Updated: August 16, 2011 11:56 IST

Survey of environmental history

K. M. Shrimali
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The human-environment interaction goes back to the remotest possible times in the history of humanity. Sometimes, it is seen as a manifestation of a struggle between the two. There have also been times when this relationship took the form of respectable coexistence. While the history of humanity of the last several millennia is noted for its constant (if not consistent) progress in different walks of life, the mysteries of nature have often proved to be quite tempting to be solved by human thinking and actions.

It is, therefore, not without reason that the Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning of ‘environment' as “the totality of the physical conditions in which a human society lives,” and of ‘ecology' as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the interaction of humans with their environment.” In the emerging field of historical disaster studies looking into the adaptability and agency of pre-industrial societies on a global scale, the special issue of The Medieval History Journal (Vol. 10, 2007) titled ‘Coping with Natural Disasters in Pre-Industrial Societies' brought to the fore the ideas that “neither disasters themselves nor the conditions that give rise to them are undeniably natural”; that “‘natural disaster' is a convenience term that amounts to a misnomer”; and that “disasters occur at the intersection of nature and culture and illustrate, often dramatically, the mutuality of each in the constitution of the other.”

The anthology under review comprises 17 essays, of which 15 were written between the 1970s and the 1990s, and two after 2000. Broadly, their chronological spectrum extends from the early historic times to the 15th century — the essay by David Ludden that relates to the 19th and 20th centuries is the odd one out.


The Reader, purported to deal with the country's history and environment, covers a wide canvas of themes: forests; deforestation; societal interventions; agrarian expansion and irrigation landscape; arid zones; pastoralism; ecology of religion; and other “important issues of man and natural environment in their many dimensions.”

Among the galaxy of historians who have contributed to this volume are: Aloka Parasher-Sen (on forest-dwellers in the Mauryan Period), R. Champakalakshmi (on settlement patterns in the Chola period), Ranabir Chakravarti (on natural resources and human settlements), Kamil V. Zvelebil (on pastoralism as reflected in the classical Tamil theory of landscapes), Ajay Dandekar (on landscapes in conflict, flocks, hero-stones, and cult in early medieval Maharashtra), Romila Thapar (on perceiving the forest in early India), and R.S. Sharma (on agrarian expansion). The thrust of most of the essays is not on the ‘environment' or ‘ecology' per se, as the challenges of real ‘environmental history' demand today. After all, the original purpose was quite different. To illustrate, if Kumkum Roy compiled useful lists of species of plants and herbs, and came up with an annotated list of references to crops and geographical and topographical features on the basis of Vedic texts, it was merely to work out the possible geographical locale where the “early Brahmanical tradition” emerged in the first millennium BCE. Again, notwithstanding the invocation of ‘deforestation' in the context of ‘state formation', agrarian expansion, and ‘peasantisation' of tribes, such studies were undertaken as part of histories of socio-economic and political orders. The convoluted manner in which Nandini prefers to see ‘environment' in such exercises would hardly help the cause of ‘environmental history'. Even if one overlooked the absence of ‘environmental determinism' as a factor in historical processes in the original essays, the editor's Introduction at least should have discussed this debatable concern of historians and environmentalists.

Decline of interest

Invoking the editor's introductory remarks from the special issue of Studies in History (Vol.14, 1998) on ‘Forests, Fields and Pastures,' Nandini contends that the essays on ecology and environment in early India are “devoid of the dichotomy between the environmental and agrarian histories” (emphasis added). The relevant quote from that volume is: “The growth of environmental history has been accompanied, in some ways, by the decline of interest in agrarian history; the former, in fact, has defined itself in opposition to the latter” (emphasis added).

Has there been such an opposition/dichotomy between environmental history and histories of maritime activities and of trade and industry? The alleged ‘opposition'/‘dichotomy' has to do less with growing interest in ‘environmental history' and more with the agenda of marginalising all varieties of ‘Marxist' writings that had brought different kinds of economic histories into focus since the 1950s.

This agenda has taken the guise of ‘culture studies' which have also co-opted ‘environmental histories.' Hence the decline of interest is in all kinds of economic histories, not just in agrarian history. If the editing leaves much to be desired, the Introduction lacks coherence and, inexplicably, a large number of original essays have been pruned by the editor. Many of the articles/monographs referred to in the contributions do not figure in the bibliography. The renowned publisher also has to share the blame for the poor quality of production and editing.

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