Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 525-529
[Access article in PDF]
A Global History
Environmentalism: A Global History. By RAMACHANDRA GUHA. New York: Longman, 2000. Pp. xiii + 161. $21.60 (paper).
This book deals with the origins and growth of global environmental thought and action. Conveniently divided into equal parts, it analyzes two waves of environmentalism that apparently swept over the world from the eighteenth century through the present.
The first wave, according to Guha, set the stage for the rise of environmental consciousness. In this stage (which lasted until 1962) thinkers, philosophers, scientists, biologists, preachers, and activists developed the idea of the environment and its significance to the survival of all life forms. This was in response to the dramatic environmental degradation caused by the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It is argued that the rise of modern environmentalism is a direct response to rapid industrialization of the world. This manifested itself in many forms.
It began with a simple yearning for going "back to the land" and gradually developed into a more complicated ideology. While Wordsworth and Gandhi perceived it in terms of simplicity, George Perkins Marsh and Dietrich Brandis transformed it into an ideology of "scientific conservation." This new ideology of rational management brought [End Page 525] forests and other natural resources under state control. The social and ecological consequences were foregone. In the United States, Europe, and Europe's colonies, it meant attack on forests, natural resources, and indigenous societies. The growth of the wilderness idea was a direct response to the ideology of scientific conservation. John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others promoted the idea of preserving wilderness areas from the onslaught of the plough and bulldozer. Through their writings and speeches, the wilderness thinkers formed associations and agencies like the Sierra Club, Forest Departments, conservation societies, etc., and paved the way for ecotourism. In colonies like South Africa, large areas of wilderness were cleared of the indigenous people and conserved for the exclusive use of white colonizers and their progeny.
In a very interesting chapter titled "The Age of Ecological Innocence," Guha argues that ideas of environmentalism failed to influence the mad rush for development after World War II. The period between 1945 and 1962 is designated as the age of ecological innocence. The transformation first took place in the United States and then spread to the West.
Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring triggered the second wave, according to Guha. Although ahistorical, the book created a sensation upon its publication in 1962. Translated into more than a dozen languages, this single most important work exposed the hazardous impact of herbicides, pesticides, and carcinogens (like DDT). Carson systematically showed how the use of laboratory manufactured chemicals in food production was poisoning the food chain and causing the death of humans, animals, fish, and birds. Hence the grim title Silent Spring. The passive and individualistic environmental movement became an active mass movement after the release of Silent Spring. It created a new debate and paved the way for the rise of "radical American environmentalism." Movements like "Deep Ecology" and "Earth First" began demanding environmental justice. However, American environmental movements in their zeal for environmental justice ignored the problem of social justice altogether. Nevertheless, American environmentalism had its impact on Europe. The Green Movement led to the rise of a highly influential Green Party which captured many seats in the European parliaments in the 1980s and influences public policy even to this day.
Guha observes that environmental movements in the poor countries of South America developed quite differently from those in the rich nations of North America and western Europe. Southern movements began as a challenge to the "postmaterialist values" of the North, according to which the backward South was incapable of developing [End Page 526] any serious environmental movement until it became fully developed like the North. On the contrary, Guha argues, the environmentalism of the poor South is in fact a step ahead of the North. This is because the southern environmental movements simultaneously demand social justice. This relationship is divorced in the environmental movements of the...