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Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism.

Gregory A. Barton

Cambridge University Press 192pp 40 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0 521 81417 0

THE CENTRAL THESIS of this challenging book is that imperialism and environmentalism have a shared past that many scholars, especially those on the political left, wish to deny. 'Empire forestry' is defined as forestry practised in the British colonies, particularly in India.

'Environmentalism' is encapsulated as 'sweeping environmental initiatives' and 'the advocacy of a proper balance between humans and the natural world'. Can environmental historians resolve the tension between the two, between the ideological and moral foundations of environmental inspiration, and the first implementation of forest management? Gregory Barton has no qualms in opting for Occam's razor, concluding that 'Environmentalism, in the sense of practical action, began in 1855 in India, with the Forest Charter [of Lord Dalhousie].' The most imperial of tiger shooting governor-generals is thus refashioned into a cuddly environmentalist.

I have much sympathy with this brave, if flawed, deconstruction of the sources of practical environmentalism. It recalls an earlier attempt by Anna Bramwell to relate 'Green' ideologies to those propounded by Hitler's Minister of Agriculture, Walther Darre (History Today, September 1984). Both focus on the counterintuitive role of the imperial state in generating future environmental orthodoxies. This is uncomfortable for activists who perceive environmentalism as a 'subversive science', sensitive to democratic aspirations, and who bitterly oppose an 'imperial science' of oppression.

Nevertheless, there are problems. First, the origins of environmentalism, both ideological and practical, are immensely complex, with roots that go back to Virgil, Rousseau, Malthus, and German philosophy. Moreover, landscape management for conservation is considerably older than 1855. In mountain regions, as far apart as the Himalayas and the Swiss Alps, conservation measures were in place hundreds of years before the nineteenth century, while Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was already communing with nature by his pond at Walden. Indeed, it is somewhat bizarre that, in a book on environmentalism by an American environmental historian, Thoreau does not merit an appearance, although George Perkins Marsh (1801-82) receives his due. In the end, Barton's explanations are too parsimonious.

Secondly, Barton falls for the old saw that 'forests' equate with 'conservation'. He states, without caveat, that 'environmentalist thought before the 1960s revolved around forests and their preservation'. Even in Britain, this was not wholly true. Writing in 1946 in Our Heritage of Wild Nature, Arthur Tansley made an impassioned plea for the organized conservation of every type of habitat from fenland and bog to chalk grassland and the coast. He even embraced human landscape features, such as '... hedgerows and the grass verges of country roads, embankments, old quarries and old walls'. And in the tropics, one of the world's oldest reserves, the Kruger National Park, was founded in 1898 to conserve the animals of savanna grasslands.

The core of the book addresses 'the great interference', as the re-organisation of forested Nature is enframed, and examines forestry and environmental innovation in British India and their extension into South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Barton then attempts to assess the transition of these imperial traditions to Commonwealth forestry and their impact on American environmentalism. The coverage is reasonably comprehensive, although I was surprised to see no mention of Raymond L. Bryant's seminal work on The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma.

Barton also underplays evidence that the forestry practices of India did not always transfer successfully to the savannas of Africa. Indeed, colonial foresters became too eager to see 'forest' where it had never grown.

Nevertheless, Barton is right to emphasise the importance of 'forest' in the formulation of environmentalism, an 'organic' view of the world growing out of nineteenth century woodland romanticism, especially in Germany, Britain and Massachusetts. But this remains only one small thread in the environmentalist tapestry. I think he also tends to claim too much for Empire forestry, calling, for example, the fire line 'a unique invention of Indian foresters', when this technique had been used for thousands of years by conservative shifting cultivators. Moreover, nowhere is the concept that deforestation might lead to great nations acknowledged. Without deforestation of the Dalmatian coast, there would have been no Venice.

Finally, Barton tentatively suggests that 'the utilitarian approach to nature--perfected by British imperialists--is best suited to balance the conflicting claims.' Is this an eco-imperialism too far?
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Author:Stott, Phillip
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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