Humanity and Other Forms of Life
Environmental Histories of the World
November 5, 2016
Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Erica Mukherjee (Stony Brook)
Shoring up Sovereignty: The Influence of Embankments and the Environment on East India Company Rule
Flat, wet, and unstable were the key geographic features of the Bengal Presidency in colonial India. Once-navigable rivers shriveled to sandy shallows and acres of alluvial soil washed away, keeping the landscape in a state of unmappable flux. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the East India Company (EIC) strove to legitimize their sovereign rule by attempting to eliminate the instability of the riverine environment in the name of protecting and improving the agriculture and agriculturalists of the region. They chose embankments, large-scale earthworks, as their chief method of control. Under the direction of EIC employees, thousands of laborers threw up hundreds of miles of embankments along rivers, streams, and canals hoping to retain or exclude monsoon inundations and saltwater storm surges from cultivatable fields. Embankments embodied the sovereign duties of protection and improvement. The imagined link between embankments and sovereignty grew stronger over the decades and by the 1840s zemindar landholders were petitioning the EIC to maintain embankments by enjoining them to do their duty to their subjects. In reading the cycle of repair and abandonment of embankments as a discourse on sovereignty, two themes emerge. The first is the legitimization of sovereign rule through technological achievement. As the EIC grew more confident they took control of more embankments. By Regulation 32 of 1855, a private embankment could become public responsibility if the superintending engineer felt the zemindar was not maintaining the earthwork in a proper, scientific fashion. The second theme is that a Utilitarian sovereign cannot afford to externalize the environment when calculating the ‘public good’. During the 1840s, the EIC abandoned embankments whose ‘public expenditure’ outweighed their ‘public utility’, until a series of saltwater floods broke through the remaining earthworks and devastated entire districts. Through embankments, both technology and the environment influenced the discourse of colonial sovereignty.
Meredith Denning (Georgetown)
Crossing Boundaries: Institutional Flexibility and Local Capacity in Water Quality Research on the Great Lakes, 1906-1941
This paper describes the creation of the first transboundary institutions for management of water quality on the Great Lakes: the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the first pollution references to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The need for transboundary management of environmental problems drove Canadian and British officials to find new ways for Canada to engage directly with the United States. The first IJC references prompted an unprecedented study of inshore water supplies on the Great Lakes by a team of Canadian and American researchers. Their findings, presented at a time when the germ theory of disease was becoming more widely accepted, drove substantial changes in municipal infrastructure on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in the form of chlorination of drinking water supplies and the installation of sewage treatment plants. This paper is part of a larger project that examines how US-Canadian water management policies on the lower Great Lakes over the course of the twentieth century, with particular attention to how local residents were involved in the international relationship.
Isacar Bolaños (Ohio State)
From Nature to Disease in Ottoman Iraq: Floods, Marshes, and Infrastructure during the Nineteenth Century
Histories of medicine and the environment complement each other particularly well when studying the environmental origins of diseases. This is an insight that has informed a number of recent works on the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire. This paper draws on such literature to highlight Ottoman efforts to deal with frequent outbreaks of plague and cholera in the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra during the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how Ottoman infrastructure projects, such as the repairing of dams and draining of marshes, were part of the Ottoman government’s effort to create sanitary environments to prevent frequent outbreaks of disease in these provinces. Moreover, by tracing this development to the 1840s, this paper questions the applicability of the contagionist-infectionist dichotomy as a framework for understanding Ottoman conceptions of disease during the nineteenth century. According to this interpretation, not until the 1890s did the Ottoman government abandon contagionism (which generally argues for the usefulness of quarantines to prevent the transference of diseases between people) in favor of infectionism (which generally argues for the environmental origins of diseases through infections). Nevertheless, evidence from Ottoman and European archival sources suggests a more nuanced interpretation, one in which the Ottoman government applied both approaches simultaneously when dealing with outbreaks of disease in Ottoman Iraq during the nineteenth century. Thus, while the Ottomans maintained quarantines in the region, they also made efforts to create sanitary environments through infrastructure projects, a fact which highlights the importance of understanding the ad hoc nature of Ottoman sanitary policy at the local level and emphasizing the importance of environmental factors specific to particular regions of the Ottoman Empire – in this case the floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Yuan Chen (Yale)
Frontier, Fortification, and Forestation: Defensive Woodland on the Song-Liao Border, 916-1123
While scholars have traditionally regarded the longue durée woodland history of China as a paradigm of continuous deforestation due to human activities, Chinese official documents, local gazetteers, literati writings, and litigation records reveal that the history of China's forests is far from complicated than an unidirectional, homogeneous process of vegetation loss. From the tenth to twelfth centuries, various tree planting and forest making activities reversed deforestation in China to certain extent, even though the people who initiated these forestation projects might not have purposely acted out of a long-term vision of sustainable growth or environmental protection. This paper examines the making and destruction of the two hundred mile long band of defensive forest in present-day Hebei and Shanxi Provinces, which used to be the borderland between the dynasties of China Proper and the Liao Empire (916-1125) founded by the Kitan people in modern north and northeast China. In 938, the Later Jin Dynasty (936-947) of China Proper lost the Great Wall fortification to the Liao, imposing great menace on China Proper’s northern frontier. Since the founding of the Song dynasty (960-1279), the court ordered the planting of hundreds of millions of elms and willows on the Song-Liao borderland, creating a defensive forest that ‘only one cavalryman could pass at one time.’ In the early twelfth century, a Chinese scholar-official praised that the verdant tracts of trees along the Song’s northern frontier would ‘benefit China for ten thousand generations.’ However, this defensive forestland did always retain its luxuriance. Constant changes in the foreign policies of both the Song and Liao dynasties gave rise to a continuous cycle of deforestation and afforestation of this defensive forest. While the offensive side wanted to cut down trees to clear ways for their invasion, the defensive side tried to plant trees to strengthen the forest barriers. This paper investigates how the diplomatic tug-of-war between the two rival states of Song and Liao directly impacted forest construction and destruction along their contested, perilous borderline.
Kevin Bloomfield (Cornell)
Water and Power in Roman Libya
This paper explores how the Roman army utilized the oases of the Libyan desert to create a network of intermittent surveillance which spanned the entire frontier region, despite a relative scarcity of garrisons and soldiers. The physical environment of Libya and other arid environments allowed the Roman Empire to achieve a degree of control over movement in and around the frontier which far surpassed that in more temperate climates. The limited availability of water-sources forced all travellers to journey on a network of predicable, known routes. This method of movement is proposed to share several significant characteristics with the perilous conceptualization of space seen in Greco-Roman travel writings.
Ariana Myers (Princeton)
Royal Herbicide and Grand Theft Animalia: Environmental Warfare in the Thirteenth-Century Conquest of Valencia
The phrase 'medieval warfare' evokes the sound of the thundering hooves of cavalry, the gleam of armor and steel swords, the glory of single combat, and the storming of steep stone castle walls. One would find little to contradict this impression in most contemporary scholarship. With few exceptions, ‘raiding’ is relegated to a few paragraphs or even a footnote. However, environmental warfare was a vital aspect of medieval strategy. Philip Slavin demonstrated the importance of what he terms ‘ecological destruction’ to the conflict between England and Scotland in the early fourteenth century, noting particularly the way it exacerbated the concurrent Great Famine and bovine pestilence. I will examine the ways that Iberian warfare differed from that of the British Isles, focusing on the effects of different cultural paradigms on the management of human ecosystems. The thriving Islamic presence in Valencia fostered different attitudes toward water management and agricultural regimes, which were exploited by the Christian invaders. Slave-taking was also practiced in Iberia, further relegating humans to essentially the same position as animals. As the Llibre dels Feyts, the didactic autobiography of King Jaume I of Aragon, demonstrates, medieval warriors were themselves highly conscious of the complex ecosystems which constituted human societies. They deliberately targeted cultivated fields, woodlands, livestock, and human laborers in order to disrupt this delicate infrastructure and force their enemies into submission. A fuller understanding of the role of environmental warfare in a medieval context will directly undermine both the myth that war primarily affects soldiers and the fiction that humans exist in isolation from their environments.
Timothy Lorek (Yale)
Growing the Seeds of State Formation: Integrated Agricultural Research at a Tropical Latin American Experiment Station, 1927-1937
In 1927, the Colombian federal government reached an agreement with the Departmental Assembly of Valle del Cauca, a province in the country’s southwest named for its long and fertile agrarian river valley. Accordingly, the Palmira Agricultural Experiment Station would open with a fifty percent funding share between the federal and departmental governments. This research center, affectionately known locally as la granja, the farm, would serve overlapping purposes. It would work to improve the agricultural production of a variety of crops to benefit the local economy of Valle del Cauca directly and, more broadly, the tierra caliente, Colombia’s hot lowlands. As the global Depression weakened a Colombian economy based largely on coffee exports, the new Palmira station emerged as a national model for the marriage of science and politics. Such a relationship, the station’s leadership and supporters believed, produced a recipe for state formation in the countryside and economic and agricultural self-sufficiency. This paper focuses on three agricultural products as exemplary of the imagination behind the site’s research in the context of the 1930s. Rice offered both a potential cash crop for cultivators and a national source of staple carbohydrates. Cattle, long present on Valle del Cauca’s sprawling haciendas, suggested a social and scientific overlap in discourses on race and hybridization. Finally, sugar cane, boomed through political intervention contingent upon recommendations made by the scientific study of plant disease. Crops and animals carried heavy social and political meaning in Palmira in the 1930s, as objects of research and agents of state formation. The study of rice, cattle, and sugar cane during this decade underscores the amalgamation of politics and science, regional and federal government, and international scientific exchanges swirling in the Palmira station’s integrated research agenda. The forging of these relationships would ultimately reconstruct the agrarian Valle del Cauca and, in the process, influence the internationalization of agricultural development.
Samuel Dolbee (NYU)
Pests and Peoples or Peoples as Pests
This paper explores the connections between scientific agriculture, germ theory of disease, and transhumant pastoralism in the early-twentieth-century Jazira. It foregrounds how a set of global transformations in thinking about both sociology and the environment enabled no less a figure than Ziya Gökalp, the Durkheimian ideologue of Turkish nationalism, to compare the nomadic tribes that roamed between Aleppo and Mosul to not only microbes but also locusts. As the language of scientific pest control and germ-hunting invaded analysis of social conditions, so too did pest-control and germ-hunting cross-pollinate. In addition to tracing the metaphorical linkages made between these entities, the paper explores the material dimensions of the relationship between epidemic disease, migratory pests, and transhumant pastoralists. Seasonal migration had long provided a low-technology mechanism for avoiding the death and destruction so often associated with outbreaks of cholera and swarms of locusts in the arid Jazira landscape. Seasonal migration seems, at least in some cases, to have also facilitated the spread of cholera and reinforced the presence of locusts in the Jazira. Yet the most painfully manifest connection between locusts and nomads would emerge in the 1920s and 1930s. With the Jazira divided at this point between British (and, later, independent) Iraq, French Syria, and Republican Turkey, all three regimes sought to transform the fragments of the Jazira within their own borders into agricultural breadbaskets, an effort that involved widespread spraying of chemical pesticides. The substances intended to kill bugs generally did, and they also killed other beings, among them nomad-owned sheep and a few unlucky nomads themselves. Relying on sources in Arabic, French, and Ottoman Turkish, the paper provides an account of how the lives of humans, animals, and germs came together in new ways even as newly- established borders ensured that the region came apart.
Kenneth Linden (Indiana)
The Khiimori of the Wolf Under Socialism: Wolves, Pastoralism, and Modernity in Mongolia
Humanity’s antagonistic relation with wolves provides rich material for study. A number of important scholarly works explore the extermination and eventual reintroduction of wolves in the United States. In contrast, scholarly opinion often contends that wolves are held in high regard in certain other areas, including Mongolia. However, a closer examination shows the history of wolves in Mongolia was also often violent and confrontational. This was particularly the case during the socialist period of Mongolia, when wolf hunting became a Marxist form of labor necessary to achieve socialism. My research explores how modernization campaigns around the world transform human-animal relations. Wolves were objects of fear and scorn during much of Mongolian history, but they did have religious and cultural significance. During the Mongolian People’s Republic (1924-1990) the wolf was stripped of any spiritual role and was hunted as a dangerous pest. Socialist leaders implemented centralized campaigns to exterminate wolves in order to modernize livestock production. Although wolf populations plummeted and wolves became rare in many areas, they never went extinct. Mongolian hunters’ handbooks show tactics, professionalism, and businesslike violence reminiscent of wolf extermination projects in North America. Today Mongolian activists fight an uphill battle to protect wolves, and point to America as a cautionary example of wolves hunted to extinction. Many scholars point to modernization, Christianity, and capitalism to explain violent and exploitative relationship with animals, particularly predators. Socialist Mongolia, as a formerly Buddhist but explicitly atheist country, offers an important case study of human-animal relations in a non-Western context. Mongolia’s socialist era centralized command economy also provides a contrast to current religiously open individual herding households who are the source of contemporary studies on Mongolia. Wolf hunting in socialist Mongolia provides an opportunity to disentangle the many competing factors used to explain human-animal relations regionally and globally.