Author: K. Jan Oosthoek (page 1 of 7)

Resources exploitation and nature protection in the border lands of Qing China

Book cover World trimmed with fur

Much research has been devoted to the impact of the expanding European empires and settler colonies in the 18thand 19thcenturies and their impacts on nature and resources. Not much attention has been paid to a similar story unfolding at the same time in Qing China: the increasing expansion of the exploitation of natural resources such as fur, mushrooms, pearls and timber in China’s expanding imperial frontiers. China’s demand for these products was so pronounced, that by the first decades of the 19thcentury many of these resources were commercially exhausted and many of the animals that provided these products were on the brink of local extinction. In response the Qing rulers created protected areas and limited harvests in response to these environmental impacts.

Jonathan Schlesinger, a scholar of imperial China at Indiana University in Bloomington, studied Manchu and Mongolian archives to track the trade in furs, pearls and mushrooms across the Qing empire’s borderlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. On this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Schlesinger discusses how Qing rulers responded to declining resources and negative environmental impacts. In addition he considers if it is possible to compare “western” environmental history with Chinese environmental history or whether we need to think outside a Western paradigm.

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Survey of Important events in Environmental History

In the spring of 2013 a group of environmental historians from around the globe was confronted with the following question: What are the most important events in environmental history? They were asked to nominate one event that, in their opinion, should be included in any global environmental history. This was part of a survey for a special issue of the journal Global Environment on environment and memory. The twenty-two entries that were returned provided an interesting window in what professional environmental historians regard as world changing environmental events (See list below). A video based on this survey was published on the Exploring Environmental History Website (see: https://www.eh-resources.org/podcast-57/) but it revealed considerable gaps both spatially and chronologically. 

Spatially, North America and Europe are over represented, while Africa, Asia Africa and Australia have only one entry.

Chronologically, there was only one entry that straddled the boundary between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: the dust veil event of 536 CE. The Neolithic period is represented by the Agricultural revolution. The chronological focus is very much on the 19thand 20thcenturies and Antiquity and the Middle Ages are very much missing in action. Please suggest events during the Middle Ages and Antiquity!

To fill these gaps, the plan is to produce a follow up video for the Exploring Environmental History website. This allows for a more balanced spatial and temporal distribution and the inclusion of emerging research themes, for example the environmental history of space. 

Scholars working in the field of environmental history are invited to suggest one event in environmental history to be added to the original list (see topics below). Please take a liberal view of “event” when suggesting entries, and include individuals, books, studies, or anything else that can reasonably qualify as an event. Explain your choice of an event in in one or two paragraphs of up to 250 words. Keep your explanation simple, as if you were addressing an informed layperson.

Email your entry by 15 January 2019 using the submission form on this website.

The original survey included the following events:

  • Air pollution in Japan transported from China (2013)
  • Assassination of Chico Mendes, 1988
  • Chernobyl, 1986
  • Stockholm Conference, 1972 
  • Earth Day, 1970
  • The Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969 
  • “Operation Rhino”, kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, 1961
  • Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945 
  • Invention of the chainsaw, 1929
  • Invention of Nitrogen-Fixing Techniques, 1913 
  • The Big Blowup, 1910 
  • The United States Bureau of Reclamation, 1902 
  • The Invention of Mass Destruction Mining, 1899 
  • Anthropogenic Climate Change, c. 1880 
  • The Beginning of the Global Career of Phylloxera, 1864
  • Drilling of the World’s First Oil Well, 1859 
  • Plowing up the World’s Grasslands, c. 1850 
  • The Dust Veil Event, 536 CE 
  • Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, c. 10,000 BCE 
  • Crossing of Wallace’s Line, c. 60,000 BCE 
  • Chicxulub asteroid strike, c. 65 Million BCE

Incendiary politics: histories of Indigenous Burning and Environmental Debates in Australia and the United States

Aboriginal use of fire

Indigenous Australians using fire to hunt kangaroos. Painting by Joseph Lycett, ca. 1817. Source: National Library of Australia.

In 2018 wildfires around the globe have been dramatic, prompting headlines about the world being on fire. The 2018 fire season is unusual in that so many places are experiencing major fires at the same time. California and some areas in Australia were hard hit, but these places are used to wildfires.

The political aftermath of catastrophic firestorms in both Australia and the United States has involved commissions or parliamentary inquiries, with terms of reference that include investigation into assessing or improving fire management policies. Part of these policies is the use of prescribed burning for fuel reduction, which has a long history in Australia but less so in the United States. Prescribed burning for fuel reduction has been heavily influenced by perceived or real understandings of Indigenous burning practices.

Daniel May is a PhD student at the Australian National University and on this episode of the podcast he explores the political and cultural influences of the historical debates surrounding understandings of Indigenous fire-use in Australia and the US. His aim is to expose the rhetorical strategies and political fault lines of the interest groups, past and present, attempting to influence policy making.

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The timber frontier of northern Sweden: a history of ecological and social transformation

Timber floating

Timber floating in northern Sweden, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy of the Skogsbibliotekets arkiv, SLU, Umeå.

Sweden is one of the largest timber exporters in Europe. The country has been an exporter since at least the early modern period. That is not surprising because pine and spruce forests cover large parts of northern Sweden. These forests are part of the single largest land biome on earth, stretching along the pole circle of Eurasia and North America: the taiga.

Not that long ago, the forests of northern Sweden were almost untouched by human hands. That changed during the 19thcentury when a timber frontier moved across northern Sweden, driven by the demand for wood in the industrialising countries of Europe. The timber frontier forged changes across the forests of northern Sweden, not in the least the construction of tens of thousands of kilometres of floatways. This transformed not only the ecological structure of the forests, but also the social and economic dynamics of Sweden and shaped the modern country that we see today.

Erik Törnlund is a forest historian who studied the transformation of the forests in northern Sweden and the development of the floatway system. On this episode of the podcast Erik examines the Swedish timber frontier and the associated environmental, economic and social transformations that have occurred in Sweden since the 19thcentury.

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Forestry in northern Europe: National Histories, Shared Legacies

Northern Europe's Forests

Forest history in Europe is often focussed on individual nation states. It is true that all European countries have unique forest histories played out in their national contexts. But there are common traits that all northern European countries share. For example, modern forestry started as an enlightenment project aimed at managing resources in a sustainable way and establishing control over the populations of the countryside.

Furthermore, there is a long tradition of state-centered, management-intensive and science-based forestry. Many of these European forestry experiences and practices have been transported around the world, not in the least to the European Colonial Empires, but also to North America. In many parts of the world this European legacy is often equated with forestry based on 18thcentury German models. More recent ecological criticism has changed forest management profoundly and put forward new aims. All this begs the question if there is a European forestry tradition.

This edition of the Exploring Environmental History Podcastexamines the patterns in the development of European Forestry and attempts to answer the question if there is a European Forestry tradition. This episode is hosted by Jan Oosthoek and Richard Hölzl, the co-editors of a recent volume published by Berghahn Books entitled Managing Northern Europe’s Forests.

Guest appearances of Bo Fritzbøger (University of Copenhagen) and Per Eliasson (Malmö University), who contributed to Managing Northern Europe’s Forests.

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Kangaroos and tanks: histories of militarized landscapes in Australia

Puckapunyal military camp

The Puckapunyal military training grounds during the Second World War. Large swathes of the Puckapunyal site were left barren and denuded as the result of military exercises. Source: Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

Military operations can have repercussions for environments and landscapes a long way from the battlefields. In the case of Australia most military action during the 20th century happened far from its shores, apart from the incidental bombing by the Japanese of Darwin and a few other northern coastal towns during World War II. It is therefore surprising that an Australian historian, Ben Wilkie, Honorary Research Fellow in Australian Studies at Deakin University, researches the environmental histories of military conflict. This edition of the podcast explores some of these histories of militarized landscapes in Australia, and the evolution of Australian Defence Force environmental policies in the twentieth century with Ben Wilkie.

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The watery ally: military inundations in Dutch history

Relief of Leiden

The relief of Leiden, 1574. Note the large area inundated for military purposes between Rotterdam and Leiden. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, the Dutch have fought against their arch-enemy: water. But, during the Dutch War of Independence in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch found an ally in their arch enemy. Their struggle against Spain seemed almost hopeless because the rebels were facing the best trained, supplied and funded European army of that era. As the underdog, they turned to water and used it as a weapon against the Spanish by planning and carrying out a number military inundations, intentionally flooding enormous swaths of land to stop or even defeat the enemy.

However, it is possible that during the Dutch Wars of Independence the province of Holland could have been permanently flooded and lost to the North Sea. The Spanish, hurt by the military inundations, hatched a secret plan that aimed at defeating the Dutch by turning their watery ally against them. Luckily, this plan was never carried out. While Holland survived, the Dutch constructed a line of fortifications and waterworks to facilitate military inundations, which became known as the Dutch Water Line. This militarization of the Dutch landscape had profound long term political, social and environmental consequences for the province and the region.

Episode 77 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast explores these social, political and environmental issues with Robert Tiegs, Adjunct Professor at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.

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Water pollution in the Dutch Peat Colonies of Groningen, 1850-1980

Potato starch factory

Scholten’s potato starch factory at Foxhol around 1930. Note the large geometric fields and straight canals. (Image: Collection Veenkoloniaal Museum Veendam).

In the mid-19th century the first potato starch and strawboard factories were established in the Groningen Peat Colonies (Veenkoloniën) in the Northern Netherlands. The number of factories increased to more than thirty by 1900. These industries brought jobs but also water pollution and stench caused by the release of thousands of cubic metres of waste water into the canals. For most of the 20th century pollution was not an issue but the industry believed that large amounts of useful substances were “wasted” by dumping it with the waste water into water courses. Experiments were set up to extract minerals and other substances for the production of fodder or fertiliser. None of these efforts resulted in solving the water pollution problem of the Groningen Peat Colonies. The pollution persisted until the latter quarter of the 20th century.

Episode 76 of Exploring Environmental History investigates the origins and extent of the water pollution in Groningen and why it took more than a century before the problem was solved. It highlights why the early experiments failed and the consequences of this for water quality in the province of Groningen.

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Podcast 75: Water Resilience in Western Australia since European Colonisation

running out cover

When European Settlers arrived in Western Australia they brought their own conceptions of water security and agriculture with them. Initially the land around what is now Perth was presented as a green and pleasant land. But the reality was very different.

The water supply of south Western Australia fluctuates throughout the year and as a result, ground water resources and their demand rise and fall in response to prevailing patterns of rainfall. The flow of rivers varies according to the amount of rain the Westerlies bring to the region, leading past engineers to classify the region around Perth as a ‘hydraulically difficult country’. This tough reality complicates agricultural production in the region and turns Perth’s suburban green spaces and gardens into a political hot potato. Add climate change into this already fraught mix, and it is expected that the current drying trend will contribute to further desiccate this already dry land. The title of a recent book about the water history of Western Australia, “Running out?”, seems to refer to this uncertain future.

However, “Running out?” authored by Historian Ruth Morgan of Monash University in Melbourne, is by no means a story of doom and gloom. It argues that Western Australians have a strong sense of their vulnerability to water scarcity and climate variability and this has long fueled environmental anxieties. To understand these real or perceived perceptions of water vulnerability, Morgan’s book places those anxieties in their ever changing historical contexts. This edition of the podcast explores the history of these water anxieties with Ruth Morgan and asks the question – what lessons can be learned from the water history of Western Australia.

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Podcast 74: Environmental History of Tidal Power in the Severn Estuary

Severn Barrage, ca. 1849

Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for a Severn Barrage, ca. 1849. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.

How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals?  Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.

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Podcast 73: Cultured nature: The Nature Scenery Act of the Netherlands

Huis den Berg

Huis Den Berg in Dalfsen. Example of a country house in a park like settings. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When thinking of national parks most people think of famous examples like Yellow Stone and Yosemite in the United States or the Serengeti in Tanzania. These parks are large in scale with an emphasis on wild life conservation and the preservation of scenic landscapes. Human activity and presence are restricted and regulated and people are visitors.

In smaller and densely populated countries like Britain or the Netherlands, the creation of large national parks is complicated. In these countries landscapes are far from natural and humans are part of the fabric of the landscape. For this reason, it is difficult to restrict human access and activities to create national parks.

NSA estates map

Map showing Nature Scenery Act estates, ca. 1950. Source: VU Geoplaza

In the Netherlands nature and human activity are almost inseparable because about half of the country is at or below sea level and is reclaimed or drained. Consequently, the landscape of the Netherlands is mostly the product of human intervention and can therefore be described as a cultural artefact. As a result, formal protection of landscapes and wildlife came late. One of the early attempts to create protected conservation areas came in 1928 with the Natuurschoonwet, freely translated as Nature Scenery Act. This Act was mostly about protecting country houses set in park like settings.

Wybren Verstegen, Senior Lecturer in economic, social and environmental history at the Free University Amsterdam has researched the Dutch Nature Scenery Act. On this episode of the podcast he discusses the Scenery Act and puts it in an international perspective. Wybren suggests that as an area of study, landed estates have been overlooked  by environmental historians.

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Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – Postscript

By Stephen Legg

Within the general context of ideas about climate change and variability, the focus of the research described in the interview on episodes 71 and 72 of Exploring Environmental History, was confined to the contested debate about the climatic influence of forests during the period before the late 1950s (a preliminary assessment is shown in Legg 2014). That end date was chosen primarily because of the discontinuity thereafter in easily accessible digitised mass newspaper sources as a forum for public opinion. Nevertheless, some significant progress in scientific research on the climatic influence of forests has been made in recent years, and is worth noting here. These new scientific theories developed particularly from the late-2000s offer a greater sense of closure to the narrative – or perhaps more precisely, they mark the beginning of a new phase in the debate. A few comments are also offered below linking the study’s findings to the current issue of scientific consensus on the threat of the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect (‘Global Warming’) as well as a brief consideration of other public debates about perceived threats to climate in the period from the end of the Second World War. Continue reading

Podcast 72: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 2

Deforestation

Deforestation in the tropics by colonial powers as well as in settlement colonies such as Australia and New Zealand sparked fears of regional climate change. A debate that quickly spread around the globe and was publicly conducted in newspapers. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

How does one go about researching over a century of newspapers on the topic of the climatic influence of forests resulting in a few million hits? This was the daunting task facing Stephen Legg, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. His research into the 19th century debate of climatic influence of forests in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States led him to trawl through tens of thousands of articles online collections such as Trove. This second of two podcast episodes with Stephen Legg, explores the practical and methodological issues surrounding the use of online collections of historical newspapers.

The second half of the podcast focuses on the relevance of the 19th and early 20th century debates on forestry and climate in the light of modern climate change. Can such parallels be drawn or does such “presentism” distort the history of what people thought at the time? These are not just important questions for historians of climate change but for environmental historical research in general.

Read also Stephen Legg’s postscript blog post on climate and forests and modern climate change.

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Podcast 71: Contested climate: the debate on the climatic influence of forests – episode 1

Newspaper article climate forestry

Example of a newspaper article on forests and climate: Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 23 January 1869, p. 4

Dating back to classical antiquity in the western world, the contested notion that climate was changing due principally to the human impact on forests was strongly revived in the mid-nineteenth century. Foresters and botanists, many of whom were employed as public servants, led the revival. They argued on the basis of the lessons of history and scientific evidence in an attempt to shape government policy on forest management. Much of the concern with the impact of forests on climate would have remained the almost exclusive domain of scientists, were it not for the role of journalists in popularising and politicising the idea. Throughout the latter half of the 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries, newspaper coverage of the debate transformed a dusty scientific enquiry into a vibrant but increasingly polarised public debate. An increasingly widespread popular article of faith, the twin ideas of climate change and forest influence persisted until at least the 1920s buoyed by a sympathetic press and growing bands of conservationists. Ultimately, however, the ideas were debunked by climatologists and rejected by mainstream science.

Stephen Legg is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in History in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Stephen discusses the development of the debate surrounding the influence of forests on climate, the role of the press in shaping and communicating scientific ideas and how it illuminates the broader role of science in society. He also compares the engagement of governments, science and the press internationally, and how this debate in turn related to ideas about conservation and climate change.

Further reading and resources

Stephen Legg, “Debating the Climatological Role of Forests in Australia, 1827 – 1949: A Survey of the Popular Press”, in: James Beattie, Emily O’Gorman, and Matthew Henry (eds.), Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand (Palgrave, New York, 2014), pp. 119-136.

Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian shore: Nature and culture in Western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century (Oakland: University of California Press, 1973).

 

Music credits

Silica” by fluffy, available from ccMixter

C120-12string-guitar-arps” by Javolenus, available from ccMixter

Podcast 70: Somerset, a ‘green and pleasant’ energy landscape?

Hinkley nuclear power station

The decommissioned Hinkley Point A nuclear power station in its rural Somerset setting.
Image: Adrian Flint

With its agro-pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and rolling hills and levels, often-sleepy Somerset may be the very picture of rural England – the quintessential ‘green and pleasant land’. To reinforce this, the area gained a variety of landscape and environmental designations over the course of the twentieth century, including Exmoor National Park and the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

At the same time the Somerset region is a twenty-first-century hub of energy production that faces further intense energy development, both renewable and non-renewable. It is the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B, and, potentially C, as well as new supersized transmitter pylons. It is also increasingly – often controversially – dotted with wind- and solar-power projects.

To what extent are the two faces of Somerset in conflict with one another? After all, Somerset has a long, proud record of historical energy provision, if its coal mining and other industrial activities are taken into account. How is it that inconsistencies between public expectations of landscape beauty and energy security have developed?

As a historian of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Jill Payne has worked on the historical dichotomy between energy provision and the aesthetics of landscape and environmental protection in South West England. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast series, Jill explores what people have come to expect in terms of energy security and how this squares with the issues involved in the desire to protect and preserve landscape and environment in ‘green and pleasant’ England.

Further reading and resources

Jill Paynes blog posts on the Power and the Water website.

Quantock Hills blog posts on the Histories of Environmental Change website.

Luckin, Bill, Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1990).

Nye, David E, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1994).

Williams-Ellis, Clough, England and the Octopus (Geoffrey Bles: London, 1928).

 

Music credits

Marcos Theme” by Loveshadow, available from ccMixter

Out in the rain” by offlinebouncer, available from ccMixter

 

The production of this podcast was supported by the Power and the Water project and the AHRC.
AHRC Power and the water
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