Outposts of Progress

Mark Elvin

  • Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove
    Cambridge, 540 pp, £45.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 521 40385 5

Environmental history is concerned with the ways in which the production of goods and services has both transformed, and been constrained by, the natural infrastructure on which human survival and economic activity depend. Climate perhaps apart, this infrastructure is only imperfectly visible – at best – to anyone who is not a scientist. Most of it consists of biogeochemical cycles – of carbon, nitrogen, H2O etc – mediated in large measure by plants and micro-organisms that maintain inter alia the atmosphere, the soil and the availability and quality of water. Those causes and effects that are more easily observable are often in practice widely separated from each other by time, space and intermediate links that are not so easy to detect. An example is the ocean plankton Emiliania at times visible as huge ‘blooms’ in the seas, which both stores carbon dioxide – a ‘greenhouse gas’ – in its shell, and emits dimethyl sulphide, which, suitably transformed, provides condensation sites for water vapour and causes clouds to form over the oceans.

More critically, what the natural infrastructure provides is not products or resources, but functions (like photosynthesis or respiration) whose precise pattern is constantly shifting. The ultimate reason why we should value a high level of biodiversity is that a multi-species system which can draw on the capacities of a large range of different organisms is better able to adapt, by forming new patterns, to its own internal evolution, or to environmental shocks and changes (whether natural or anthropogenic), than is one containing only a limited range of organisms. This has been shown to be true, both experimentally and by computer models, for ‘microcosms’ consisting of a limited numbers of species which have been artificially isolated from the rest of the world except for the input of energy (usually sunlight). It is reasonable to assume that this holds also for the macrocosm that we inhabit.

Almost all human economic activity has impinged on this natural infrastructure, most commonly but not invariably injuriously. The environmental historian’s task is to analyse these impacts, and the social, economic, demographic, technical and political processes that led to them, or, more rarely, prevented them. Mismanaged environments could kill even in relatively remote times. The breaking of its dykes by the Yellow River in 1117, at a point where it had built up its bed well above the level of the surrounding countryside, is said to have caused a million deaths. Similar disasters happened a number of times on the North China plain, largely because the river had to carry an increased load of suspended sediment after the vegetation cover had been stripped from its middle reaches to make way for cultivation. In modern times the disruption of the infrastructure has become even more significant. The Wuppertal Institute has shown, for example, that as of 1989, about 30 metric tons of solid material and about 770 tons of water had to be physically displaced from their original location each year, in order to support each inhabitant of West Germany. To these large-scale effects two others must be added. Disruption can be produced by very small quantities of pollutants and new chemicals (such as the CFCs thought to cause the thinning of the ozone layer), and by the removal of a progressively larger area of the earth’s surface from participation in most of the functions of the infrastructure – most obviously by sealing it off through the construction of roads, buildings and so on.

Environmental history is also concerned with the way in which growing population densities, the increasing mobility of people and goods, technological ‘progress’ and the changing character of both the built and the ‘somatic’ environment provided by our bodies, have altered our relationship with pathogenic microorganisms – our only remaining major predators – as well as with ourselves, in terms both of social institutions and of inter-personal psychology. This process, too, began long ago, and could be illustrated by the history of the dog, whose domestication or, perhaps better, whose co-evolution with humans, in addition to providing us with ‘technical’ assistance and companionship, probably also brought us measles (a derivative of canine distemper).

Religious, philosophical and scientific ideas about nature have a central importance in environmental history. So do the literary and artistic representations that have crystallised those ideas, conveyed them and to some extent created them. They have had practical implications in formulating government and other policies relating directly or indirectly to the environment; and environmental pressures, whether clearly perceived or indeed misconceived, have had widespread effects all through history. Whether or not the legendary efforts of the Sumerian heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu to seize control of the cedar forests of the Lebanon constitute the earliest military expedition designed to secure scarce resources is debatable. That the Gulf War was far from being the first fought at least in part for this purpose is indisputable.

The study of environmental history had some interesting classical, medieval and Early Modern antecedents, but its modern synthesis began with George Perkins Marsh’s celebrated Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Transformed by Human Action, which was published in New York in 1864. The early tradition developed through historical geographers, culminating in the Fifties with figures such as Carl Sauer and Lewis Mumford. This main current was joined by important tributaries, among them the history of infectious diseases pioneered between the wars by Macfarlane Burnet. Geographically-aware historians, especially in France, also increasingly wrote what we might now call environmental history: Portal’s study of the iron and copper-mining and refining industries in the 18th-century Urals, for example, showed how, under particular conditions, industrialisation could lead to a form of ‘feudalism’ where none had existed before. A later, very familiar example is Le Roy Ladurie’s Times of Feast, Times of Famine, which focuses primarily on the effects of climatic change. This tradition has been continued recently among Anglophone historians by John Pryor’s analysis of how the patterns of weather, winds, currents and coastal topography in the Mediterranean shaped its economic and military history, by Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World and by the work of Donald Worster and Alfred Crosby.

If environmental history is quite a new development, however, environmentalism is not. In Green Imperialism Richard Grove demonstrates that modern, scientific environmentalism, and the state-sponsored programmes of conservation based on it, in fact had their origins two centuries ago in what is, at first sight, a surprising milieu. The island territories of the 18th-century British and French colonial empires – St Helena and Mauritius being the foremost examples – displayed in an accelerated and exceptionally visible form the ruinous environmental degradation that resulted from North-West European forms of land management and from European animals being transferred to a largely unsuitable tropical setting. The resulting intellectual and administrative challenges set off, across a much wider domain, a complex of scientific developments that led eventually to a coherent doctrine of environmentalism (classically formulated by von Humboldt), and to fully-developed conservation schemes, not only in the islands but also in more slowly reacting continental areas such as British India.

Grove does not gloss over the often powerful anti-environmental aspects of Western imperialism. What he does is to disentangle, with great subtlety, a dialectic process in which first one side then the other gained the upper hand. To the extent that colonial regimes were enlightened by the scientific advisers whom they employed (most of them medical men by training), they inclined to take a long-term view of the territories under their control. In this perspective conservation was central to sustainable economic exploitation, hence to profitability, and to the maintenance of political stability, which was easily threatened by famine. To the extent that regimes were not scientifically enlightened, they tended to share the short-term view of settlers and businessmen that control of the environment was an unwarranted interference with the right of private property to maximise its immediate revenues. Within colonial governments there also tended to be an inverse relationship between the level of political authority and the perception of the need for an active conservationism – though there were some spectacular exceptions to this at the top, such as Dalhousie when he was Viceroy of India. In general, familiarity with conditions on the ground was a prerequisite for an adequate environmental understanding: experience of Europe was not an adequate preparation for the tropics. In the administrative sphere, conservation schemes were problematical because they could – and did – mutate into means of dispossessing or controlling indigenous populations, and sometimes proved fiercely unpopular.

The conceptual breakthrough that created environmentalism was thus predominantly the achievement of the colonial ‘periphery’, not the metropolitan ‘centre’ and was facilitated by the almost worldwide networks of communication created by the colonial empires: the scientists working in the colonies kept in touch not only with each other but also with the foci of intellectual or political power in London, Paris, Leiden and elsewhere. In the long run, many of the elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution originated with the surveys and insights of the colonial naturalists, who were early concerned with the extinction of species and with rapid changes in local and regional environments. It was the work of Burchell, the East India Company’s botanist on St Helena, which established that the island had a unique indigenous flora. It was Webster, visiting St Helena in 1828, who first surmised that ‘its possessing ... a distinct and new species of plant or animated being ... must either be a conclusive proof that a successive creation of species goes forward, or that naturalists are wrong in their definition of discrimination of species,’ though he failed to pursue his own logic any further.

Grove’s findings contradict the view of some feminist historians that the intrinsically ‘masculine’ nature of modern science made it inherently anti-environmental. The pioneer environ mentalists on Grove’s roll-call were almost without exception well-trained in the science of their day, from Poivre on Mauritius and Anderson on St Vincent to Gibson, the first con servator of forests in Bombay. Some of them were directly influenced by experimentalists and theorists such as Hales and Priestley, and so putting them in the mainstream of contemporary scientific thought.

Green Imperialism is a study in the history of ideas and of institutions, and of how the two have influenced each other, notably in the making of policy. It is also the story of the only instances, to date, in which professionally qualified environmentalists have exerted – from time to time, at least – major political power. Grove suggests that the relatively unfettered authority of colonial regimes made it easier to impose such policies than it would have been in the home countries. Implementation, however, relied critically on there being a handful of enthusiasts at or near the top of the colonial hierarchy. Once they departed, the policies tended to crumble.

The contemporary flavour of their ideas is often striking. For instance, the surgeon Donald Butter, writing in 1839, described

the slow, but certain process by which India, like all other semi-tropical countries ... has its green plains – no longer capable of entangling and detaining water in the meshes of a herbaceous covering – ploughed into barren ravines, by its sudden and violent though now short-lived rains – its mean temperature and its daily and annual range of temperature augmented – its springs and perennial streamlets dried up and its rainfall and the volume of its rivers diminished.

By this time the scientific advisers to the East India Company were no longer thinking of deforestation simply in terms of the loss of a valuable resource, used both in ship-building and for fuel. They conceived of it rather in terms of the impairment of the environmental functions of forests, including the retention of runoff water, and the limitation of the salinisation of the soil associated with the irrigation systems in North India. Forests, they believed helped to preserve species and to increase rainfall.

Grove also notes the pioneering role of the colonial tropics in creating the botanical garden – the Dutch at Cape Town took the lead in this – and that ‘the attempt to transplant new species’ introduced Poivre on Mauritius to ‘variations in soil conditions, modes of soil formation, the significance of variations in rainfall and drainage, and the relationship between vegetations and soil type.’ Comparisons across almost the whole breadth of the world were the key to new insights, made possible uniquely by the colonial enterprise.

Obtaining accurate information about unfamiliar diseases and pharmacopoeias, a practical necessity in the tropics, meant that Europeans also assimilated Asian medical knowledge. The first two major Western books in this domain, da Orta’s Coloquios and van Reede’s Hortus malabaricus, were, Grove writes, ‘profoundly indigenous texts ... compilations of Middle Eastern and South Asian ethnobotany, organised on essentially non-European precepts.’ They passed straight into the European tradition, via Clusius and others. Poivre – who originally trained as a Jesuit – had observed the Chinese system of farming during a period of captivity at Canton, and had even read Chinese agricultural encyclopedias. Von Humboldt is known to have been guided, in his views on the relationship between man and nature, by the Indian tradition of holistic thinking. Slightly later in India, towards the middle of the 19th century, Sleeman was influenced in his attitude toward nature by his reading of the early Islamic poets. There is thus considerable evidence that the environmentalists derived some of their philosophical ideas as well as some of their techniques from Asia. Orientalism had a positive as well as a negative side.

There was also a process of de-Europeanisation at work among the professional naturalists who roamed the world looking not only at plants but at societies. Grove remarks of J.R. Forster, who, with his son, served on Cook’s later voyages, that ‘Europe was perceived in a progressively poorer light in direct proportion to the amount of time that Forster spent away from it, with its mental constraints.’ Many of the early environmentalists were social radicals. Poivre, for example, was opposed to slavery, the basis of the labour-force on Mauritius in his time, and saw no justification for any belief in European superiority. It is Grove’s view also that both mountains and wilderness were valued in their own right by European travellers in the tropics, like Le Guat and Mandelslo, long before they were so back in Europe. There is something of a paradox here: the colonial enterprise that was in many respects founded on exploitation and oppression was also, in the opportunities that it gave to an exceptional few, an unprecedented liberation of the European mind.