In his environmental history of the Mejong River Delta in Vietnam, David Biggs analyzes the influential trend of forced—and often failed—attempts to control the water and earth of the landscape, with various effects on local populations. Looking back even farther than the mid-19th-century colonization of the area by the French, Biggs considers the traditional identities of human “improvements” of the delta such as dikes, canals, and dams essential to habitation and agriculture. The imposed land and water use projects enforced by the French colonists, with their newer, large-scale technologies, expanded what Biggs calls the colonial grid, which colonial officials endeavored to push beyond inhabited areas in ways often contrary to Vietnamese custom or ecological wellbeing.

Canal-digging, road-building, railroad-setting, river-dredging, forest-clearing, and swamp-draining, all part of the colonizing and pioneering process, were frequently carried out without fully considering the ecological and political effects such “nation-building” would have on the Vietnamese people and landscapes, or their relationships to each other. Although the environmental consequences for these earlier projects are not quite as severe as his case studies, Paul Josephson might label these activities as milder brute force technologies—if not these earlier efforts then perhaps those pushed forth by American agencies later in the 1960s and 1990s. The planting of methods tried and tested in quite different locations from the Mekong River Delta, and the frequent disregard or ignorance of the diverse intricacies in ethnic groups or soil and water types, impacted how effective the colonial and post-colonial programs of hydroagricultural reform were. Unlike Johnson, however, Biggs does not represent these technologies as overwhelmingly or constantly negative for the environment.  Continue reading

Treatments of the Frontier

Whether merely traveling or settling down to start new lives, American emigrants to the Western frontier held certain beliefs about the “salubrity,” or health, of the land and how it could affect their own wellbeing. Such is the subject material of Conevery Valenčius’ book The Health of the Country, which explores the realm of eighteenth-century settlers as they struggled to cope with new and changing environments—primarily in Missouri and Arkansas.

Like Ann Greene in her book about horses that I reviewed last week, Valenčius does not discuss environmental degradation or change on a scale anywhere close to some other authors I’ll refer to in future posts (partly due to the limited temporal scope of the work but also given the text’s narrower subject of “medical geography”), but both The Health of the Country and Horses at Work share the distinction of being a creative sort of environmental history that readily utilizes some of this new field’s best characteristics: use of interdisciplinary evidence and modes of analysis, reconstruction of past landscapes through culture (e.g. myth, law, perception) and science, and concentration on the two-way discourse between man and nature.

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Deep Ecology, American Roots: Part 1

Part 1: George Perkins Marsh

In 1973, the Norwegian scholar and philosopher Arne Naess published the article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A Summary” in Inquiry, an interdisciplinary journal he established to promote discourse in the social sciences and humanities.  This brief article contained the base for what Naess termed the ‘deep ecology’ philosophy, which has since grown into a powerful—albeit fringe—branch of environmentalism with influence around the world.  The radical ideology that Naess sparked has an especially large following in the United States, where several environmental groups have been inspired by the proposed ‘ecosophy,’ or philosophy of ecological equilibrium surpassing shallow goals.

The relative popularity of deep ecology may have a foundation in United States environmental literature, where the writings of George Perkins Marsh and Aldo Leopold, among others, have distinct similarities to Naess’ claims and proposals.

What, exactly, was ‘deep ecology’ when Naess first wrote of it?  In his original seven-point survey, he described it as a belief in ecologically responsible practices that include such varied principles as complexity, diversity, and egalitarianism; a normative priority system—a life-style—that supports an ethical and humble view toward the environment.   Continue reading