the local people of the time, by extension) assigned mystical qualities to the forest while the Raj did not. The British considered forest systems as just sources of timber and as different from agrarian and settled landscapes/systems. [Rangarajan 1998] says, "The long exposure to carnivores made it inevitable that various cultures and rulers in the subcontinent would perceive the animals in a host of ways. There were mutually contradictory strands, with the same animal being revered and feared, hunted and worshipped at the same time."
He also says that, "In contrast with South Asia, the British had a very different history of relations with large wild mammals. In common with much of Europe, there had been concerted campaigns against specific animals." The king was essentially the link between the wild and the settled through the association between hunting and status. On the other hand, the British made a rift/divide between the wild and the settled, and established compensation schemes and bounties for hunting anything they termed 'vermin'.
Quoting from [Rangarajan 1998], "Effective control of rural India hinged on the elimination of both human and animal rebels against the Raj." This was followed by state-sponsored projects to eliminate carnivores under the pretext of "improvement of India", which eventually lead to the establishment of bounty hunting. The authors establish that British attitudes were not static and that there was a cultural bias against tigers and their apparent affinity to consumption of human flesh. However, these came to a standstill with a temporary impasse in the 1930s after religious and cultural objections by Indians resulting in the reduction of killing 'vermin'.
In conclusion, there is no fundamental change in the initial impressions after the discussions and readings. However, the arguments of the author have become more sophisticated and nuanced thanks to the hard examples from the readings. The discussions and the reading material helped bolster the author's initial opinion which was the there are multiple natures, that are context dependent, and defined according to the parties concerned.
[Rangarajan 1998] Rangarajan, Mahesh. 1998. The Raj and the Natural World : The Campaign against 'Dangerous Beasts' in Colonial India, 1875 - 1925.
[Hughes 2009] Hughes, Julie Elaine. 2009. Animal Kingdoms: Princely Power, the Environment, and the Hunt in Colonial India. Ch.2. Good Tiger Grounds and the Maharaja of Orchha.
4. If nature is about conservation, then is culture about development?
What if one is of the opinion that nature is not only about conservation? As we already elucidated in earlier discussions and essays, nature has multiple definitions, is context dependent, and depends on whose perceptions are being addressed. Moreover, nature, we decided and agreed, does not exist outside a cultural context. Thus, one cannot even agree with the assumption/premise that nature is about conservation.
Shifting to culture, there are again multiple definitions and perceptions. A culture can be thought of as a society at a particular time period and a particular region; basically, culture is a snapshot of a particular society in space and time. But it can also be the arts, manners, knowledge, attitudes, behavior, and values that are characteristics shared by a social group. These definitions do not include or imply development in any senses of the word. There are cultures that are frozen in time, cultures that grow, evolve and change, and cultures that are lost and forgotten. Thus, culture is by no means all about development. Development of different sizes and shapes could fall under the aegis of a given culture.
Suppose one assumed the premise that nature is about conservation to be true. Even then, one cannot rationally argue that culture is about development. It has been established that there exists a relationship between nature and culture, since we agreed that nature exists only in a cultural context. Similarly, we will have to establish a relationship between conservation and develoment. For instance, if we were to use tenets of logic, and axiomise that: A:B::A1:B1. Let us substitute A to be nature, B is conservation, A1 is culture and B1 is development. The axiom if nature does not exist outside a cultural context, then conservation does not exist outside a developmental context. This by itself shows a relationship between A and A1 as well as B and B1 that is similar to both. Thus, if one argues that conservation cannot exist outside development, we can prove the above statement and reduce it. But for now, one disagrees with both parts of the statement.
Our readings for this discourse were [D'Souza 2006] and [Kumar 2011]. These tie with the broad question we were trying to understand - do we escape the idea of development in conservation? If a nation is measured by progress, is life not measured by development and improvement? We discussed the idea behind the 'colonial watershed' [D'Souza 2006], as well as comparing inundation irrigation with perennial. Where inundation is an art, perennial is a science. Moreover, the former is place-specific and local, while the latter is universal in some sense. Where the local people would construct temporary bunds, the British would construct permanent structures like barrages and dams. If we take the flood when there is a drop in its peak, it is not simply water but a heterogeneous mix of silt and water. There would invariably be a drainage line along a gradient, and ends up involving place-specific knowledge, primarily knowing when to take and tap the bank of the river (cut). This is an art since the knowledge is not a transferable notion that some ecological historians term "dancing with the river'". Thus, modern India becomes all about reconciling contradictions - from a flood-dependent agrarian regime to a flood-vulnerable landscape, where notions of land as property and water as resource prevail.
Rivers are considered national resources and not as ecological properties or entities in their own right. [D'Souza 2006] basically talks about how the political problem of how to collect revenue in a highly dynamic system (riverine) is offered technical solutions in the form of embankments. He also says that the science of civil engineers is at constant odds with the bureaucracy and political power of the revenue department. He starts out by saying that there are two notions of power, one that is flexible in terms of oppression which is typically based on people (eg. that followed by the Marathas and Mughals), and the second being inflexible in terms of oppression which is usually based on land, such as in the case of the British. For instance, the flooding of rivers were not a calamitous event for the Mughals and the Marathas, while they were considered calamities by the British. The readings, combined with the discussions, helped understand a particular case study really well, which is pertinent to one of the 'triad' of elements by Rangarajan: flood control. This helped understand the complex interactions between nature and culture, as well as conservation and development, especially as mechanisms to understand the Indian system through historical time.
[D'Souza 2006] D'Souza, Rohan. 2006. Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India. Ch.4. Delta in the Commodity Form. Oxford University Press.
[Kumar 2011] Eds.: Kumar, Deepak., Damodaran, Vinita., and D'Souza, Rohan. 2011. Environmental Encounters in South Asia: The British Empire and the Natural World. Oxford University Press.
6. Is ecological history simply environmentalism by another name?
It is understood that three schools of political thought operated in North America in the mid-20th century. These were :
laissez-faire capitalism, where mining and lumber companies lobbied for total control of their property,
conservation, where the then President Theodore Roosevelt and his allies argued that action plans need to be put in place with the help of experts for maximizing economic benefits from natural resources , and
environmentalism, championed by John Muir and Aldo Leopold, which was essentially preservationism.
The definitions of conservation and environmentalism have come a long way since their political beginnings. Moreover, they now mean different things to different societies and a universal definition is rather hard to come by. That said, conservation is about human intervention, about stewardship. People living in buffer areas must be part of the agenda, sustaining the world they are a part of and satisfying their development aspirations. Is conservation, then, the middle ground between rampant development and environmentalism? The bottomline is that development and progress, under the rubric of culture, are uniquely human notions.
The readings recommended to help us understand this better were [Rangarajan] and [Sivaramakrishnan 2009]. One statement of [Rangarajan] caught my attention in its simplicity and profundity - "Lenin once wrote that Marx's thought had three components: German philosophy, French socialism, and British political economy". Analogously, British imperial land management in the subcontinent had three dimensions: government forestry, perennial canal networks, and new ways of regulating or controlling large fauna.The essay has many such vignettes that will likely stay with me for a while. Personal detours aside, he compares state forestry and the British experience in India with stock control and watershed management in southern and eastern Africa. He claims the 'holy trinity' (he uses the word 'triad', instead) of colonialism to be : government forestry, canal irrigation, and carnivore control. He also summarizes his thoughts on the pre-colonial period in India with two points, namely: 1. kings rarely interfered except to assert monopolies over valuable animals such as elephants, 2. caste and custom regulating use of natural resources (which is what Gadgil and Guha argue). He adheres to the notion of long equilibrium in the pre-colonial period but not to the extent of Gadgil and Guha.
He accepts that the states of the pre-colonial period had land-based revenues and that there were antecedents of fragmentation of habitat, albeit less pronounced in the Mughal and post-Mughal eras. He notices that Asian elephants were more valuable alive than dead to the pre-colonial rulers and that the British differed from Indian rulers, tribal leaders, and landholders in their notion of political power
There would be the occasional poetic surprise - "Change did not move at the same pace everywhere, but it runs like a thread through narratives of different regions." But such lyrical writing will curve back to course with lines like: "Despite the history of attempts at homogenizing social and ecological diversities, South Asia retained a level of heterogeneity that is perhaps without parallel." He compares the imperial view of nature which is about the conquest and domination of the natural world with the arcadian which is about the discovery of harmony and the unifying processes in nature.
[Sivaramakrishnan 2009] starts with Romila Thapar's Sakuntala and how forests were perceived in early India. He establishes a connection between historical moments and processes of social changeand mentions two related historiographical questions: 1. persistence of political processes in different historical periods which is associated with defining and managing difficulties between wildness and civility, 2. in any period, prevalent ideas of nature are related to aspects of social life labour, aesthetics, politics, agriculture, and commerce.
He goes on to mention the relationship between climate change and tectonic events in the collapse of the Indus valley civilization. He also gives numerous examples such as Mughal emperor Jehangir's exclamation on seeing a zebra and also about the existence of a painting with a dodo in his court. He talks about the narratives of Gadgil and Guha, Vandana Shiva, and Rangarajan, as well as Greenough's SEN and says that ecological history moved hands to historians and from the Western Himalayas to the Indo-gangetic plains and the Deccan plateau. He finishes by talking about the distinction between imperial science and the empire of science.
I had some difficulty associating the assigned readings with the essay topic but pondering helped give some perspective. The SEN gives cause, effect, and sequence while allowing new findings to be fitted into an agreed-on framework of events. However, it fails to take into account the historic reality of violence between humans and wild animals. It seems to feign ignorance of the devastating victory that has been won by humans over wild animals in the past hundred and fifty years which lead to disastrous policies especially during 1870-80.
Conservation, I realized, is an aesthetic judgment and not necessarily an essentialist one. History combines possibilities and creativity to concoct a tool for problem solving while change is simply ecological history addressing conservation. In a nutshell, ecological history is not always about conservation or environmentalism.
[Rangarajan] Rangarajan, Mahesh. Environmental Histories of India. Ch. 9. Of States, Landscapes, and Ecologies.
[Sivaramakrishnan 2009] Sivaramakrishnan, K. 2009. Forests and the environmental history of modern India. Journal of Peasant Studies. Vol. 36, No. 2.