History 89 Environmental History of Africa

Here’s a draft of a course I’m teaching for the first time this fall. I’m still making specific selections of material from some of these books, and may shift around titles as I find them, as well as likely pare down a few of the more excessively packed days. I’m still hunting for a good, compact essay or chapter that strongly attacks, in an Africa-specific setting, the argument that poor people cause environmental degradation. A lot of the environmental history and political ecology we’ll be reading certainly should help speak to that debate by the time we arrive there later in the semester, but something focused would be nice. I also need to add in material on demographics and population growth, but I have some good ideas about that already. Also if anyone’s read anything interesting on zoonotic diseases and environmental management in Africa (yes, I could just assign something like The Hot Spot, I suppose), that would be helpful. I’m shading most of my readings so that very big literatures (such as the literature on urbanization in Africa) get focused on specifically environmental dimensions or struggles over environmental policy.

For the moment, I’ve decided not to try and directly teach the global warming debate in this class, though obviously it comes up under environmental degradation and desertification. If I come across something that’s focused, so we’re not stuck in the huge theater of debate on the topic, I may move that in and take something else out.

Other suggestions, criticism, etcetera very welcome: this is a new topic for me, and I’m feeling my way through the literature as I write this.


History 89 Environmental History of Africa
Fall 2007

Books for purchase

Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism
James McCann, Green Land, Brown Land
Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir
William Beinart and Joann MacGregor, eds. Social History and African Environments
Tamara Giles-Vernick, Cutting the Vines of the Past

This course is a focused, discussion-oriented class on the relationship between human practices, social institutions and environment in the history of African societies, with particular emphasis on the 20th Century. We will ask whether environmental issues in the present are historically determined, and if so, which kinds of history are most relevant to questions of policy-making and management. (Or indeed, whether an examination of history calls into question most environmental management and planning.)

Students will complete two short papers due during the semester and a longer research paper due after the end of classes. Regular attendance, active engagement with the material and participation in discussion are all important requirements for students taking this class. No prior knowledge of either African history or environmental history are necessary, but potential students should keep in mind that the reading load is fairly demanding.

Monday September 3rd

Wednesday September 5th
Overview of the subject
Reading: James McCann, Green Land, Brown Land

Frameworks for Environmental History
Monday September 10th
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Chapters 5, 9, 19
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations, selection

Wednesday September 12th
John Iliffe, Africans: A History, selection
John Reader, Africa: The Biography of a Continent, selection

Monday September 17th
Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism

Wednesday September 19th
Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism
Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, selection
Karen Middleton, “The Ironies of Plant Transfer”, in Beinart and Macgregor, Social History and African Environments

Monday September 24th
James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape, selection

Wednesday September 26th
Arun Agrawal, Environmentality, selection
Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts, selection

A Sampling of African Environmental History
Monday October 1st
David Lee Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place, selection

Wednesday October 3rd
Eugenia Herbert, Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture, selection

Monday October 8th
Tamara Giles-Vernick, Cutting the Vines of the Past: Environmental Histories of the African Rain Forest

Wednesday October 10th
Edwin Wilmsen, Land Filled With Flies, selection

October Break

Monday October 22nd
Henrietta Moore and Megan Vaughn, Cutting Down Trees, selection
Helen Tilley, “African Environments and Environmental Sciences”, in Beinart and Macgregor, eds., Social History and African Environments

Wednesday October 24th
Luise White, “Tsetse Visions: Narratives of Blood and Bugs in Colonial Northern Rhodesia”
Marynez Lyons, The Colonial Disease: A Social History of Sleeping Sickness in Northern Zaire, selection

Monday October 29th
Donald Moore, Suffering for Territory: Race, Place and Power in Zimbabwe, selection

Environment, History and Policy-Making in Africa

Wednesday October 31st
Jonathan Adams, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion, selection
Roderick Neumann, Imposing Wilderness, selection

Monday November 5th
Clark Gibson, Politics and Poachers, selection
David Anderson and Richard Grove, Conservation in Africa, selection

Wednesday November 7th
David Bunn, “An Unnatural State”
Jane Carruthers, “Past and Future Landscape Ideology”, in Beinart, ed., Social History and African Environments
Clapperton Mavhunga, paper?

Monday November 12th
Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir
Dale Peterson, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, short selection

Agriculture and Agronomy
Wednesday November 14th
Richard Schroeder, Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Practices in the Gambia, selection
William Beinart, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa, selection

Monday November 19th
Victor Machingaidze, “Saving Settlers: Maize Control in Northern Rhodesia”
James McCann, Maize and Grace, selection

Wednesday November 21st
Sara Berry, No Condition is Permanent, cocoa
Brad Weiss on coffee
Anybody on new cash crops? Flowers, etcetera?

Environmental Degradation, Population Growth and Poverty
Monday November 26th
Jack Hollander, The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy, selection
Colin Kahl, “Population Growth, Environmental Degradation and Poverty: The Case of Kenya, 1991-93”, International Security 23:2 Fall 1998.
Need good debunker of environmental degradation arguments: specific to Africa

Wednesday November 28th
Michael Mortimore, Roots in the African Dust, selection
Grace Carswell, “Soil Conservation Policies in Colonial Kigezi, Uganda”, in Beinart, ed
P.E. Peters, “Struggles Over Water, Struggles Over Meaning”, Africa

Monday December 1st
Population growth literature: practicioners and debunkers

Disease and Environmental Management
Wednesday December 3rd
Malaria control and DDT debate
Ebola, zoonotic diseases, and political ecology? Is there enough on this?

Monday December 8th
John Ghazvinian, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil
Nicolas Shaxson, Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil

Urbanization and Sanitation
Wednesday December 10th
Maynard Swanson, “The Sanitary Syndrome”
Garth Myers, Disposable Cities: Garbage, Governance and Sustainable Development in Urban Africa
Material on environmental management policy in Lagos, Johannesburg, Kinshasa?

This entry was posted in Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to History 89 Environmental History of Africa

  1. jpool says:

    Very interesting looking course. Nicely cross-fertilized with your development course. As a result it’s very different from the version of this that I’ve been toying with, in ways that make me need to rethink my approach.
    On new cash crops, perhaps not what you’re looking for, but a colleague of mine at Emory, Joanna Davidson, is wrapping up a great anthro diss looking at social reproduction in a rice growing community in Guinea Bissau in a area where other communities are turning to new cash crops such as cashews. I don’t she’s published on this aspect yet, but that might be one direction to look in. I haven’t read it, but _Shea Butter Republic_ might be relavent as well.
    Does material on the national parks systems come out in the section on poaching? This would seem like a good opportunity to deal with some of the material on post-colonial pastoralist communities. Terrence McCabe’s work would seem relavent there as well as Dorothy Hodgson’s.
    I’d be interested in the material you settle on for that last session.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. CMarko says:

    Awesome. I wish I weren’t graduating.

  3. back40 says:

    There’s another Fairhead and Leach article that may provide “a good, compact essay or chapter that strongly attacks, in an Africa-specific setting, the argument that poor people cause environmental degradation.”

    Webs of power: forest loss in Guinea

  4. CMarko says:

    In the agriculture and agronomy section, you might want to add a brief section on famines and the sometimes counterproductive results of food aid. Most students don’t seem to have thought about these issues, and the Swarthmore class that really addresses food aid has recently been retired. (Ray Hopkins in Political Science used to teach it.) Food production is a central issue in the modern African environment, and your students might find it interesting. There’s a ton of literature out there, including some fairly accessible stuff by Amartya Sen and Alex de Waal.

  5. Fats Durston says:

    (shudder) The thought of sifting through A Green Place, A Good Place to pick something to read.

    I thought that a couple of the chapters from Green Land, Brown… did make the don’t-blame-the-poor argument. I’ve assigned the Machakos chapter a couple times in a global history class, always for the last week or two, so I haven’t had much luck with students actually reading it.

    Do you know Christopher Conte’s Highland Sanctuary? Its focus is forest management over the long run–German, British, Independent–in the Usambaras in Tanzania.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Green Land, Brown Land’s general thrust is sort of that, as is the Fairhead and Leach. It might be that a day specifically devoted to the degradation issue will be excess.

    Hey, I like David’s book. What I want to use it for in this context is just to show how environmental history is one strategy for writing about precolonial history over the “longue duree”. In fact, I was almost thinking I needed to read some kind of Annales-type work in the first section of the class, for another model of how to do environmental history.

  7. eb says:

    Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting piece about Fred Soper and DDT a while back; I don’t know if there’s something more academic along the same lines. It might make a good discussion piece.

  8. eb says:

    On the other hand, I just skimmed it: less on Africa than I remembered.

  9. JasonII says:

    You might want to point anyone interested in the hunting aspect to some of Peter Capstick’s books–they’re hardboiled, and feature sensationalized language, but they do offer an interesting view of the “great white hunter.” _The Last Ivory Hunter_ offers an anecdotal story of pre- and post- revolution Mozambique iirc. He also frequently argues against what he calls the Disney view of African wildlife (big friendly animals).

Comments are closed.