Tag Archives: Environmental History

Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory

Tilley, Helen. Africa as a living laboratory: empire, development, and the problem of scientific knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

Notes re: Helen Tilley

‘natural laboratory’

“the defiant resistance of African nature”

people and environment treated as one as opposed to Western territories where nature/culture was an assumption

national/imperial/international infrastructures

Notice big jump in technical staff at 1920: something was happening

Vernacular science: imperial scientists ended up taking more of an interest in indigenous knowledge than they might otherwise have because there were so few of them in relationship to the ambitious scale of the knowledges they wanted to create

Taking the idea of laboratory seriously means: this was not just an instrumental tool for solidifying colonial power; the contingencies of “experimentalism”

Acquiring knowledge of environment as both a justification for and structure to the activities of the Scramble for Africa

“scientific stations” as another type of imperial site like mission stations or administrative centers

early awareness of the poor quality of scientific information (which raises a question about when that awareness eroded or elided into confident generalizations, if it did)

tropes of science: fertility, development, comprehensive, special/universal, local/distant [in/about Africa],

the nitty-gritty of process (how the sausage got made): science was not just a tool of empire, vernacular science was important, science slowly infiltrated domains that were originally built outside of science (agriculture)

ecology as management AND knowledge

the consequence of imperial science: trypanomomiasis pp. 118-119; BUT Tilley says, look this was not a break or a departure from imperial practice p. 120—science deconstructed empire according to Tilley p. 122

Agriculture as a domain of practical expertise that was gradually infiltrated by scientific expertise pp. 128-134

What’s at stake in the scientific study of soil fertility? (what ought African productivity to be, and what’s the explanation of a gap if there is one)

Science as a non-human agent? E.g., does science beget science?

p. 154 the capacity of science to produce surprises that repudiate earlier tropes: that tropical soils were poor in quality

Ecology as invented in practice in Africa and similar settings: what does it mean when the periphery invents the metropole?

Science for science’s sake vs. science for application/development

Science as not having that much authority: “medical pluralism” as a fact on the ground—tolerated if not sanctioned p. 184

The growth in late 20th C. science of science that can be done about Africa from a distance, and maybe as a result being less epistemically plural than colonial science was

Really great book for demonstrating why the meticulous study of institutional histories via careful archival research can be so important. It is hard for students to read through a book like this, but the details here end up being the big picture.

Smart overall critique of the treatment of colonial science as a straightfowardly instrumental “tool of empire”–Tilley ends up arguing that science by its nature ends up forcing imperial technical services and researchers to engage African knowledge seriously and to take on data that subverts imperial authority.

Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

Shetler, Jan Bender. Imagining Serengeti : a History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present. Ohio University Press,, 2007. Print. New African Histories Series.

Landscape as “humanized” not just through material transformations but memory and culture.

Classic restatement of the methodological dilemma of the Africanist historian: any time you want to deal with culture, subjectivity, narrative, etc. you’re either stuck ‘reading against the grain’ of an archive that refuses to acknowledge the historicity of African societies and landscapes, or you’re forced to get more and more hazy and speculative before 1800 or so. Not so hard for the environmental historian who is comfortable with the “longue duree” but hard for the person who is trying to trace imaginaries, representations, stories, etc.

Ch. 1: origin traditions as a way of imagining and charting landscape and environment.

Serengeti as described by ecologists in the rhetoric of wilderness: absent of humans. But this is as Shetler points out simply untrue for at least the last 2000 years and likely true for much, much longer. It’s always untrue in some sense in East Africa: humans and African mammals are clearly co-evolved. What happens if we learn in this case to always talk about landscape and environment in terms where humans are always present? One possibility is that the discourse of “humans despoil environment” has to shift dramatically away from implications of “Africans always despoil” and towards the landscape of dubious tropes about African modernity (overpopulation, depraved poverty, etc.).

Ch. 2 is really in some ways a very clever reclamation of ‘archaeology’–rather than the excavation of a single vacant site, using the material remnants of old networks of food production and exchange, indexed against memory, to infer a social structuring of the landscape.

Ch. 3 Sacred Landscapes

Lists of place names + specifications of rituals
Generation-set as responsible for maintenance of place
Power of place created by presence of ancestors
Different sort of ideology of preservation–the proposition that the land has to be unchanged at the site of power
Walking the land as a mnemonic of ritual (but maybe walking is an evidence of a more quotidian set of everyday connections: ritual is maybe what’s left when the everyday is taken away)

A bit of the tendency of ethnohistorians to ennoble memory by the fact of it being memory. E.g., Nata and others remember sites in association with wealth & power, but this is surely both something that is meant in terms of contemporary Kenyan politics to strike a claim to land (with it, we were rich; without it, we are poor supplicants) and it as much an erasure as a memory (e.g., there is no reason to think that wealth was equitably distributed in the past among these groups, but in these memories, any sense of social conflict within the groups drops out)

Spirits can mark beneficial places; but elsewhere in Kenya other ethnic/linguistic groups may use spirits to mark places as dangerous or unsettled.

Again, the strong association here between ancestors (embisambwa, ancestors w/specific place & power associations) and Serengeti land has got to be given some charge or valence by the absence of the people remembering from the land that’s remembered.

Specific instructions about how to treat land and animals at sites

Encirclement as a precolonial understanding of territory and boundaries–potentially really powerful combination with Nugent’s Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens for thinking about ethnogenesis and territorial control.

Good for students to “read out” a politics of environmental history/political ecology.

Arun Agrawal, Environmentality

Agrawal, Arun. Environmentality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.


Environmental subjectivity as a result of “involvement in struggles over resources an in relation to new institutions and changing calculations of self-interest and notions of the self”. p. 3 So both complicated feedback loops but also agency.

Forests and villages defined in order to control fires: how categories are required to exercise power. Once you make the category “forest”, you can imagine a form of state power that would control the forest and human activity within it. So how to do you make the category forest? surveys, typologies, techniques of intervention and management, surveillance, etc.

But then why do villagers protest the creation and management of forest? Fires. Which is why you make the category! So you now are managing forest AND village and criminalizing in the process activities which had taken place within “the forest” but without any sense of “the forest” as a categorically distinct subject.

So in connecting, you create “environmental subjects”: people who govern forest; “governmentalized localities”. You teach ways of thinking about it (“you are now responsible for forest”; “you are a villager”). But this is not coercion and resistance; it is something more complicated. Not really “negotiation” either.

“Governmentalization of the environment was accomplished in India was accomplished in India by the creation, activation and execution of new procedures for surveying, demcarcating, consolidating, protecting, planting, managing, harvesting and marketing forests.”p. 12 Particular agencies and experts were responsible for these processes and procedures, and undergoing these procedures in turn changed how they saw and interacted with forests.

“New ways to govern forests were the result of changing perceptions about their potential uses, among them naval manufacture, sleeper ties for the railways, the production of turpentine, and of course revenue generation. Emerging demands because of greater commercialization, strategic imperial needs and the consolidation of empire were crucial in shaping how state officials regarded forests…new procedures and regulations based on statistical representations and numericized relationships also defined forests and redefined legitimate ways to use them. They rendered some types of uses inappropriate and wasteful, illegal and ill-considered. They validated other types of uses on grounds of efficiency. They excluded some existing users. They favored others. They were mediating organizational forms in the widespread extension of new views about forests.” p. 13

“There is a third facet to the process, which is given the singular name of decentralization: the making of environmental subjects. Environmental subjects are those for whom the environment constitutes a critical domain of thought and action.” p. 16

Governmentality: e.g., that which can be governed, as distinct from government, that which governs. Governmentality allows government itself to be dispersed over a wide range of institutions and actors.

“Concurrent processes of regulation and subject making that underpin all efforts to institute new technologies of government”. p. 24

John Reader, Africa: Biography of the Continent

Reader, John. Africa: a biography of the continent. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.

Often comes pretty close to depicting Africans as uniquely limited by environment–it’s the exact same intellectual framing as John Iliffe’s very similarly titled history of Africa in one sense, but Iliffe tells the environmental story as heroic (African agency and humanity triumphing over a uniquely hostile environment) as opposed to Reader, who tells a story of how Africans are produced by and identical to their environments–all of their societies until the modern period are depicted as a harmonious product *of* environment.

Chaps. 1-4

Geological particularities of Africa, most prominently ancient unchanged landmasses and exceptional deposits of mineral wealth.
Africa the “laboratory of mammalian evolution”.
Stable position in relation to other continents.
Rainforest ecology: rainforests are fragile, soil nutrients drained faster than they accumulate.

“There was nothing new in Africa. The human dynamic was continuous and unbroken.” p. 100

North-south axis rather than east-west, divided into two by equatorial rain forest.
Rainforest not the dominant biome. Desert 40% of land area.

Savannah, wooded plains, grasslands most common vegetation/environment type.

Deep fertile topsoils are rare due to year-round warm temperatures; bacteria and parasites do not have a winter hibernation.

Ecological specificity of plant-animal relationships on continent may turn out to be something that Western conservation of charismatic megafauna was largely inattentive to until post-1945 and maybe not even then.

Relation between human evolution in African environments and human societies in historical time in Africa stressed throughout, with occasionally uncomfortable immediacy (e.g., here lies the older tendency to view Africa as unchanging and Africans as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’ in their close association with the evolutionary past of humanity). See for example Khoisan languages.

The debate over hunter-gatherers and its intersection with Enlightenment ideas about the foundations of human society. Pretty fair summary of the use of Khoisan in sparring over prehistorical human societies. Includes the round of critique kicked off by Wilmsen et al–this is a good demonstration of the difference between histories of environment/ecology that naturalize and universalize humans and those that insist that what is represented as natural and ecological is in fact sociocultural and historical.

r-strategy; K-strategy

Inching up to an argument that humans in their evolved habitat had firm limits on their numbers and material potential.

Good compressed version of the “agriculture was the beginnings of many burdens and fragilities” argument.

Question in Chs 11-19 in part is “is it possible to care about some of these issues (role of climate in human evolution, origins of agriculture in Africa, evolution of pastoralism, co-evolution of humans and animals, etc.) in a way that doesn’t predispose them to be deterministic preconditions of much more specific social and economic conditions in contemporary Africa? What would concern for such issues ‘in and of themselves’ look like, and is there any reason to demand conformity with such concern?

Diffusion v. parallelism (iron, agriculture, social formations thereof)

Niger River as major site for connecting ecology, environment and sociopolitical formations

pp. 229-230 Reader takes on the proposition that environments always produce harmonious human socioeconomic behavior in which people are always doing that which the environment dictates that they should–but not sure his alternative argument is anything more than a resituating of this point “it was the unpredictability of the delta regime itself which was responsible for the robust subsistence system that its inhabitants developed. In other words, the problems of making a living in the delta were so great that only sound adaptive strategies were effective” p. 230

So it’s not so much that the delta was harmonious and people lived harmoniously in it, but that they adapted to long-term unpredictability by creating resilient systems of urbanization (Jenne-jeno) at which point I’m not sure what the difference is between that and “people always adapt as they should/must”. The alternative seems to me is more, “Sometimes human systems are maladapted to environments and ecologies and yet manage to survive or continue”, which Reader assuredly doesn’t think describes the Delta.

Southern movement of herders, fishermen, cultivators as Sahara dries–another example of this point. Why not just ‘stay put’ and adapt to changing environments when the change is happening at an unpredictable but rather long-term level. This is a general question: if point-to-point migration, transhumanism and defiantly sedentary histories are all “explained” by environmental change, then does environmental change actually explain anything?

Marka rice cultivation and other secret knowledges (p. 232): maybe the issue is partly that some environmental economies have very high expertise burdens

Myths and legends as “ecological abstractions”: e.g., both as evidence OF the ecological character of distinctive cultures and as the means by which those cultures instruct their successors on ecological adaptation. Again, there’s something tautological in here.

“Groups congregated by choice”: but if they congregated because this was the ideal system for managing the long-cycle unpredictability of the delta ecology, isn’t ‘choice’ a strange thing to invoke? Where does ‘choice’ live in this sense?

pp. 229-233 worth working over in detail in class–some very key claims being made here, in a rather modest or backhanded way

Decline and absence become things to explain with or through ecology–but it begs the question of why we perceive or imagine continuity and continuation in other places. “France” in the 12th Century is about as related to the present day “France” as “Jenne-jeno” is related to Djenne Mali.

Ch 24: ok, here we go: this is the clearest summary of the co-adaptation argument about why human populations in Africa have had adverse developmental histories. Diseases that were highly adapted to human beings capped fertility, produced greater disability, and generally slowed economic and technological progress until human populations that had flourished in other environments were able to return bearing ‘foreign ideas of how it should be done’

examples are malaria and tsetse fly

Concept of “carrying capacity” at play in Ch. 25: the difference between the theoretical productivity of land under agriculture and its reality; Reader tries to explain that by reference to environment (e.g., that the ‘real’ carrying capacity is not a product of human failure to exploit or develop it properly but a ‘reality’ of environment that is not immediately evident until the specificity of African environments–soils, climatic unpredictability, disease–are considered.)

Africa as “land-rich” and “people-poor”, compared to Western Europe–e.g., that land is almost never scarce in relation to human communities in Africa until very recent times, that the deep environmental imagination of African societies never casts land as scarce or lacking and is instead deeply drawn to the challenge of fertility

Terracing as another example: it appears where it is adaptive, not where it isn’t; he’s especially engaged by cases where environmental conditions essentially dictate political structures (you don’t have chiefs or centralized states unless you adaptively need chiefs or centralized states)

Elephants and people in a long-term environmental struggle that only favors people in the 1950s; environmental ‘deep histories’ that recast or reinterpret the present as the cultural outcome of a material ‘rationality’ rather than an irrational byproduct of market greed or cultural ideology p. 261-262

Functionalism, p.266: gerentocracy as adaptive necessity for managing cropping/herding/iron economy, another tautological loop–you have cropping/herding/iron because that’s what environment dictates, you have gerentocracy because that’s what that socioeconomic system requires, you have them because gerentocracy secures them and because they demand gerentocracy.

consent/compromise important tropes: that precolonial systems of power made sense, were not maladaptive or out of control. But note p. 267 even “aggression” and “avarice” as they appear in political and economic behavior are ‘controlled’ and related to instinctive cost/benefit analysis, to an intuitive calculation of what is needed and not needed. –society as equilibrium; “imperfections and abuses were contained” p. 269

Trade as the sort of extrinsic disruption to highly adapted human ecologies, but also as having an ecological motivation when the good sought is a physiological necessity (salt). Why not just live where there is salt? A: because then you would be leaving otherwise inviting environments uninhabited–or preferring very harsh environments that just happen to have salt (e.g., Saharan core). Cost/benefit calculations again: raises the question, just how do people DO that? But note even further, it’s not just a calculation of: live where no salt, trade; live where salt, cope; it’s “live where no salt IF there’s an animal (camels) that provides a material precondition of trading for salt”. Which begs the question: why do some people ride camels and produce salt and other people grow crops and trade for it? How does differentiation actually happen? Why does it persist? Path-dependence a possibility? But note if that’s the way we want to talk about it, the specter of non-adaptive or maladaptive social ecologies comes back into view–things that were adaptive and then aren’t but where it’s impossible to shift to another ‘path’ (arguably this is a way to talk about extinction in genetic or evolutionary terms)

“Ecology, not conquest, brought about the fall of Ghana. The herds were too big, there were too many people. The more successful they were, the more certainly their fate was sealed”. p. 284; Arab chroniclers paid more attention to ‘dramatic events’. What do you think it means to say that Ghana ‘fell’? What does an ecological ‘fall’ look like?

How can we explain a trade in gold in ecological terms? (p. 288: because it was easy to do at times when ‘labor demands for food productivity were relatively slight’)–but note how this places drivers of ecologically meaningful change outside of the domain of the ecology being described–why is “Ghana” the unit of the analysis rather than “the ecology of gold production, circulation and consumption”?

Slavery: a third rail in this whole conversation. Rights-in-persons and the management of social violence in kin-based societies; but is slavery ‘ecologically normal’? What to do with a social practice which is not tautologically fit into the environmental picture that Reader is drawing? the dangerous potential to do exactly that

Now “choice” turns back on itself: p. 296. Earlier stresses on how ecological provisions allowed models of political organization that were not coercive but chosen give way to asserting that individuals had to organize in kin groups and communities. Why are “a succession of good harvests” a “distortion”? Same for “large influx of impoverished individuals”? p. 296–all non-equilibrium histories are being pushed to the outside as intrusions on the ‘normal’

Environments as maintained and shaped by humans (Bananas): here is a different emphasis where what Europeans take to be natural, unchanging, providential, is in fact the result of long human shaping of environment, in this case in Asia and then Africa

Clues on what “fall” looks like: the ‘centre could not hold and political authority gravitated to the periperhy’: why doesn’t an environmental history actually tell us, ‘don’t pay so much attention to transient political histories, pay attention to long-term continuities of material and economic practice’ period, in all cases?