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The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History.

Cameron Muir

The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History

London: Routledge, 2014

ISBN 978-0-415-73157-7 (HB) [pounds sterling]85.00; 978-0-415-73158-4 (PB) [pounds sterling]26.99. 230pp.

More than two decades after Donald Worster's claim to invest more energy in researching on 'food' in its various stages as it provides the most direct and important link between humans and nature, it has not lost its urgency. With this reflection, on how other environmental concerns have (again) distracted human attention from this vital connection, Cameron Muir leads his readers into a detailed history of Australian agriculture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: a time when globalisation had not yet tightened its grip on the global food chain, but already shaped and influenced the development of new markets in order to feed a growing world population. With The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress, Muir makes an important contribution to this vital research area of environmental history. He not only speaks to various aspects of environmental historical and humanities research, but integrates truly global perspectives, for example by linking the Australian cases to imperial colonial and post-colonial developments in food trade and agriculture, and contributes a strong volume to Routledge's Environmental Humanities Series (edited by Libby Robin and Iain McCalman).

'What does it mean to live at a time when the way we feed ourselves threatens the social and ecological fabric of the planet?' he asks, and delves into the semi-arid western plains of New South Wales (NSW) at the time of its attempted transformation into a global food basket. His work is special among both colonial and agricultural histories due to his focused reflecting on the violence and atrocity that marks the general development of the area, a place of exceptionality and uniqueness. Although it shares certain geological and climatic features with other areas, the Fifth Continent 'was a place where no cloven foot had broken the soil' and one whose geo-climatic conditions were unsuitable for European-style agriculture. Once colonised, however, both natural and social landscape deteriorated at rapid speed, as Muir unravels in seven chapters that honour Alfred Crosby's work on intended and unintended consequences of (forced) species migration: Hooves, Bores, Scrub, Wheat, Dust, Reeds and Cotton.

The speed of decline, as presented, shows itself consequential to European superiority and ignorance of local ecological conditions combined with a lack of sensitivity and respect towards the place and its human and non-human residents. Through all his narratives the author follows a set of three primary questions. The first one embarks on exploring how Western industrial agriculture was influenced by the context of 'ecological imperialism' in which it emerged. This leads to the entanglement of cultural and biological ideas about inheritance, race, population and civilisation, whose unacknowledged role is the theme of the second question. Thirdly, all chapters reflect upon the very nature of human-environmental relationships, suggesting a strong correlation between the way treating land and treating humans influence each other. Featuring individual tales of farmers, politicians, visionaries and idealists, Cameron Muir tells a story about the violence and courage of human attempts to grow food and conserve the environment at the same time.

As a textbook example of ecological imperialism, the author illustrates vividly how non-human agency played its part in transforming and colonising Australia, while it became stained by human-induced bloodshed and injustice at the same time. It is the aftermath of this ravaging ascendance that Muir portrays in his Broken Promise: it was a promise of a cornucopia that settlers willingly accepted from the government, one that keeps impacting Australian agriculture in the NSW plains even today. Importantly, it seemed initially to be made by the land itself as the main actor, but to be progressively muted and discounted. Yet it was not only the combination of shrinking yields and concurrent skyrocketing efforts to cultivate exhausted lands that resulted in a collapsing pastoral industry and domestic human migration. As illustrated, it was also a result of the settlers' irritation, quasi-religious guilt, and moral/ethical confusion facing the interior plains' message of 'broken country, bloodshed, and extinction'. The imagined fertility and spaciousness of this place had raised high hopes of both enhancing national food supply and securing Australia's global position. Over the decades, however, agriculture's social function became just as important to the nation as its utilitarian function, fuelled by the era's scientific development which was obsessed with the effects inheritance, race and the environment had on civilisation.

Acknowledging the influence of this new understanding, Muir suggests reading Australia's sites of agricultural production in Val Plumwood's sense as 'shadow places'. These remain out of sight, out of mind and therefore are easy to discount, which makes them equally vulnerable to 'slow violence' as are the aboriginal population. Introduced by eco-critic Rob Nixon, Muir's book successfully extends this concept beyond the human realm that was combated for privileges and access to the plains' limited resources. As he explains particularly in Chapters 3 and 5, the land that was briefly but steadily violated lost its ecological integrity, function and value over time. Building on Aldo Leopold's understanding of social relationships forming complex ties with ecological relationships, Muir shows the absence of any such engendered respect for fellow members and the integrity of the community itself. This is most prominent in the constant struggle for water, in which not only animals and humans but also the land were combatants for a scarce resource. Given its initial silence the land was violated without any consideration, and by the time science and agricultural studies enabled more thoughtful approaches to the land the formerly imagined cornucopia had found its voice, making even well-planned and comparatively more sensitive agricultural experiments impossible.

Addressing the problems of water scarcity and soil salination through early twentieth-century technological optimism and possibilism eventually led to a timely bettering of circumstances. Tying agriculture to even more water consuming industrial practices such as cotton farming, however, dried out the naturally water-scarce ecological system. The NSW interior plains turned into places of ecological and environmental injustice, leaving people unable to participate in large-scale irrigation agriculture with the remnants of an already overstrained land, and often having to migrate. As Muir points out, stories like these showcase how a society's relationship both to and among its people can reflect the relationship between its humans and their natural environment. The social and relational framework presented in the book reveals how indigenous population and colonial settlers alike became tied to a vulnerable and increasingly hostile land, one that had become 'suspicious' of the treatment it had received in the past. Eventually, Muir shows how some parts of the NSW interior plains in their shadow existence are stepping out of the shadows today, regaining ecological health despite facing global climate change and its local consequences. But the underlying criticism of not only past but present day agricultural practices within this very same framework cannot go unnoticed.


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Author:Kneitz, Agnes
Publication:Environment and History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2017
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