Climatic Fears: Colonialism and the History of Environmentalism. (Environment)

By Grove, Richard | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Climatic Fears: Colonialism and the History of Environmentalism. (Environment)


Grove, Richard, Harvard International Review


It is a common fallacy to think that globalization and environmental crises are new phenomena, or products only of the post-World War II world. Global environmental concerns are also often considered to be relatively new. But the story of environmentalist reactions to human-induced ecological changes on a global scale is actually more than three centuries old. Many of the anxieties that motivated the first environmentalists are still with us, albeit on a much more threatening scale. Important lessons can be learned from reflecting on the characteristics of global environmental change over the last few centuries and on the personalities and motivations of the environmentalists themselves. What were they tying to do, and have they been successful? Has there been, historically, any real confluence of interest between the environmentalism of the rich countries and the environmentalism of the poor majority of the world's population?

The emergence of a truly global environmental awareness was a very specific historical development. It depended on new empirical knowledge of the scale of the world and actual observations of human ability to change the natural environment on a global basis. Global environmental awareness was thus directly connected to a new capacity for people to travel large distances, transform the earth, and acquire knowledge about the environment. Two elements were necessary for this awareness to emerge: first, the institution of capital and shareholder-rich maritime trading companies backed by state legislation and assistance; and second, the settlement of previously uninhabited islands and continental peninsulas in the tropics and subtropics by colonial settlers and planters. The profit motives and mechanisms of these trading companies, especially of the East India Companies of Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and France, resulted in intensive cash-crop plantation activities on oceanic islands and the clearing of fo rests for agriculture and ship construction.

This process had already begun with Portuguese and Spanish settlement and plantation agriculture on the Azores, Canaries, and Madeira Islands during the 14th century, but the sheer scale of its impact was massively expanded as the European trading companies developed their routes to India, the East Indies, and the Caribbean. As early as the 1670s, the catastrophic consequences of their capital- and labor-intensive activities became clear as the early island colonies experienced drought due to the drying up of perennial streams, soil erosion, dust storms, and the disappearance of animal and plant species. These developments all made practical survival on oceanic islands difficult and encouraged wider questions about the sustainability of a confined settlement. Islands soon became symbolic of the explored world and encouraged ideas about limited resources and the need for conservation or sustainability.

Ancient Problems

The idea of regional environmental degradation or control was not new; indeed the word "conservancy" was first adopted in Britain in the 14th century with relation to the control of whole river basins, such as that of the Thames river. Similarly, in the Venetian Republic, well-developed ideas existed about the control of deforestation in the hills in order to control erosion and silting downstream. These initiatives may have been early signs of responses by new, highly sophisticated maritime states to the first consequences of early merchant capitalism and trade that had a global reach. Indeed, even before the advent of large continental-based European empires in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the scale of artificially caused environmental change was already being transformed as European maritime countries started to exploit new kinds of natural resources on a global scale. Sugar and other crops essential to the new urban markets of Europe were cultivated on small islands, especially in the West Indies, Ind ian Ocean, and East Indies. …

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