Development pangs

GREEN IMPERIALISM: COLONIAL EXPANSION, TROPICAL ISLAND, EDENS AND THE ORIGINS OF ENVIRONMENTALISM R H Grove Oxford University Press, 1995 Price Rs 375

 
By Suvir Kaul
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

AMONG the wide variety of contemporary critical theorists, environmentalists have, in various ways, questioned the continued viability of the human-nature relationship over the last 400 years. We are concerned that the exploitative practices, characteristic of modernity, have led us to a crisis of such global proportions, that the earth can simply not meet all the demands made upon it by humans.

Richard Grove's book is a magisterial history of environmental ideas, of the development of the "global environmental consciousness which emerged in the context of European colonial expansion". He argues a powerful thesis that the colonial experience -"the destructive social and ecological conditions of colonial rule" -was central to the formation of Western environmental attitudes and natural sciences, as was the diffusion of "indigenous, and particularly Indian, environmental philosophy and knowledge into Western thought and epistemology after the late l5th century".

In Grove's account, the origins of modem conservationism lie in the European realisation of the drastic impact their mercantile and colonial practices had on tropical, particularly island, environments, as also in their contact with local "classifications and interpretations of the natural world and its symbolism".

While Grove writes primarily of developments in the colonial period, he is aware that ecological transformation was often affected by pre-colonial states and populations, particularly as agriculture developed. In a chapter on "Edens, islands and early empires", he sifts historical evidence of environmental degradation and conservationist responses dating back several thousand years, and plausibly suggests that archetypal Garden of Eden myths may have originated in the desiccation of lush natural landscapes of the fifth to fourth millennia BC.

Grove also argues against any understanding of the pre-British period in India as an "ecological and pre-capitalist golden age of common property rights and sustainable resource use."

Besides, he writes of the importance of isolated island environments like St Helena and Mauritius to the symbolic and economic discourses of colonialism, and of the fact that colonial political control allowed scientists and administrators to use them as venues to experiment with botanical gardens, social forestry and water management.

Grove shows how, in southwest India, Portuguese and Dutch physicians mastered the local physician's methods and knowledge, and transformed the European materia medica. Interestingly, the medicobotanial insights they gained, were not embedded in Arabic or Brahminical systems' but were derived from the methods practised by local, lower-caste herbalists and doctors.

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