Ch. 3 Environment and History in Africa
State formation and environment taken as a defining or canonical example of environmental historiography distinctive to African studies
McCann frames George Brooks & others as representatives of “environmental determinism” but this is already several jumps away from the kind of ‘hard’ determinism in Diamond, Reader and various “big histories”. E.g., Brooks is not a comparativist or world history applying environmental determinism “into” some African cases, but an Africanist who is using environmental data to structure an interpretation of precolonial history, somewhat in the mode of the Annalistes.
McCann sees Diamond, Webb, etc. using empirical data about the history of environment to construct hard limits to what African societies in West Africa could have been and done, and to formalize arguments about the connections between and within states and processes of state formation. What’s interesting is that McCann chooses to see some of this approach as “determinism” and to loosen its grip. He loosens it in several ways: that the data is not “clear and precise” enough to “neatly package” or structure precolonial history (pointing out that it contradicts other data, or that it doesn’t consistently predict or account for everything that it could or should account for). p. 29
Argues instead for “more subtle, nuanced view of how environmental conditions set a context”. I think Brooks and Nicholson would likely argue that this is exactly what they’re doing: the line is being cut pretty fine here, and it would probably be better if McCann was clearer that there’s an epistemological or even philosophical point at stake (centered on a view of agency and subjectivity) than to cast this as being about Diamond, Webb, Nicholson’s data–which implies that if somehow the data were more granular it might be fine to say that environment is setting hard deterministic limits on human action and state formation.
McCann is ultimately making an “inclusionist” argument: that environmental and ecological dimensions need inclusion into a holistic or synthetic account of West African state formation. “Influence” is set here as the alternative to “determinism”. It’s a sensible alternate but again I’m not sure if it ends up being that different *if* the scholarship chooses to emphasize an account of this particular influence.
Great Zimbabwe: look at the account being summarized here. Demand for gold = ‘building up’ local capacity for labor, food and elite; ecology makes it possible (rainfall + grazing land free of tsetse). Decline = ‘Malthusian’ argument. McCann sees the Malthusian argument as “emphasizing human perfidy”; McCann suggests instead either that they couldn’t mine gold any longer w/available technology or that the climate was unstable whereas GZ required stability.
Aksum: prosperity as requiring an environmental explanation. Here the agency argument kicks in way harder: that the farmers deserve credit for distinctive inventions, practices, etc. that allowed highlands to be highly productive. Note the uncomfortable flip side of this, though: that where there appears to be precolonial poverty, is that a lack of invention? Here the valorization of agency by Africanists really is a problem–Africans deserve agentive credit for all good things; all bad things are both misrepresented and not their fault anyway.
Note the assumption that water management strategies must have existed: again, reasoned backward out of an assessment of the limits and conditions of environment. “Aksumite achievements in water management must also have included field systems on the vertisol plain”. Notice the must. Notice also the use of deduction–that if later farmers elsewhere in Ethiopia used a particular technique (raised beds), then maybe that’s what they used in Aksum.
Relating different times scales to the possibilities of agency, but also using them to contest big or sweeping generalizations
McCann clarifies: the determinism/influence discussion is a CAUSAL discussion; there are other discussions to be had (landscape history and aesthetics). “The role of climate, biodiversity, and the action of soils, as well as the overall appearance of landscapes, should be both a subject of Africa’s history and a central component of how we reconstruct and define it”. p. 48
Deforestation in Ethiopia
the problem here is made out to be a representation that there was forest, that people degraded the resource of forest, that in degrading it, they caused a tight feedback loop that led to later disasters. Environmental action as original sin, pinned on the poor/backward, turned into “didactic wisdom for policy makers”.
McCann undoes this via tracing back the sourcing for the claim of deforestation. Goes like this:
1961 FAO publication says that in 1900 40 percent cover down to 4 percent. No source. Maybe personal communication from…
Von Breitanbach, who estimated forest cover from climatic potential for forest cover, based on rainfall, no physical or field surveys.
“Development narratives often take root within developing nations themselves”: e.g., that experts who ‘learned’ from the FAO publication cited the fact of deforestation back to Ethiopians themselves, who took it to heart and started reciting it themselves as a part of their history.
Why such power? McCann says:
1. Resource exhaustion seems a credible explanation for declension or decline: e.g., if there is evidence of prosperity in the past and poverty today, the environmental provision that made prosperity possible must be gone
2. Deforestation seems a credible type of resource exhaustion, in specific to European/Western observers
3. The history of imagining Ethiopia as “forested” is rooted in colonial-era travel accounts that were ultimately about landscape aesthetics, but if you actually read them carefully, they make clear that there were never forests there at all, and that as it looks now is largely as it looked then
4. So! If you want to understand how Ethiopians worked the land then, you have to do it in the environment they actually lived in–and if you want to understand rural poverty now, you’ll need something besides a generic narrative of environmental declension
5. And by the way, this is a case where contemporary knowledges, both expert and indigenous, are not to be trusted: e.g., it is a history of how what we know about environments is very likely to be wrong