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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 280-283

Does Environmental History Matter? Shikar, Subsistence, Sustenance and the Sciences

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Radhika Govindrajan
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Govindrajan R. Does Environmental History Matter? Shikar, Subsistence, Sustenance and the Sciences. Conservat Soc 2007;5:280-3

How to cite this URL:
Govindrajan R. Does Environmental History Matter? Shikar, Subsistence, Sustenance and the Sciences. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 Sep 27];5:280-3. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2007/5/2/280/55795

Ranjan Chakrabarti, ed., Does Environmental History Matter? Shikar, Subsistence, Sustenance and the Sciences. Readers Service, Kolkata. 2006. 296 pp. Price: Rs.650, Hardcover. ISBN: 81-87891-61-0

The question 'Does Environmental History Matter?' dominates the agenda of this volume of essays right from the outset; its principal ambition, as revealed plainly in the editor's introduction, is to demonstrate the vital importance of the discipline of environmental history as a 'grand quest for a resolution' to one of this era's most visible and urgent problems: 'legitimate human use of nature' (p.xxiv). Thus, the tongue in cheek title is directed particularly at those mainstream historians who, being always 'very conservative and initially suspicious about new frontiers of historical research', have failed to give environmental history its due place within the discipline (p.xxiv). Chakrabarti's complaint is one which requires constructive reflection, especially given the current absence of engagement between environmental history and other historical sub-disciplines, all of which have much to offer each other by way of conceptual and methodological insights.

However, while the editor does make a strong case for the significance of ecological history to history at large, he neglects the question of why ecological history should and does matter for an audience beyond just historians. Environmental history has much significance not just for scholars from other disciplines like politics, economics, biology and ecology but also for activists, policy makers and a lay audience. By situating and examining questions of environmental and social change against a vast canvas of historical change, environmental history makes possible a multi-layered and more nuanced understanding of the origins and developmental trajectories of topical environmental concerns which are global in nature and universal in impact. Training a historical lens on questions related to human relationships with the environment is extremely valuable for those looking to understand the long term implications of vital contemporary issues, a fact which the editor surprisingly fails to emphasise.

The book itself comprises eight essays, divided into four sections, each delineating a different dimension of environmental history. The first section entitled 'Historiography of Environmental History' contains just one article, a masterly history of ideas and individuals by Richard Grove and Vinita Damodaran. Expertly ranging across a vast geographical and temporal terrain, this piece sets out to trace the genesis and gradual development of 'global environmental history', from the late seventeenth century right down till the beginning of the twenty first century. The narrative flows without dislocation over this rather enormous time frame of three and a quarter centuries, commencing with a survey of the work and writings of early colonial scientists and winding its way down to a brief but nuanced survey of more recent literature produced in the field. Extensive though it is, this overview is by no means exhaustive, and the numerous possibilities for future research that it suggests must be pursued for a richer and more complex understanding of the history of environmental history.

The second section of this book, 'Environmentalism and Environmental Awareness', comprises three pieces: C. Rajendran attempts to reconstruct aspects of environmental awareness in ancient India, as revealed in Sanskrit literature from the period; Kunal Chattopadhyay reveals the complex relationships between environmental activists and labour unionists, through an exploration of protests over industrial pollution in Gujarat in the 1990s; and, Chhanda Chatterjee examines the ecological fallout of Kolkata's urban expansion over the past few decades.

In his paper, Rajendran attempts to demonstrate the existence of a unique philosophy and vision of the environment in ancient India, through the analysis of a number of themes including, amongst other issues, a discussion of Vedic cosmology, early attitudes towards the forest and its resources, ayurveda (which looked upon medicine as nature itself), and ancient Indian art and architecture which gave great importance to environmental concerns. However, while this essay provides a competent survey of Sanskrit literature, it falls short on two important counts. Firstly, it constructs an idealised and homogenous vision of human-environment interactions in the past, emphasising only the peaceable dimension of this relationship while completely overlooking other aspects which may not have been as agreeable. Secondly, it appears to read texts all too literally, without any attention to their discursive contexts of production and their mediated relationships with the environment.

Chatterjee's work, on the other hand, attempts an analysis of the impact that the uncontrolled expansion of Kolkata's city limits has had on the landscape, particularly its many surrounding wetlands and lakes which have been filled up and are now sites of unauthorised construction. A sample survey conducted by two non governmental organisations in 2005 revealed that a staggering number of water bodies in the city were either 'highly degraded or filled up to be converted into play ground or park or land for construction or sites of housing complexes' (p.179). While the government has stepped in with some basic measures to control the situation in East Kolkata, Chatterjee warns that this is merely a small beginning and that prompt action is of the utmost importance to preserve these fragile aquatic ecosystems which perform a host of valuable functions. Environmental history in India has rarely included urban spaces within its scope of inquiry, and Chatterjee's contribution therefore is a most welcome addition to the still nascent sub-field of urban ecology.

The third section of the book, 'Nature, Wildlife and Livelihoods', includes articles on the symbolism of hunting in colonial India; on pre-colonial and colonial forest policy in eastern India; as well as a study of firewood consumption in rural Bengal, which highlights the negative impact of this particular energy source and attempts also to suggest ecologically sustainable alternatives.

In his essay, Ranjan Chakrabarti, very much in the vein of John Mackenzie's work on hunting in colonial Africa, asserts that shikar (hunting) was deeply implicated in the ideology of nineteenth and twentieth century imperialism, and was a crucial act in the exercise of power and control over the landscape and the people and animals that inhabited it.[1] The analysis is valuable in that it opens up the possibility of better understanding the discourses and praxes of colonialism through an exploration of one of the Empire's favourite pastimes, hunting.

Kaushik Chakraborty's piece on eastern India explores transformations in forest regimes and their impact on tribal people in the region, over a period extending from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the twentieth. Through a reading of Mughal texts, he concludes that the pre-colonial period was marked by 'subsistence consumption of forest products by tribals and poor peasants', with state control over forests and its people being kept to an absolute minimum (p.227).

The establishment of colonial rule, however, constituted a major watershed in the ecological history of this region; the policy of forest conservation gave the state absolute control over the woodlands and their precious resources, and forest dwellers were denied the right to practice shifting cultivation, graze their livestock or collect produce. Moreover, he argues, the new colonial forestry marked a significant departure from inherently preservationist 'indigenous' methods of conservation, 'which had existed from time immemorial in the religious and spiritual practices of the tribal people' (p.240). While this indigenous conservationist knowledge had preserved forest resources for centuries, colonial forest policy, based on western science rather than local knowledge, led to a drastic reduction in forest cover and resources in just over a century of rule. Even today, Chakraborty laments, the Indian government follows seamlessly in the footsteps of the colonial state, increasing government control over forest and depriving forest based tribal people of their rights. Without a drastic change of policy, he concludes, it will be impossible to ensure the welfare of these people and achieve sustainable development.

Chakraborty's assumptions are, at times, highly tenuous. Firstly, his understanding of colonialism as a major watershed in the ecological history of the region leads him to overrate the power and reach of the colonial state; the colonial forest regime was frequently contested, and sanctions and regulations were often relaxed in face of opposition. Moreover, his total reliance on Mughal texts, which were often produced under the aegis of the court and appropriated its discourse, is the basis for his idealisation of this period as one characterised by complete non state intervention in forests; the actual situation on the ground might have been more complex, an important detail which an uncritical acceptance of the texts would necessarily obfuscate. Thirdly, his understanding of what constitutes 'indigenous knowledge' is also essentialist and limited, concealing as it does the possible existence of an array of competing and varied forms of local knowledges.

The fourth and final section, 'Environment and the Sciences', comprises a single essay by Sudeshna Banerjee on the Indian scientific community's response to the discipline of earth systems science. While acknowledging that a paradigm shift to the earth systems science approach is not without its challenges, she concludes that earth science is yet to find a firm footing within Indian academia. She suggests that perhaps the main reason behind this has been the insularity of different academic departments, which have thus far been largely unwilling to collaborate with one another. Inter-departmental and inter-institutional cooperation are thus, in her opinion, amongst the most important conditions to be met if the shift to earth systems science is to be successful.

Does Environmental History Matter? is a book with an ambitious agenda, seeking to demonstrate that the 'seeds of a new social and cultural history are firmly embedded within environmental history' (p.xxv). While it does successfully establish the need to cast an environmental gaze on the agenda of mainstream history at the very least, it falls far short of the standard set by recent work in the field. The articles included herein, barring a few pieces, are surprisingly simplistic and uncritical in their framing assumptions and conclusions, seamlessly employing binaries like pre-colonial/colonial, indigenous/ foreign and preservationist/destructive in a manner which one would be hard put to find in more sophisticated and nuanced work on South Asia's ecological pasts and presents.[2] Almost three or four decades old now, the discipline of environmental history in South Asia stands at a crucial moment, seeking not just to critically assess its output thus far but also to forge new directions of inquiry. Unfortunately, the volume under review fails to achieve this agenda.

   References Top

1.John Mackenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.For example, see D.Arnold and R.Guha, eds., Nature, Culture and Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001; G. Cederlof and K.Sivaramakrishnan, eds., Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihood and Identities in South Asia, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006; M.Gadgil and R.Guha, eds., This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.  Back to cited text no. 2      


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