Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 315-317
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Environmental doctrines and the advocacy of conservation were articulated long before the mid-nineteenth century. The evidence that stimulated them was gathered not only in Europe and North America, but also in remote corners of the globe that colonization had brought to the attention of science and philosophy. This fresh insight is one of many in Richard Grove's major new book, Green Imperialism, a work that ought to change how the story of the early modern period in world history is told.
Islands were particularly important in calling the attention of learned naturalists and scientists to the relationships among deforestation, extinctions, desiccating climate, shortages of essential resources, disease, and famine. Oceanic islands were microcosms where process could be seen more clearly. Because of their small size, islands reached their limits more quickly, so that an observer could see changes in the landscape during visits over the course of a few years or decades. The image of a lost Eden or spoiled paradise suggested itself to many of the European savants who visited the islands, and they gave advice on how to halt or reverse the course of destruction. Among the islands discussed in the book are St. Helena, Ascension, and Mauritius on the sea route to India, and Tobago and St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean. In addition, Grove gives particular attention to India and to the Cape area in South Africa. The Pacific is less central to his narrative, although he mentions the impression made on his central figures by Tahiti and several of the other islands of the largest ocean. [End Page 315]
Grove emphasizes the importance of the botanical gardens that were established in the tropical colonies as centers for study of environmental relationships, introductions, and decline or extinction of species. Their staffs included keen scholars who ventured far beyond identifying and collecting plants to develop theories of environmental change. Colonizing governments appointed the directors of botanical gardens to other important posts and sent professional scientists toÝcolonial posts as advisers or even governors, and as a result their ideas were sometimes given practical trial. Just as often, however, governments and companies were unheeding, penurious, and prone to inertia.
The early scientists advanced the convincing argument that it was in the interest of the colonial governments to prevent the degradation of the environment in the territories they controlled. "The state," as the economist Richard Cantillon had proposed, is "a tree with its roots in the land" (p. 221). If the colonies were deforested, they could no longer supply timber. Deforested lands suffer erosion and decreased rainfall, so that both soil and water for production of trees and other crops will decline. Faced with poverty and famine, colonial peoples will become rebellious.
There was also a strong philosophical-religious strain in the thought of many of the naturalists. Long before H. George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature was published in 1864, naturalists saw "man" as the disturber of nature's harmonies and inveighed against forest destruction. Pierre Poivre, the French commissaire-intendant of Mauritius from 1767 to 1772, is one of the most prominent figures in Grove's study. Poivre called the treatment of the island by heedless colonists "sacrilegious" and said that deforestation had placed the "land in servitude" (pp. 203, 206). Thomas Jefferson was attracted to many of Poivre's ideas.
Travel to the east, especially India, brought some perceptive European professional scientists into contact with Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist conceptions of harmony between people and nature. "The ability to equate the divine with 'all beings' marked a very significant departure from western or biblical notions of order and the primacy of manÝin creation" (p. 371). They showed interest in indigenous knowledge of biota and in earlier conservation practices, such as the precolonial shikargahs, or wildlife...