Finding my place in history

On the importance of understanding how environmental and social movements and challenges have come about.

In this blog post a friend of mine quotes author Bill Adams writing about the importance of knowing the history of conservation problems. He says we tend to perceive time in three ways: ‘deep time’ measured on the geological timescale (woah evolution is amazing), own experience (justifying our own passion for nature) and the immediate present (we are in crisis mode). The final paragraph quoted really resonated with me:

“Whatever sense of time conservationists have, I suggest that they rarely have a good sense of history. They think they know what needs to be done, but in thinking things through, they tend to jump from deep time to their own lives’ experience, and then again to the immediate challenge of today without much pause for thought. Often they have little understanding of the way in which problems have come about, or how their predecessors understood similar problems and tried to tackle them. Conservationists often know very little of their own history.”*

…this is exactly why I’ve been reading about old environmental issues rather than just the latest trends. As I read about historical conservation I’ve been surprised by how many of the current big issues are not so new. It’s both inspirational to see myself in the context of a long-running movement that has been influential, but also a bit disheartening to realize that though these ideas are decades old, so many people are still so unaware.

Here are a few sections from Guha’s book that help put conservation and natural resource issues in historical context:

1954: on overexploiting non-renewable resources, i.e. living off the capital instead of the income:

“We forget that we are living off capital in the most fundamental meaning of the word,’ he [Schumacher, British economist] wrote in 1954, adding: ‘Mankind has existed for many thousands of years and has always lived off income. Only in the last hundred years has man forcibly broken into nature’s larder and is now emptying it out at a breathtaking speed which increases from year to year.‘  (p.12)

1992: on sustainable development:

“It is necessary to seek a kind of development that is not limited to preserving the supply and prices of natural resources as productive inputs. The majority […] is not interested in a kind of development that pretends to be ‘sustainable’ simply by technically-productive systems and adopting a capitalist rationale in the use of natural resources. We should seek to change the determinant logic of development and make the environmental variable be incorporated as a component of the people’s living and working conditions.” p.123, from Henri Acselrad, editor, Environment and Democracy (Botafogo: IBASE 1992)

On the cross-cultural influences between major environmental and social activists:

“anti-road protesters also acknowledge Gandhi to be a powerful influence […] but we know that the Mahatma’s strategies of civil disobedience were inspired in turn by an essay of Henry David Thoreau [American}, and that his defense of the rural community drew abundantly on the works of John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter [British]. The ideas and example of Gandhi have thus helped return these American and British radicals to their own half-forgotten traditions of dissent and moral authority: testimony, once more, to the global and cross-cultural character of the environmental movement.” p 84

Do you think that 50 years from now we will be in a dramatically different place with regards to conservation and our treatment of nature and natural resources?

* From Against Extinction: The Story of Conservation, by William M. Adams. I haven’t read it but my classmates who have strongly recommend it.

One Reply to “Finding my place in history”

  1. Philosopher George Santayana wrote, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1,”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    Santayana’s quotation, in turn, was a slight modification of an Edmund Burke (1729-1797) statement,

    “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

    So, you see, it is not just conservationists who can learn from the past.

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