South Africa's Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons

By Saunders, Janice | African Studies Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons


Saunders, Janice, African Studies Review


Stephen Dovers, Ruth Edgecombe, and Bill Guest, eds. South Africa's Environmental History: cases and Comparisons. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002. ix + 326 pp. Maps. Notes. Index. $24.95. Paper.

First, I must say that I am impressed by the number of contributors to this volume who are widely respected in the field of South African environmental history. One recognizes immediately names such as William Beinart, Jane Carruthers, Nancy Jacobs, and Gregory H. Maddox. On the other hand, when I first started perusing its content, the book struck me as disjointed. Perhaps this reaction stemmed from a negative mindset toward edited texts of conference origins; in fact, this text did materialize from an environmental history workshop at the University of Natal in 1996. Upon reflection, however, one discerns a unifying core to South Africa's Environmental History, and a significant one at that. That core resides in the historiography of environmental history and weaves the contents together from start to finish. Through the inclusion of an interesting array of South African as well as global comparative articles, the editors demonstrate the kinds of research environmental historians are engaging in, and to what end historiographically.

The book consists of three sections, the first of which is an introduction. Here Jane Carruthers provides not only definitions but also caveats regarding the viability of the discipline of environmental history. She cautions, for example, that the interdisciplinary nature of the field behooves environmental historians to be better scientists, especially considering how some scientists have published groundbreaking environmental history work; that South African environmental historiography needs to be viewed in the context of global environmental historiography; and that environmental history can make the wider field of history more relevant. Perhaps more important, Carruthers cautions us to be ever mindful of whose narrative is represented in our research. In the case of South Africa, for example, the narrative may be that of African, settler, or nonhuman ecological agency. The question is, do we have accurate historical representation of various perspectives?

Part 2 makes up the bulk of the book. In this section we find numerous intriguing articles on topics such as violent reactions to environmental usurpation; the impact of white settlers, fire, tree plantations, and the prickly pear plant; and windmill and wire technology. One methodological device that caught my attention in several of these essays is that of testing seminal works in environmental history against empirical findings. For instance, Nancy Jacobs tests Carolyn Merchant's theory of the colonial ecological revolution by examining a subtropical place, the Kuruman. …

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