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Environmental History, Political Economy and Change: Frameworks and Tools for Research and Analysis •

Ronnie D. Lipschutz*

Ronni e D. L ipschu Environmental Hi story, tz Politic al Ec onomy and Ch ange

What kinds of insights can environmental history provide that would enhance understanding of the political economy and sociology of human-nature relationships?1 And what tools can such political economy and sociology offer in the search for environmental policies and strategies leading to sustainable, rather than destructive, relationships between human societies and nature? These two questions motivate this article, although they only begin to address what is clearly a complex undertaking: crafting environmental policies that are just and democratic, as well as sustainable and effective. Behind these questions lie others: Why engage in such an effort? Who beneŽts? From whose standpoint is the activity to be undertaken? What is an appropriate analytical framework? What approaches to the study of the histories of some places will best inform attempts to describe what is happening today and what might occur in the future in other places? This article represents the cumulation of several years of thought and writing focused on all of these questions. 2 The substance of my argument is as follows: While most environmental history is seen as having to do with landscapes past and how they got that way, environmental history can also have practical contemporary applications. By coming to understand the sources and origins of environmental degradation, and the patterns of social organization that led to them, we may be better positioned to foster environmental protection and conservation in ways that may resolve and/or support local efforts around * This article was originally prepared for presentation in an APSA Science, Technology and Environmental Politics Workshop on “New Frontiers in Environmental Research,” Northeastern University, Boston, Mass., September 2, 1998. Parts of the article are drawn from a number of earlier memorandums, thinkpieces and proposals. Zsuzsanna Gille was an original co-author of earlier versions of several parts of this paper, while Carolyn Merchant, Margaret FitzSimmons, Carolyn Pomeroy, and two anonymous readers, among others, made substantive and editorial contributions along the way. 1. I use the lower-case term “nature” to refer to the biogeophysical world, and the upper-case term “Nature” to refer to the ideological/ideational concept. 2. Lipschutz 1996. Global Environmental Politics 1:3, August 2001 © 2001 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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the world. Such studies can help to address conicts that arise over conservation policies, especially when these studies illuminate the origins and historical trajectories of places, and provide insights into ways of working with, rather than against, local cultures, knowledges, and social arrangements. In other words, to understand, imagine, and shape landscapes in the future, we need to know how they were created in the past. As Donald Worster, one of the bestknown contemporary American historians of the environment, wrote some years ago: We [environmental historians] are not concerned merely with the history of literary reactions to nature or of conservation policies, as important as those are. We are, in the largest sense, interested in all the ways people organize themselves into patterns of power, production, and ideology in the presence of what we conventionally call nature—the nonhuman world. Our goal is to discover, through the study of the past, some general ideas about how to make those patterns work better in the future for both ourselves and the rest of the world.3

I begin this paper with a discussion of the relationship between environmental history, political economy, sociology and policy and then turn more explicitly to practices of environmental history and matters of scale. In the Žnal section, I address some questions of method and research strategy.

The Transformation of Nature and the Nature of Transformations From the perspective of the social sciences and humanities, one of the things generally absent from environmental policy analysis and practice is an adequate understanding of the relationship between human societies and nature. Debates over causality, and the practical and ethical implications of competing analytical approaches, are much too complex to summarize here;4 sufŽ ce it to say that two of the best-known approaches point either toward continuing human manipulation of nature in order to “improve” it or “living lightly on the earth” and returning to some, largely mythical, “natural” relationship characteristic of an imagined earlier time. While both offer guidelines for policy-making, they are also seriously awed. The former is widely-agreed to not be viable over the longer-term and, in any event, would require an impossible degree of centralized management, while the latter dictates a substantial change in both the material and cognitive realms of human activity and even massive reductions in human numbers (and, as I discuss below, there are serious contradictions in assuming that such an Edenic “state of Nature” ever actually existed). This does not mean, however, that we cannot change or develop sustainable practices. Rather, it indicates that we need to better understand how social change in more environmentally friendly directions has taken place in the past and how it could come about 3. Worster 1987, 251. 4. See, for example, Redclift and Benton 1994.


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in the future.5 But making policy without any deep awareness of history and political economy virtually ensures that we will not be able to devise sustainable practices. Several methodological and conceptual shortcomings stand as obstacles to realistic and effective environmental policy analysis. One has to do with its economistic assumptions, a second with questions of scale, a third with the problem of social change, and a fourth with meaning. Taken together, these shortcomings suggest that we ought not to view environmental damage in terms of a limited and deterministic causal explanation (although such explanations can be useful) to which straighforward policy tools can be applied; rather, we must pursue a deeper focus on hermeneutic/descriptive analyses (similar to “thick description”) that combine history and political economy with structure and agency. In particular, policy analysis tends toward reiŽed assumptions about the economic motivations of actions6 and, as a result, policy analysts displace environmental problems from the sphere of social practice and politics to that of economics.7 In this same context, environmental policy analysts usually avoid questions of meaning when they address the relationship of various social actors to nature. I address each of these points below.

Errors of Economism Much environmental policy analysis is focused at the macro-level, formulated in a very generalized form, and based on a set of assumptions regarding the behavior of economically “rational” actors. In the language of rational choice, preferences are assumed to be exogenously determined and additive, and this permits generalization about the joint preferences of entire groups or communities. These assumptions do not hold up well on closer inspection, although not for the reasons usually adduced within the literature critical of rational choice theory.8 Not only are these assumptions applied in similar fashion across cultures, they are also assumed to apply uniformly within industrial societies, which can also exhibit a high degree of diversity at relevant scales of political economy, such as the landscape or community. To be more precise, not only are many preferences endogenously determined, they are also the outgrowth of long-term processes and relationships—social, economic, cultural—that have developed within bounded areas and regions.

Space and Place This points, therefore, to the ever-present dilemma of scale: Over what space ought environmental damage and change be studied, environmental analysis performed, and policies implemented? As I have argued elsewhere, although 5. 6. 7. 8.

Lipschutz 1996, ch. 7–8. Stone 1997. Hay 1994. Green and Shapiro 1994.


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many environmental problems are conventionally framed in supra-regional, national, and global terms, due to the transboundary or global nature of structural forces and physical processes, the immediate causes and consequences of such problems are generally quite localized.9 All fossil fueled plants emit carbon dioxide, but each plant has a somewhat different social organization and is located in a socially-unique place. Such “local” diversity among societies is recognized by anthropologists and rural sociologists, of course, although researchers in these disciplines work infrequently in industrialized countries.10

Changing Places Another major lacuna in environmental policy analysis has to do with an incomplete understanding of how individuals and societies initiate changes in their environments and how they, in turn, respond to these changes. We also face the question of how to study change. Do we focus on, for example, the ways in which changes in the external systems (within which, of course, a study site is implicated) are played out within speciŽed regions? Or do we address processes of social change and adaptation within a region to environmental changes that might originate within or without? Responses to change are generally interpreted in instrumental terms, as actions intended to reduce vulnerability and costs. But people often have extensive repertoires for responding to changes in their environments, and these may be quite place speciŽc. Furthermore, changes in environments can become accepted as the “normal” state of things, rather than a dislocation from some idealized baseline.

What do you Mean by That? Finally, environmental analysts and policy-makers tend to focus on only one of the many types of meanings attached to natural resources, the valuation of resources as commodities to be exchanged in markets, that is, price. This is in keeping with the economism of the rational actor approach that, more often than not, assumes preferences and measures values in monetary terms. But a singular focus on economic valuation overlooks other meanings that, in particular contexts, may often be of much greater signiŽcance. How can we determine what these meanings might be? Anthropology and sociology have the tools necessary to uncover non-monetary meanings based on criteria other than economic, but similar kinds of questions have been raised by environmental historians, as well.11 Nature is a source of livelihood—farming, Žshing, eco-tourism, wilderness treks—around which some people and groups structure their individual and collective identities. Certain elements of nature—rivers, watersheds, mountains, bays, forests—are focal points for collective identity, organization and activity. The historical modiŽcation of nature 9. Lipschutz 1996, ch. 2. 10. But, see Walton 1992. 11. Schama 1995.


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into certain kinds of landscapes of production and consumption—the “Rust Belt,” the PaciŽc Northwest, the Great Plains—leave their indelible marks on people’s consciousness of Nature as well as long-term constraints on the possibilities of and opportunities for change in nature. This leads us to ask what, exactly, is “Nature?”

The nature of Nature It is commonplace to observe that human activities have impacts on the “natural world,” a term that is generally taken to mean those parts of the biological and physical environment around us that are not, obviously, a product of human origin. Yet, there is a great deal of archeological and historical evidence— and it is growing in volume and substance—showing that many locales often assumed to be primevally “natural” are not. Rather, they have been altered over time through collective human error, or managed through deliberate human activity.12 With a few notable exceptions,13 political scientists and scholars of public policy have rarely looked closely at the speciŽc and contextualized historical patterns of Nature transformation that have created, altered and, at times, destroyed the biological environments in which human beings live. In many ways, the concept of a “genealogy of landscape” stands in opposition to the still-widespread notion that there are some antediluvian or idealized conditions against which contemporary ecosystems can be compared and measured, and which stand as baselines for restoration. But as mentioned earlier, in recent centuries Nature has not been a blank slate waiting to be written on by human action, even in “less-developed” parts of the world. Nature is more akin to a palimpsest on which new modiŽcations have been inscribed over earlier ones. Indeed, in many instances the changes in the environment that seem so noticeable and alarming to the present generation are taking place in landscapes already greatly transformed by earlier human action. To be sure, the magnitude of more recent changes often greatly exceeds those of earlier times, but forests have nonetheless been transformed into pastures and deserts many times in human history (while the reverse has almost never been the case, so far as I am aware). Hence, for example, the Great Plain of Hungary is only several hundred years old, notwithstanding the widely-held belief that it has “always” been there. The apparently wild tropical rainforests of Indonesia bear unmistakable evidence of having been managed for many centuries.14 And, in imitation of the ecology of ignition of forests and grasslands by lightning and their periodic burning, the Native Americans of California intentionally and regularly set their own Žres as a tool of game and woodland management.15 There is one important difference between these cases and our contemporary situation, however: 12. 13. 14. 15.

See, for example, Peluso 1992. See, for example, Walton 1992. Peluso 1992. Davis 1998, ch. 3.


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while such human transformations of landscapes were deliberate, they were also part of the production and reproduction of relatively small-scale social units, and not enormous world-girdling ones.

What Basis for Baselines? While ecologists and anthropologists, among others, have been exploring the physical parameters of what appears to be a contradiction between the natural and the social, the methodological and policy implications of the palimpsest nature of landscapes have not been given much thought, especially not from the perspective of environmental protection and “nature” conservation.16 At least two important consequences emerge from the failure to recognize this point. First, environmental “damage” becomes something of a relative term. Some species thrive on disturbance and some ecosystems require it on a regular basis. While one might wish to interfere with the normal functioning of ecosystems as little as possible, how do we treat ecosystems that have been modiŽed by human action in one way or another? And, at what point does “damage” or change to such ecosystems exceed acceptable limits? For that matter, how do we deŽne “acceptable?” 17 The second consequence follows from the Žrst: The choice of a “baseline” toward which policy, protection and conservation would aim is primarily a political decision rather than a scientiŽc or economic one, involving the perennial question of what constitutes the “good” life. This is not to suggest that natural science or economics cannot play a role in the process of analysis and protection; scientiŽc research is necessary to tell us what is there and what has been there in the past, and to indicate what might or might not happen if we take a given action or fail to act. Economics can, at least, suggest what particular policies might cost. But neither can tell societies what they should value or how they should accomplish their desired ends. For example, given the phenomenon of global warming, there are many ways to respond (or to not respond) to it, each of which could accomplish the same end. Or, if a community wishes to restore a local watershed (a political matter), there are different forms of organization that can be applied to the task. Such choices are themselves matters of politics. To put this in different language, risk is relative, and “how safe is safe enough” is not a question that can (or should) be answered except by way of politics.

Social Constructions have Real Consequences These arguments demonstrate that the nature and environments we analyze and seek to protect are not so much the biological and geophysical world 16. See Cronon 1993; as well as Soulé and Lease 1995. 17. This is a point that is made by some postmodernists, such as Tim Luke (Luke 1997), and Žercely attacked by ecologists such as Michael Soule and humanists such as Gary Lease (Soule and Lease 1995), who worry that it will give license to rape and pillage the natural world.


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that we perceive as the products of human social action, both material and mental, over time. Nature, in other words, is a product not only of human methods of production, which is what we generally address, but also reproduction, which we rarely consider. The original biological and geophysical world (“First nature”) offers opportunities and imposes constraints on what changes we can make (or errors we can repair), but so does the transformed world (“Second nature”) and the ways in which we have molded it to our needs and desires. In other words, the transformation of nature involves not only the physical process of modiŽcation (and degradation), but also imagination: how it could, or will, appear once an action is taken and completed, and how that transformed nature might, in turn, transform the transformer. As Marx put it, “we erect our structure in imagination before we erect in reality.”18 What are the origins of such “imagined landscapes?” Or, rather, how do people (re)construct nature and Nature? There are at least three important forms of action. First, people tend to reproduce the familiar and customary. New arrivals often try to recreate old abodes and material practices in their new homes. These practices do not always succeed—consider the fate of 19th and early 20th century farmers in the Great American Desert. Nature imposes physical constraints; people already established in such places often resist new arrivals. But the traces of “old countries” are visible everywhere. Second, the physical environment and people’s conceptions of it are mobilized as elements in project development and capital accumulation. Under these circumstances, the objective of those who wish to transform landscapes is to convince people that nature is hostile, useless, or inefŽcient as it is and must be turned into commodities and mobile money that can be used to foster growing incomes and to seek out other opportunities for mobilization and accumulation. Such conversions might involve the draining of wetlands, the paving of farmland, or the felling of trees, all in the pursuit of increasing wealth and achieving “progress.” A Žnal form of action might be called environmental “idealism,” the attempt to construct an “appropriate” nature (or a Nature appropriate to a particular place and time) through restoration or transformation into something approximating an historical nature. Nature, in these schemes, becomes not only something to be manipulated in the pursuit of material goals but also a reection of who we are or whom we would like to become. It is in this context that a hermeneutic approach to history and political economy can be fruitful, as a basis for crafting policies that are more “in tune” with their environments, so to speak. In order to understand why landscapes have undergone change, in other words, we cannot simply invoke environmental determinism or generalized rational choice theories of human behavior. Rather, we must recreate on paper 18. Marx 1967, 178, quoted in Harvey 1989, 345.


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and in our minds the speciŽc social, historical, and material conditions faced by speciŽc human communities and societies and, to the extent possible, try to understand what those people believed they were doing in altering their Nature. Because these actions in the past created both the physical and mental landscapes of today, they still exert considerable inuence over today’s practices and beliefs. Only by engaging in such an exercise can we also explain, in speciŽc places today, what is happening to nature as well as account for changes centered around environments within and among human societies. Because we do not understand very well how changes in social practices do or can come about in contemporary settings—and our social sciences are much better at studying social stability than social change—our best recourse is to look to history for explanations, more speciŽcally, for a contextual history of the social development of Nature. In order to formulate effective, sustainable, and just environmental policies, it is important to understand, in an historical and sociological sense, how landscapes and environments in particular places came to be as they are today. Environmental history can be extremely useful in developing such understandings.

Space: The Final Frontier? Arguing on behalf of an historical approach to understanding environmental change leaves unanswered one question: At what scale should the study of environmental history for policy purposes be focused? The best known works in environmental history have tended to be broad in scale. Among the spaces covered have been the world or great parts of it,19 continents,20 and sub-continental expanses.21 More recently, there has been a growing recognition of the relationship between nature and more delimited spaces, and many working in the Želd have begun to narrow the spatial breadth of their studies to regional and local scales. This narrowing of scope permits both greater resolution in terms of details and a better understanding of the social, spatial, and temporal dynamics through which environmental transformation takes place. Thus, for example, McEvoy’s exploration of the history of Žshery law and policy is restricted to California;22 Cronon takes Chicago and its agricultural hinterland as an appropriate unit of historical analysis;23 Walton focuses largely on a single river valley in eastern California and its relationship to Los Angeles;24 White deals with the environmental past of the area around the Great Lakes.25 Such a regional orientation has also spilled over into the social sciences, 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25.

Crosby 1986; and Grove 1995. Jones 1981. Worster 1985; Cronon 1983; and Merchant 1989. McEvoy 1986. Cronon 1991. Walton 1992. White 1991.


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as seen in research into the relationships among space, place and identity. This is most evident in the burgeoning literature on ethnicity and “imagined communities”26 and in work by geographers,27 but it is also seen in work on environmental politics and policy.28

Thinking about the Region Despite this trend, the “region” remains an essentially-contested concept. It is common to refer to both subnational and supranational spaces, and their limits, both physical and institutional, are rarely well-speciŽed. Out of the many possible boundaries offered by the history, ecology, geography and political economy of a place, which do we choose and for what reason? For the most part, the historian’s region is usually deŽned more by her/his proclivities and research agenda, reective of historical constructs and local knowledge, than boundary markers or a coherent epistemology of space. The “West” is thus construed to be a region, although examination of environmental histories of the western United States shows that there are many different “Wests.” Flores, among others, has proposed using the “bioregion”—a somewhat ill-deŽned concept, but more in keeping with nature and ecology— as a unit of analysis,29 but there are serious aws in this approach. While the bioregion might be more “natural” and less “cultural” than other imagined regions, speciŽcation still requires the scholar to choose among complex boundaries. In many cases, furthermore, bioregional boundaries have little correspondence with those areas that are organized around resource exploitation. We must, therefore, make what are essentially political and social choices about space in selecting a region of study.30 At the same time as regions have gained prominence, the development of nature and transformation of landscapes takes place in a fashion that links local and global, although rarely in a conscious fashion. On the one hand, as users (and abusers) of nature, people are linked into networks of economy, politics and culture that extend in many directions, both spatially and temporally. On the other hand, people continue to act as though landscapes were composed of discrete and historically important parts: a river here, a mountain there, a forest, a bay, a species. But it is out of some sense of the relationship of these parts and the mental and social location of the local in the global that the “region” is conceptualized and materialized. In order to transcend such analytical difŽculties, it is helpful to conceptualize “region” in at least three different, albeit related, ways. Regionalism originates in culture, history and people’s believed and experienced connections to 26. 27. 28. 29. 30.

Anderson 1991. Bird et al. 1993; Entrikin 1991; Gilbert 1988; Olwig 1984; and Soja 1989. Lipschutz 1996; and Press 1994. Flores 1994. Lipschutz 1996, ch. 7.


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Nature and place. Regionalization is produced by the locational, linking and aggregating effects of internal and external economic development and political relations. Regionality carries forward, into the present, previous constructions of geography including the accumulation of situated patterns of experience, political boundaries and physical infrastructure over time.31 Each of these aspects of region formation is critical to understanding change in landscapes at a tractable scale, and each helps to explain why some “regions” become or remain culturally resonant while others do not. As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that it is the interaction of political economy, social action, and nature over time that produces landscapes and their cultures and histories, a dynamic that generates borders which rarely correspond exactly to either natural or political boundaries.

Boundary Conditions While there are any number of questions that might be asked and studied in response to the discussion above, there is one that remains of particular importance and interest: How do we determine the scale and scope of the environmental transformation we wish to examine and explain? While this might seem to be mostly a question of physical parameters, I would argue that it is not. Transformations of nature take place at a variety of different scales and scopes, and these are not a simple function of geography, economy, history or politics. Since the social forces and structures that drive the transformation of nature are not bound to speciŽc places or limited in time—which is one reason why the transcription of practices takes place (see below)—it might seem too constraining to put boundaries around our studies. Still, boundaries exist and they are as much a function of the social formation embedded in the transformative process of environmental change as they are of anything else. This social formation is, in turn, partly generated by a speciŽc history and political economy in a particular place. And because the combination of historical, political and economic inuences of concern is likely to be different over relatively small distances and times, it is important to understand the context-speciŽc nature of each place or formation being studied. Here, I will argue that the most appropriate space or scale is the landscape-scale social ecology, which can be envisioned as the spatialization of an historical political economy based on place or region, as deŽned earlier.32 Such landscapes are circumscribed geographically, socially and economically, although their boundaries are uid and not always coterminous in terms of these three factors. Histories are circumscribed, too, but as with landscapes, they are linked to other places by virtue of the movements of people and re31. FitzSimmons 1990. 32. Although “social ecology” usually refers to one type of philosophical-political perspective on ecology, I use the term here in the same sense as “social ecosystem,” that is, a political-economic organizational spatial unit in which production and reproduction take place.


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sources, capital and goods, cultures and social structures. Moreover, these histories demonstrate that landscapes and their human inhabitants are not static or pristine; social and ecological “succession” are dynamic processes in all places. Each successive period of interaction between humans and nature has its contingent and contextual cultural and material logics, sometimes generated locally but, more often, brought from elsewhere and adapted to the material possibilities of a particular place. Each logic, whether sustainable or not, is eventually followed by another, as resources are played out or environmental conditions change (whatever the cause), as technology and social organization change, as internal and external demands generate markets for new resources and goods, and as incentives to behave in particular ways shift. Each successive logic is, nonetheless, linked to its predecessor as the past is transformed into present and the present sets the stage for the future.33 The reasoning behind this argument is as follows. SpeciŽc landscapes are produced over time in a contingent and contextual fashion by the cumulative acts of people. At the same time, social action, both present and future, is constrained by the material and social possibilities of those places and landscapes. Geography and nature, in particular, both impose constraints on and offer opportunities for social action in three ways (my speciŽc examples are drawn from California, but they are equally applicable anywhere). First, geographic features do much to give deŽnition to regions, offering centers and boundaries, in the way that mountain ranges limit development along many parts of the California Coast or in the ways that river valleys channel transportation, agriculture practices, and patterns of development. Second, biogeophysical factors— climate, soil, water supply—inuence or direct what can be done in speciŽc places with a given set of skills and tools, as in the practices and institutions of agriculture in California’s Central Valley compared to the Southern United States (and changes in skills and tools also change what is constraining, not always for the better). Finally, people migrating from one particular culture and place to another often seek out geographies familiar to them, where they can utilize the skills and reproduce the cultural practices and social forms of their prior everyday lives. Such patterns can be seen in the Žshing communities of European and Asian origin that developed along Central Coast of California and were subsequently absorbed by industrialized Žshing.34

Thinking through Social Ecologies What we Žnd in these delimited regions, then, are patterns in which the biogeophysical and the social, interacting with exogenous factors, lead to a kind of “social ecological” succession. New “regions” do not displace the old but, rather, are overlain on them (reminiscent of the tels composed of ruins and gar33. Cronon 1993, 12–16; Worster 1994; and O’Connor 1995. 34. Orbach and Beckwith 1980; Orbach 1983; and Lydon 1985.


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bage that one Žnds in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa). As accounts of patterns of both social and ecological succession, environmental histories for policy purposes ought therefore be more than mere “facts of nature,” and those who document the history of places and landscapes should be also aware of the “cultural constructions so deeply embedded in our language.” 35 This last point also reminds us that speciŽc environmental histories (as opposed to the histories of environments) emerge from the perspectives and epistemologies of the scholar and the questions that the scholar asks.36 As Hajer argues, we can agree that forests are dead or dying, but we may differ radically in our explanations of the phenomenon.37 To draw on a California example again: Trees are logged and turned into houses and proŽt—that is one constant in the stories of forests and their exploitation—but an environmental history told from the perspective of labor will differ from one told from the perspective of capital. And because the histories of speciŽc places are contextual and contingent, even though different locations are exposed to the same external forces and processes, a social history of redwoods in Santa Cruz County will differ from one about redwoods in Mendocino County, of land in the Central Valley from one in Marin county, about water in the Sacramento River from one focused on the San Joaquin. This does not mean that one history is somehow more “true” than another; rather, it shows that by beginning in different places, adopting different standpoints, and asking different questions, even two environmental histories of the same place or the same resource may offer very different narratives and insights. In other words, social formations and institutions are only partly determined by the First nature around them; human beings transform nature through the operations of their social formations and institutions and these, in turn, are acted upon by this transformed (Second) nature. Although the landscapes that result from this may be viewed as “managed,” “wild,” or “restored,” what is important is that they differ from what preceded them. As Arthur McEvoy has put it, “[J]ust as people develop their views of the world through interactions with their social and material environments, so, too, do those views change as people continually make the world over in response to changing ways of understanding it.”38 Only through an environmental history that is sensitive to this dialectical process can we comprehend how these changes come about and, to return to Worster’s point above, “make those patterns work better in the future for both ourselves and the rest of the world.”39 It can be argued that the spatial scales I have proposed here are too artiŽcial and leave out too much information. For example, would it be possible to analyze the extinguishing of the salmon run on the Columbia River by exam35. 36. 37. 38. 39.

Cronon 1992, 1352. Leibhardt 1988. Hajer 1993. McEvoy 1988, 214. Worster 1987, 251.


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ining only one small portion of the river’s watershed? No—the fate of the salmon is as much a function of political economy and history as it is of geography and nature. What is important is the juxtaposition of the macro with the micro, in this case, a description of the larger forces at work on the Columbia combined with a place- and formation-centered analysis of how these processes were played out in a limited arena.

Other Dimensions What constitutes an appropriate temporal span for such studies? After all, the histories of transformed landscapes can be extended backward for centuries if not millennia. Our choice depends on whether we wish to understand the practices of contemporary “everyday life” as opposed to the “life-cycle” of a transformation. The former is open-ended, in that it does not consider either the beginning or the ending of the process; the latter, although longer and more complex an undertaking, is better placed within history. It permits us to assess how particular transformations in the landscape begin as part of an earlier transformation, and end as part of a later one (without presuming closure). Again, within reason and the limits of tractability, both can be rewarding. How do we select an appropriate unit of analysis? I suggested above that boundaries of scale and scope are inherent in particular social formations; the question posed here refers more to cultural boundaries. To return to the Monterey Bay example cited earlier, are the communities engaged in the exploitation of particular Žsheries also characterized by a shared cultural and class character? What are the social relations and relations of production that characterized the community? To what extent do these characteristics close the practice to others, that is, what are the social and cultural barriers to entry? Finally, what other activities are such communities engaged in that may also be having a transformative impact on the landscape (and seascape)? One Žnal (fourth) important element of environmental policy analysis is that it tends to focus on speciŽc resources or forms of degradation (e.g., number of members of a species rather than damage to habitat), strictly separating integral elements of nature from one another. Most environmentally-focused social science studies take a more holistic approach, focusing on social ecology rather than on natural resources, but this has its shortcomings, as well. A regional approach usually implies, Žrst, downplaying those social inequalities that are the best observed relative to one natural resource (see, for example Peluso’s notion of the structure of access control vis a vis forests) and, second, limiting exploration of connections between local and global and the unintended consequences of locally-devised measures. This suggests that, for the purposes of making environmental policy, we need to be more sensitive to the ways in which resources, and their exploitation, are embedded not only within physical regions, but within social and economic domains, as well.


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Methodological Approaches and Alternatives Historical Materialism and Determinism One common characteristic of environmental history works against a consistent hermeneutic analysis over time, and that is the fact that environmental history ordinarily deals with “closed cases,” that is, those that are no longer “in progress.”40 In such cases, the consequences of particular patterns of human political economy and, perhaps, the causal relations that have lead to those outcomes, are clearly visible and can be analyzed retrospectively. From a more theoretical perspective, histories can be used to develop and reŽne methodologies appropriate for the sociological study of contemporary environmental contexts. But unless we begin with ready-made assumptions about the character of particular societies, localities and problems, and the continuity of these characteristics, a purely historical angle will not sufŽ ce in studying such contexts. The aws inherent in working from such assumptions can be seen in one historian’s work, where it might not be expected: the holistic materialist approach, more-or-less represented by Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire.41 The holistic materialist approach tends to treat the exploitation of resources and damage to nature as driven by forces beyond the control of local agency. As with world systems theory, the imperatives behind such forces are to be found in the geographies, histories, and political economies of whole societies and civilizations, if not the entire world. This approach tends, as a result, to be rather deterministic in its analyses. The very presence of certain types of environmental contexts dictates both speciŽc political and social forms as well as largely predictable outcomes.42 Thus, in Rivers of Empire, Worster deduces that the relative scarcity of water in the American West, combined with the expansionist tendencies of the United States and the domination of society by capital, could only have led, inevitably, to the creation of a highly-centralized, environmentally-destructive “hydraulic society,” along the lines of the type theorized by Karl Wittfogel.43 The “democratic East” was, consequently, not reproduced in the resource scarce West. There are a number of problems with Worster’s argument, not the least of which is that large-scale water storage and distribution systems never emerge ex 40. By deŽnition, “history” excludes the present and some portion of the recent past. Nonetheless, to invoke Marx once again, institutions, relations, and roles constituted in historical times under particular conditions provide the contexts within which people Žnd themselves today, and with which they will have to work tomorrow. Also, see again Walton 1992. 41. Worster 1985. 42. The appropriate technology movement of the late 1970s, and work by energy analysts such as Amory Lovins, who pioneered the concept of “hard” and “soft” technologies, were also characterized by such determinism. 43. Wittfogel 1957.


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nihilo from the deductive abilities of the engineers who, seeing water disappear into the desert and knowing it to be inherently “scarce” (scarce for what purposes?), immediately imagine how water management systems should be designed, built, and controlled. Such engineers had (and have) ideas, knowledge, and aspirations that originated in particular societies and cultures, in particular places and times. It was the immediate social conditions that underpinned their evaluation of the landscape and gave them a particular vision about how to transform nature in that place and time. Their imagined landscapes were not, moreover, simply a product of regional or national context, either; extensive communication took place between American and British hydraulic designers and engineers, the former working in the American West, the latter in the Indian Raj. These same people also possessed some awareness of the larger features of ancient Middle Eastern irrigation systems (without much sense of the controlling institutions), whose outlines had already been rediscovered and described in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kate Showers has demonstrated similar “technology transfers” between the United States and Great Britain with respect to the problem of soil erosion in Lesotho.44 This phenomenon of “environmental transcription,” as it were, the wholesale transference of human transformations of nature from one part of the world to another, is all too common; indeed, it is no more than one form of discursive learning (although the prevalent impression is that such knowledge moves mostly from industrialized to developing societies). The possibility that environmental transformations are as much a product of discourses as of agency or structure, as discussed earlier, does go hand-in-hand with the transcription of landscapes from one place to another. Only by seeing two widelyseparated places as sufŽ ciently similar to think of them as interchangeable does it becomes possible to reproduce whole systems in a new locale. Were this not so, a transcription would not have occurred. But lessons are not always learned, either. Even when something has not “worked” in one location, for whatever reason, there frequently remains the abiding belief, not always borne out in practice, that those aws which caused failure in one place can be redressed or engineered out in another. Whether such wholesale transcription from one location to another makes ecological sense—especially if the practice has failed in its original site— is something that can only be determined by a careful comparative assessment of physical conditions at the two sites. And, even the presence of ostensibly-appropriate “natural” conditions says nothing about the social and cultural context into which the practice is to be transcribed. Wittfogel and Worster notwithstanding, such human contexts are almost certainly not the same in both places, and outcomes are almost certainly going to be different. 44. Showers 1994.


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Materialism, Agency, and Discourse A somewhat different approach to environmental history and analysis takes less for granted and recognizes the role of human agency and constructed meanings in the transformation of the landscape. This is, more or less, the strategy adopted by William Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis45 (although he might not admit to it). Such a method recognizes that the environmental “context” facing human agents in any given location is not, a priori, determining, although it can be constraining and offer opportunities that push in one direction as opposed to another.46 Take, for example, Cronon’s description of the site on which Chicago was founded. He indicates that it had few, if any, natural advantages, such as a good port, which were often instrumental in locational decisions. Wiser people might have built the city in another, more attractive location with better lake access, perhaps farther up the shores of Lake Michigan where Waukegan now stands. (Had this happened, would Chicago have been more inuential in the history of the West than Waukegan?). Somewhat paradoxically, in this instance, and quite contrary to what environmental determinism might have us predict, it was the very absence of a deep port that worked in favor of Chicago’s expansion. This lacuna prevented the city from becoming a major shipping center and forced the city’s elites to look to other ways of fostering its expansion. Cronon’s contrast of Chicago’s success with that of St. Louis’ fate illustrates this point. The leaders of the St. Louis, which had excellent access to the Mississippi, were less enamored of the possibilities of rail transportation than were the leaders of Chicago. As a consequence, St. Louis lost out when the holders of capital had to choose between the two sites and rail vs. river, even though it was more centrally-located with respect to the West than was Chicago. More to the point, the growth of Chicago also had reverberating effects on the political economy, history, and ecology of points West, North and South, as the visions of economic and social transformation informed expansion, and expansion opened up new material (farms) and social Želds (catalogue sales) to hoe. In a way, Cronon argues that these transformations, and their environmental consequences, were almost incidental to the economic pull of Chicago. Given the dominant capitalist ideology of then (and now), however, the optimal choice for an individual farmer or businessman was self-evident: Deal with and through Chicago, or do no business at all. That from our perspective there were no other “obvious” paths by which to do business in the late 19 th century Midwest is a form of Whiggish history. Our perceptions do not mean that there were no other paths that could have 45. Cronon 1991. 46. For example, water can be made to ow uphill, but only at considerable cost (as in California). Water supply in any given context is, ultimately, limited, although the purposes for which it is used are almost inŽnite. Varying the mix of uses—that is, demand—can have as much effect on supply as the building of new storage facilities.


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been chosen; only that roles and relationships to the land and people were strongly conditioned by what frontier society regarded as its founding myths and the ways in which Chicago’s growth helped to elaborate on these original myths. (A companion volume to Cronon’s, entitled Nature’s Hamlet, documenting some other Midwestern town’s failure to grow, might be instructive in illustrating these points.) Thus, Cronon not only describes the white settlers’ presumptions concerning “real” agriculture, “real” ownership and trade, valuable goods, women’s appropriate roles, and the vision Chicago’s founders cherished. He also reveals the social origins of these presumptions and visions and shows how such factors helped to materially transform and produce the landscape we see today. What this materialist, agency, and discourse-centered approach makes possible, then, is the following. On the one hand, it helps us to understand the origins of the social transformation of nature while, on the other hand, offering an awareness of the physical setting in which the transformation is taking place (which imposes constraints and permits choices). This means that we do need to have some idea of what the landscape in a place looked like prior to a particular change in the land even if it does not mean that we know how it appeared at some originary time. Having these two pieces—physical setting and social transformation—may permit us to work through the puzzle of why changes in the land took one form as opposed to another, although it is equally likely that, without extensive research into the social history and conditions of a speciŽc location, we will not be able to tell anything at all from the landscape and longterm environmental changes there.

Data Sources This last point raises some Žnal methodological questions about research strategies: Where do we search for such clues? Government archives are limited in this regard. Although they may provide a paper trail of policy discussions and implementation, they are not always a good indicator of the emergence of or changes in particular discourses. An approach somewhat akin to a social history (or genealogy, as suggested above) of nature may be more useful in this respect: Reading of not only ofŽcial documents, but public, popular and personal ones, as well, and, where possible, interviewing individuals who may have been witness to the changes of interest. This is roughly the approach adopted by Showers,47 applied in what she calls “historical environmental impact assessment,” although she has been less concerned with the discourse/agency questions addressed here. In addition to these sources, the documents and literature of “expert knowledge”—the mostly technical- and management-oriented trade and professional journals of the times—can act as important sources of discursive infor47. Showers 1994.


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mation because these bodies of knowledge accomplish the delicate translation of vision and myth into reality. The researcher must, nevertheless, always be cognizant of the social and political restrictions on full realization of imagined landscapes. At the same time, there is also a limit to such techniques. For periods much beyond 150 or 200 years ago, and more recently in some parts of the world, such sources are simply not available. Because our primary interest in environmental policy-making centers on landscapes transformed during the past 200 years (and in many places, more recently), such limits do not pose insuperable obstacles to research.

Conclusion What I have offered here is not, I should note, “environmental history” as the discipline is commonly understood and practiced, whose practitioners usually seek to describe the progression through which nature has been exploited by humanity. What I am describing here is, rather, the social history of things, formations, and processes and, in this case, a social history of nature integral to social ecologies of people. Although human beings the world over once confronted some sort of “original” Nature, they now act to transform a nature already-changed—in some instances, many times—through the operations of their social formations and institutions. These are then, in turn, acted upon by this transformed nature although not, as some environmental determinists might have it, constrained and determined by the nature around them. More than this, the transformation of nature is not simply something that “happens.” Often as not, it is a project with clearlydeŽned objectives and means, some economic, some political, some cultural. This is not to suggest, however, a competing form of cultural determinism. Nature, in turn, imposes constraints on and limits to what is humanly possible. To paraphrase Marx (badly): Women and men transform Nature, but they do so to Nature transformed by the earlier actions of other women and men, which set limits to what they who follow can do. There may, of course, be “limits to growth,” both relative and absolute, that put an end to human projects, but neither these limits nor the original “state of Nature” can determine our “correct” social response to the changes or the limits. Science can tell us what might happen if we carry on as usual, and policy analysis can suggest how we might change. What they cannot tell us is what to do if we wish to change our ways or see an imminent need to do so. That is the province of politics.

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