Report: Roundtable on contemporary global environmental history

Co-hosted by the Birmingham Centre for Modern and Contemporary History seminar and BISEMEH at the University of Birmingham

5 December 2014

Speakers:

  • Marianna Dudley (University of Bristol)
  • Micah Muscolino (Oxford)

The inaugural BISEMEH event, rather than featuring programmatic speeches or celebratory proclamations, showcased two fine papers with different geographic scopes, timeframes, and moral quagmires. As it happened, both papers were about rivers, though in widely different ways (a third, non-riverine presentation had to be cancelled for personal reasons). Marianna Dudley discussed recreational conflicts on British rivers whereas Micah Muscolino looked at the 1938 Yellow River flood that the Nationalists under the command of Chiang Kai-shek caused in a deliberate attempt to stop the advancing Japanese army.

Dudley’s paper opened a new window on river conflicts. This was not the classic tale about the polluter vs. the polluted, or aesthetic charm against industrial development. Dudley looked at the less conspicuous groups, the anglers and the canoeists – and for those who might have felt that this was a relatively lame conflict, her narrative did offer a violent clash between the two. It wasn’t quite warfare, but it’s always interesting how agitated people can become when they are supposed to relax. Be that as it may, Dudley’s presentation showed that the conflict echoed much larger issues such as water justice, water stress, access to the countryside, and the hydrocommons.

A key issue was the legal quagmire that the dispute revealed. From an environmental perspective, property is a notoriously fragile concept even on land, and moving towards the water does not exactly reduce the vagaries. Interestingly, both groups sought to bolster their respective case through history. You may have failed to notice the last time you read the Magna Carta, but it does include regulations on navigation and fishing.

Anglers had the more impressive historical legacy; but then, fishermen are not all the same. This being Britain, class played an important role, as the gap between exclusive fly fishing and the proletariat’s pub-based angling clubs was about far more than techniques. In any case, canoeing did not emerge until the nineteenth century and became more popular on the continent. The British Canoe Union was only formed in preparation for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, the latecomers enjoyed the advantage of free navigation, quite unlike the anglers who have to pay for their fishing rights – one of numerous grievances that fuelled the dispute. Anglers also have a history of helping river cleanup drives.

But then, Dudley did not take sides, in line with an increasingly dispassionate view among environmental history scholars: the times where environmental history was invariably about a clash between the good guys and the bad guys are fortunately over. One issue in the discussion was whether masculinity makes for a significant category. Can we detect male notions of standing your ground in these conflicts, or even a whiff of that old trope of environmentalism, the male domination of nature. More than other types of recreation, canoeing and angling nourish the concept of emerging victorious from a struggle with nature.

Rivers are dynamic, and so are uses of river. Law, in contrast, is less dynamic, and the conflict along British rivers has not reached a clear conclusion as a result. In other words, recreational conflicts are one of the many standing disputes that surround environmental resources – or should we speak of a “flowing” dispute in light of the river’s dynamism? In any case, it is remarkable that the prospects of a conflict resolution are slim. Maybe that is because the dispute is not deemed sufficiently important by the powers that be. Or maybe we have lost our collective will to resolve issues, and we are content with leaving the legal mess as it is – not because we like it but because that is how we deal with environmental issues in the twenty-first century. We don’t solve them any more but merely deep-freeze them.

Dudley’s paper opened a window on the appropriation of nature through leisure and how people develop meaningful relationships to nature in their spare time. In contrast, Muscolino’s paper was about a crisis situation, the Japanese conquest of China, and the role of the forces of nature in this context. Only people in the immediate vicinity received any kind of warning when Chiang Kai-shek blew up the dikes, and the Henan province is densely populated. The act of destruction fell into the harvest season, and rural residents were hesitant to abandon their fields and their property. Many of the drowned, and many more would succumb to hunger of illness.

The act stands as one of the most environmentally damaging acts of warfare in world history. It did make for a roadblock for the advancing Japanese, but the price was huge. The toll increased even more through the disastrous Henan famine of 1942-43. One cannot help but wonder what the Nazis would have done if the Rhine or the Dnieper River had offered similar strategic opportunities.

Muscolino looked at the event through the lens of energy flows. That had the advantage of making the war situation look less exceptional: it was just one of many factors that shaped social metabolism. In fact, there was no demilitarization in energetic terms in China until the 1970s. “War against nature” tropes were popular in China long before Mao came to power. In such a reading, war was not an altogether different situation but merely the acceleration of processes and trends that were happening anyway.

But maybe we can push what one might call “the normalization of war” even further? Wars have a tendency to suggest their own chronologies: they invite scholars to start with the first shot and end with either side’s surrender (plus chapters on the prehistory and the aftermath). However, environmental historians can play with different time frames. Perhaps the hottest issue is whether the man-made flood acted as a kind of environmental pressure valve, defusing a threat that inevitably built up over time. A large river with lots of sediments between dikes is not a sustainable model. Needless to say, this does not excuse anything, but it puts things into perspective. And offering unusual windows on seemingly familiar stories has always been a key ability of environmental historians.

Muscolino’s paper also challenged us to think about the role of the state. In conventional readings, the modern state was never as strong and as impressive as it was in war. But can we reading the Henan flood in this way? The Chinese military was strong enough to blow up the dikes (their effectiveness in this regard was beyond dispute) but it was unable to alert the prospective victims, let alone help them properly. Total war and total apathy may just be two sides of the same coin.

Muscolino’s insights were published by Cambridge University Press in 2015 as The Ecology of War in China. Dudley’s presentation was part of what one might call an alternative history of environmentalism – more on that when the time is right, and maybe at another BISEMEH event.