Questions for good ancestors is something I am working on feedback welcome!
the enclosure of the common more than to any other cause may be traced all the changes that have subsequently passed over the village. It was like knocking the keystone out of an arch. The keystone is not the arch; but, once it is gone, all sorts of forces, previously resisted, begin to operate towards ruin, and gradually the whole structure crumbles down. This fairly illustrates what has happened to the village, in consequence of the loss of the common. (Sturt 2010: 130)
By the “common” we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of the humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the commons also, and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth. This notion of the common does not position humanity separate from nature, as either its exploiter or its custodian, but focuses rather on the practices of interaction, care and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting the detrimental forms of the common. In the era of globalization, issues of the maintenance, production and distribution of the common in both these senses and in both ecological and socioeconomic frameworks become increasingly central. (Negri and Hardt 2009: vii)
Jared Diamond Collapse is a best selling environmental history book. A popular, rather than an academic work, it is nonetheless well referenced and draws upon a wider literature. Diamond uses historical examples of societies that have collapsed, he suggests, due to environmental factors to argue that we should learn from history to take care better care of our environment. Its difficult to summarise Collapse however it does illustrate some of the difficulties of using the past to guide a future sustainable practice. Amongst the historical examples he examines the most controversial has been Easter Island. He argues that historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the once lushly forested but extremely remote Pacific Island was wrecked by over-exploitation. He notes: “I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”?
Diamond's conclusions have been debated at some length. His argument that the islanders were living in poverty when Europeans arrived has been challenged. It has even been suggested that the deforestation may have been a result of the introduction of rats rather than their thoughtless over-felling. In turn his suggestion that islanders were so affected by self-induced environmental catastrophe they resorted to cannibalism has been strongly criticised The debates around Easter Island's environment are complex, at the very least, Europeans incursions damaged the population after the supposed collapse.
The researchers also dispute the claim that Easter Island's human inhabitants were responsible for their own demise. Instead, they think the culprits may have been Europeans, who brought disease and took islanders away as slaves, and rats, which quickly multiplied after arriving with the first Polynesian settlers.
"The collapse was really a function of European disease being introduced," Lipo said. "The story that's been told about these populations going crazy and creating their own demise may just be simply an artifact of [Christian] missionaries telling stories."
At a scientific meeting last year, Hunt presented evidence that the island's rat population spiked to 20 million from the years 1200 to 1300. Rats had no predators on the island other than humans and they would have made quick work of the island's palm seeds. After the trees were gone, the island's rat population dropped off to a mere one million.
Lipo thinks the story of Easter Island's civilization being responsible for its own demise might better reflect the psychological baggage of our own society than the archeological evidence.
"It fits our 20th century view of us as ecological monsters," Lipo said. "There's no doubt that we do terrible things ecologically, but we're passing that on to the past, which may not have actually been the case. To stick our plight onto them is unfair."
I would recommend Rapa Nui/Easter Island: Blaming the victims -- Jared Diamond's myth of ‘ecocide’ which can be found at http://links.org.au/node/2591
Causation is problematic, even if the island did suffer degradation, was this self-induced and led to political collapse or did a failure of political institutions lead instead to less effective environmental management which caused deforestation. Diamond should be commended for drawing attention to environmental problems in the past and he does briefly address the question of commons however right or wrong, he also illustrates, that environmental history is more than a parable of destruction. Diamond's strong response to critics can be found here. Environmental sustainability throws up complex questions and the past while helping us to answer them does not automatically produce answers.
The word history implies a story and the stories historians tell can condition the ways they research history. Narrative frames influence the questions asked and influence the conclusions made. This book is of course conditioned by a narrative that of effective commons management and the enclosure of the commons by the rich and powerful. Environmental sustainability has been treated using other narratives, for example, the notion of inevitable degradation as a result of growing population and exploitation is common. Indeed Garrett Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' is part of this view and is developed in Hardin's notion of 'lifeboat ethics'. He argues that on a small planet like a small life boat, unless some passengers are thrown overboard the boat will sink and the planet with be wrecked. Vicious exclusion is compassionate because compassion for all would mean extinction. This bleak Malthusianism is countered by a narrative that of technological optimism, the assumption that market forces and scientific developments will allow more growth and sustained exploitation of the environment. One of Diamond's critics, Benny Peiser is strong advocate of such an approach, suggesting that environmental concern is often exaggerated. Such cornucopians argue that environmental problems have been over come by markets, technological advances and human ingenuity, therefore a laissez faire approach remains best. Such an approach can be argued statistically as Lomborg has done in The Skeptical Environmentalist. Wilfred Beckermann uses the example of Victorian London to suggest that economic growth is sustainable and a market based approach is best. He noted that the growth of traffic in the 19th century when horses where used for hackney cabs, the taxis of the day, should have led to the city being buried under horse dung. But the move towards the combustion engine meant this fate was avoid. Thus environmental problems are best left to the market and conscious intervention may be inappropriate.
Of course there are other ways of narrating environmental history. While I would argue that there is good evidence of effective communal management of resources and a clear record of commons being destroyed with resulting environmental injustice, I am also aware that any narrative risks biasing the story told. In turn, a neutral view, untainted by narrative is impossible.
I want to make suggestions for a more sustainable future but to also provide some healthy doubt. The environmental history of the commons throws up useful questions we must ask ourselves if we are to enjoy a more sustainable future. We need to discuss how environmental historians can continue to research the commons so we can learn more. We need to ask why many environmental policies appear to be failing at present and the extent to which commons provide an alternative. The question of a wider economy of social sharing which provides an alternative to extractivist capitalism is also a vital area of discussion. Equally questions of how the threats to commons are countered and whether new commons can be sustained demands thought.
Thomas Pynchon noted, 'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers" (quoted in Ellis 1996: 256).
Asking the right or at least better questions is important.