A trivial pursuits question. Just when did the present concerns about the environment begin? It is common-place to date such anxieties as global warming and species extinction to the United Nations conference of Rio, 1992, or Stockholm, 1972. Some of us might even point to early 20th century, writers who were worried about runaway industrialism destroying the human bond with nature.
In the ex-colonial world, many writers have shown that before the coming of alien ruled empires, the land and the people were linked to each other in ways very different from what was to follow with colonialism. In a sense, each of these views is valid, but only up to a point.
Grove's spellbinding look challenges us to widen our horizons in both space and time. He trudges through over two dozen archives in 10 countries, delves through letters in private collections and also reproduces several illustrations of the persons that occur in the text. His conclusion is as startling to many specialists as it is to lay persons: anxieties about the impact of unbridled growth on the ecology were present at a time colonial expansion was at its peak.
The present day fears of global warming had their mid-19th century counterpart. A group of scientists, many drawn from British surgeons in service in India, wrote up their findings in a report for the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1851. Their message was simple: unless government regulated the use of forests, not only would the land be denuded, but wider climatic changes would follow. Such warnings were not heeded then. And they are being ignored even now.
The question is, just who were these experts and what prompted them to foresee such problems? The idea of the conquest of nature was implicit in Renaissance thought. Shakespeare in The Tempest made his colonists reject Caliban's holistic vision: "I loved thee/ And showed thee all the qualities of this isle/. The fresh springs, the brine pits, barren place and fertile." As in the play, Europe's colonists hoped to use their technologies of rule to override any problems of this nature.
The catch lay in the fact tropical ecologies, especially those of the islands, were much more vulnerable than those in temperate Europe. The glimmer of change, in the form of autonomous scientists, critical of laissez faire, often on ecological grounds, first emerged in the colonial world. ln botanical gardens in places as far flung as Mauritius and Poona, Calcutta and Bangalore, the men of science sounded alarm bells.
Efforts began in the West Indies and Mauritius, and on the little island of St Helena. India was where such trends reached their culmination in the mid-1850s. The guardians of the Raj were worried that any changes in rainfall regimes would have a debilitating effect on agriculture and lead to disorder. Grove rejects what he calls a "Merrie India" view that places all the negative trends in human-nature relations at the door of colonialism. In particular, he points to the efforts of pre-British rulers to police forests for hunting and timber removal.
Demands for timber for the Royal Navy and merchant shipping led to the first British attempts at controlling tree cutting. But these soon broke down and the revival of such measures was largely due to the ability of the scientists in the East India Company in lobbying the viceroy.
Unlike in independent India, however, there was no certainty that departments, once created, would endure forever. The forest department had to fight a decades long "internal war" against revenue officers who tried their best to get it abolished. Echoes of this contest continue into the present day. The picture that emerges from the book is of a rich and varied tapestry of ideas that contributed to the intellectual revolution in the colonial world.
Grove pays special attention to the myriad ways, in which indigenous perceptions of nature influenced the early scientists. The dialogue between cultures had more to it than colonial self aggrandizement. The land was compared to the human body, and policies were praised or condemned for making it "sick." Concerns about forest conservation went beyond a search for timber. Some thinkers even write of the need to preserve rare plant species for their possible medical value.
Such "green languages" anticipated many of the ideas that we are aware of in our own ecology conscious age. In many ways, there was more scope for executive action in the colonies than in Europe, where private interests could resist such intervention.
The problem, of course, was the fact that for all the searing criticisms of the impact of European planters and companies on the environment they advanced, the scientists Grove writes about were unable to achieve much. The emerging bureaucracy did what state officials are best at: they took over these ideas and expanded their powers, but instead focussed their ire on forest and tribal peoples, blaming them for ecological disruption.
In the process, they ended up making the government owner of a fifth of the total area of British India by the turn of the century, virtually all of which is still under foresters today. This continues to be the dilemma of many middle class environmentalists the world over. For all their criticism of social order that rewards profligacy and penalises prudence, they often end up simply expanding the boundaries of state power.
The clue to a different future is hinted at by Grove, but is not central to his work. It is to try to understand how the "losers" in the fight for the forest related to the land. This need not be in a simplistic and romantic way as portrayed in the Hollywood blockbuster, Dances with Wolves. But it has to ask why the colonial stereotype of peasant peoples at war with nature was taken over in an unreconstructed way by the makers of modern India. It is here that the work is at its weakest for it misses out the new ways in which colonial rule displaced older systems of resource use and renewal.
No Indian or African ruler had the sort of apparatus for information or intervention, that was created by colonial rulers. The unwillingness to learn from peasant peoples was surely much more significant than the limited if heroic bid by a few experts to acknowledge their significance.
South Asia was critical to the emergence of the green alternative thought as well as of the new and more intrusive methods of control. It is only logical that much of the debate that takes place here will be of enduring relevance in much of the former colonial world: Grove's work is a major step in the direction of a wider debate. The characters, for once in an academic work, are rivetting. At times if you remove the dates, this could be the text of a contemporary discussion. The past comes alive in the hands of a good storyteller, making the book a must for anyone interested in our common past or the future.
It should also encourage historians and scientists alike to stray off the beaten track and tell us more about the alternatives debated by people of yesteryear. Many of their experiences may be replete with lessons for choosing between the alternatives that confront us today.