Environmental history framework

Environmental history lends itself to the study of global political and ecological causalities of the phenomenon of environmental change.24 According to Jane Carruthers,25 it describes ‘how people use, manage or interrelate with natural resources and the natural environment, in social circumstances at given times and places.’ Donald Hughes26 also discusses environmental history from this perspective, describing the relationships between nature and society as ‘reciprocal.’2. In terms of ecology, environmental change can be metaphorically described as the ‘ecological footprint’ that communicates the impacts on the environment, whenever such impacts may occur.28 Bradley Walters and Andrew Vayda29 refer to such environmental footprints as ‘event ecology’ and point out that environmental change can be used to analyze complex interdisciplinary environmental and human ecology relationships. The event ecology approach answers the why question in order to reconstruct past environmental changes and their historical impact.

Similarly, Kate Showers50—in describing ‘historical impact assessment’ as past environmental ‘footprints’—uses a five-step enquiry process to orient environmental historical analysis that catalogs environmental changes over time. The first step describes the key questions that identify the evidence by locating the problems geographically and suggesting solutions. The second step applies existing knowledge to conduct assessments by interpreting historical records and collecting views of scientists and officials, as well as local communities, on environmental problems. The third step is to organize the available information chronologically, from which an environmental historian creates a meta-analysis to appraise the environ- mental change. The fourth step relies on the availability of technical information (such as maps, aerial photographs, surveys, instrumental climate data and archives) to understand relations with the environment over time. The fifth step describes the effects of institutional power by considering relationships between state officials and local communities, to try and understand why and how societies respond to development project interventions.

Accordingly, environmental history supposes that science and development might have linkages at five levels: historical, local, national, regional and global. At the historical level, environmental history is indispensable in scrutinizing the roles played by development programs in environmental changes, particularly by considering ‘cyclic’ environmental events.51 At the local level, it deals with how societies respond to their immediate environments and the extent to which changes in local environments influence social adaptations. At the national level, the relations are between the governance and development, working at the interface between scientific research and societal responses to policy recommendations. At the regional level, the linkages are between politics and research coordination and research networks at the global level.

Unfortunately, imperial science research lacked foresight and failed to offer understanding of any trends in environmental change. What we have instead are snapshots of events that often repeated themselves from time to time, but without any clear progression. Historians by organizing research and development as chronological events (i.e., events history) would have better insights—by presenting the trajectory of shifting opinions in scientific thinking.’2 By organizing our material chronologically, we have recreated such possible trends (Figure 1.2).

We next examine the extent to which the ideology of empires and its application of science for development contributed to the debate on the African environmental crisis.

Empire, science, society and development

The notion of ‘empire and ecology’ describes the powers of empires over nature—not necessarily only in Europe, but also in overseas colonies.’5 Ecology,54 as an interactive process of nature and culture, represents the ways in which nature is imagined and managed by societies.5’ Therefore, by historicizing ecological trends, environmental causalities linked to African peasants and herders may be discussed,’6 in order to make decisions on how and when the environment may be described as being in a

Schematic representation of ‘events history’ of research and development in East Africa, 1848-1990s

Figure 1.2 Schematic representation of ‘events history’ of research and development in East Africa, 1848-1990s.

The colonial empires approached the hypothesis of the African environmental crisis in two ways. First, since the goals of imperial science were Eurocentric,38 research initiatives ignored the indigenous knowledge of African communities.39 Second, as Luise White40 argues, colonial science ‘was not a European mirror image of an African intellectual faddishness,’ but a creation of European knowledge that provided ‘credibility’ to colonial rule as a creative system. The purpose was not to appreciate existing viewpoints of African societies, but rather to promote the views and goals of the colonial authorities. This approach reflects the argument of Mark Harrison41 that ‘scientific ideas were seldom transplanted fully into colonial soil’; rather, imperial science was adapted and transplanted in the colonies. One might agree with this viewpoint only partially, the problem being that imperial science ignored the complexity of the African environment which was driven by forces such as rainfall variability, and the diversity of physical and biological environments, in combination with diverse cultural land- use systems.42

One might therefore ask, why did the perceived environmental predicament in Africa become a working hypothesis for colonial empires managing local agrarian production systems? The answer to the question is fundamental to understanding the history of development in East Africa in the context of the environmental crisis hypothesis. Paul Richards43 sums up his view on this point as follows: ‘[e]cological crisis in Africa ... is as much a crisis arising from the nature of environmental science, its organization and the social interests that it represents.’ Accordingly, Richards much later proposed two notions that fundamentally predisposed the direction of research and development in Africa during the colonial century. His first proposition was that the main trigger of the perceived environmental crisis was the cultural behavior of African communities in terms of indigenous systems of agriculture and animal husbandry (more on this in Chapter 6). As a result, African farmers and herders became not only the subjects of colonial empires, but also objects of development experimentation.44 We show that there is no evidence that environmental causalities linked to African peasants and herders approached the proportion of a ‘crisis.’ Instead, the pre-colonial African environment was considered ‘pristine’ as opposed to an image of ‘apocalypse.’4

 
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