Defining terms

Our use of the term ‘African environmental crisis hypothesis’ is purposeful. Therefore, rather than giving the dictionary meaning of the term, we

Colonial East Africa

Figure 1.1 Colonial East Africa.

prefer defining it in the context it is used. It simply infers the destruction of natural environment by indigenous systems of land use—such as crop over- cultivation and livestock overgrazing. The hypothesis might have had its origin in the thinking of western science before it was applied for planning development in Africa. It has persisted from colonial periods and continued to the decade of post-independence. In Africa, from the beginnings of imperial administrations in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the environmental crisis hypothesis had gained popularity among colonial officials. Earlier, some European explorers and missionaries had proposed a similar hypothesis—that there was a gradual desiccation of African environments. The popularity of the African environmental crisis narrative had increased during the depression decades of the 1930s.s The narrative by this time had become imminent in scientific debates in the USA.4 The colonial governments perceived that representative environmental conditions described by the scientific debates in the USA also existed in Africa.10 This hypothesis surmises that the African environmental crisis was caused mainly by soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, periodic fires, deforestation, poor methods of crop cultivation and overgrazing of rangelands.11 Imperial science was therefore assumed to be an appropriate tool to remedying environmental crisis.

The notion of imperial science required the pooling of knowledge and sharing of research information through international collaboration, in order to build crucial regional and local research networks.12 As Richard Grove15 states in his work Qreen Imperialism, ‘[cjolonial expansion ... promoted the rapid diffusion of new scientific ideas between colonies and between metropole and colony’—through masses of scientists committed to pioneering research on basic and applied sciences.

Basic science is a discipline for acquiring new knowledge; it is usually conducted in research stations or laboratories under controlled environmental conditions.14 Conversely, applied science (including the social sciences) functions at management levels and scales (see separate section). Opinions are divided as to the applicability of basic science for development initiatives over large areas. Sir Andrew Cohen1’ was among those who pronounced basic science research to be ‘useless’ in solving development problems under field conditions in Africa. He suggested that basic science research (i.e., station-based research) failed to provide an accurate picture of socio-economic problems at geographical scales. In addition, because basic science research is conducted in restricted and controlled environments, it requires pre-testing in the field, which then entails management decisions. Consequently, basic scientific research with limited field application has little value in unravelling real-life social, environmental and economic problems.14 In disagreement with this view, Lord E. B. Worthington1, suggested that there are no fundamental discrepancies between basic and applied sciences. Basic science might be regarded as rendering ‘practical applications,’ in terms of the management levels at which such applications operate.1'4 The main difference lies in the scales at which the two types of research are applied: basic science functions at restricted and controlled scales, while applied science (including social science—treated in more detail elsewhere) functions at large geographical scales.19 We have referred to this as ‘big science’ in the present work (more on this in Chapter 10).

Similarly, there are varied opinions on what development entails. The African continent—as the last frontier of European colonialism—was used as a site to experiment with development.20 In Africa, the term ‘develop- ment’ was introduced by the empires, even if the concept may be thought to be a modern approach.21 The concept of ‘development’ differed in the way colonial and post-independent states defined it, and the way African communities perceived what development should be. Development is often used to imply modernization—in other words, transformation of the indigenous production into a capitalist system, shifting production from subsistence to a more efficient monetarized production. The change imbues institutional and structural changes in the society. It shifts production from small to large scale (the so-called economy of scale). Thus, development is expected to be forward-looking through transformation of social and economic systems. Among its many goals, development inspires opportunities for local communities by transforming their socio-economic needs coupled with better protection of the environments on which they depend.22 Because of these variations in expectations, the concept of development is ‘imprecise, normative and teleological.’25 This has had influence on how science was applied to implement development by varieties of actors. We examine the inter-relations of the concepts using environmental history framework.

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