Panel 6: Writing the Environment in empires
Since 1989, when communism in Europe fell and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union collapsed, the old question why empires rise and fall has attracted the attention of the public and historians alike. People were not only interested in why the ‘Soviet empire’ failed, but also in how the remaining ‘US empire’ could survive as a global power and how the new-born European Union could thrive and, like the large empires in history, manage its diverse populations. The great number of studies dedicated since the 1990s to forms of rule that were different from the familiar ‘nation-state’ have come to be known as the ‘imperial turn.’
Yet despite the term’s seeming clarity, it is by no means clear where these studies actually ‘turned’ to. After three decades of empirical research and theorizing, ‘empire’ remains an elusive concept. For example, while the flexible management of diverse populations was one of ‘empire’s’ initial attractions for scholars in the 1990s, some have also emphasized the importance of a dominant if not repressive center. Other points of conceptual vagueness include the potential differences between premodern and modern empires or the questions whether so-called continental empires were different from the more familiar European colonial sea-borne empires, and whether practices or repertoires are more important than ideologies in defining empires. Many of these themes are connected to the overarching issue of ‘the state’ in empire. Some argue that empire is simply a different type of state or polity, while others point at political transfers and a significant degree of ‘state formation’ within empires. In short, these theoretical discussions are about the different aims and methods of political and economic development and integration, and more fundamentally about the best way to study empires.
This panel reflects on these theoretical and methodological concerns of ‘empire’ by focusing on the politics of the environment. In recent years, (former) ‘empires’ like Russia, China and India (former colony too) have stated that it is unfair to ask them to switch from coal to sustainable energy too quickly, because ‘they are not yet as far’ as fully ‘industrialized’ Western states. This raises the issue whether empires indeed were merely a prelude to state modernization and industrialization, explaining the developmental ‘lag’, or should be considered an altogether different historical trajectory of (uneven and unfair?) political and social-economic development. But of course the politics of the environment is involved in more than energy and climate policies alone – think of urban design and construction logistics, the distribution of health measures and their impact on human-nature relations or the effects of colonial expansion and retraction on the production and transportation of ‘natural resources.’ But although these matters are very political, it remains unclear whether we can or should study such politics in ‘empire’ the same way as elsewhere. Therefore this panel asks the question: what can we gain from ‘an imperial perspective’ on the politics of the environment? And how to properly write ‘the environment’ into empires when the latter is marked by conceptual vagueness?
Chair: Alessandra Schimmel (PhD Candidate, Utrecht University)
Discussant: Wim van Meurs (Professor in European political history, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)
Dr. Noelle Richardson (Leiden University)
Noelle Richardson is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of History, Leiden University as part of the Dutch Research Council project Exploiting the Empire of Others. Her area of expertise is the 18th and 19th century history of South Asia and the Indian Ocean with a particular emphasis for the Estado da Índia, and the history of state-society interactions through the perspective of local actors. Prior to joining Leiden she was a lecturer in political history at Utrecht University and completed her PhD at the European University Institute and her MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford.
The politics of power and the politics of the environment: Hindu merchants, the Portuguese imperial polity and the mutual exploitation of natural resources in the Estado da Índia of the eighteenth century.
How do we approach the study of an imperial polity that failed to achieve political or commercial hegemony but which nevertheless had a profound impact on the people and environment under control? This paper will discuss the limits of the Portuguese Estado da Índia focusing on its relationship of mutual dependency and the local Hindu mercantile community during the long eighteenth century. To what extent does this relationship challenge existing conceptualisations of empire and strengthen the broader argument that the Estado (as one key example) should be categorised as an imperial polity rather than a colonial state?
The focus will then shift to the more tangible consequences of this relationship of political and commercial interdependence and its impact on the environment and landscape of the Estado. Given their central role the procurement, import and export of commodities, how were Hindu merchants crucial to the imperial mission of the period aimed at greater self-sufficiency and commercial development through the greater exploitation of agricultural resources and the expansion of trade infrastructure? This case study will add further nuance to our understanding of how changes to the natural environment(s) of imperial spaces were profoundly shaped by power negotiations in the political sphere and the result of a stronger constellation of interests between imperial and local commercial agents than otherwise expected.
Prof. dr. Ulrike von Hirschhausen (University of Rostock)
Prof. Dr. Ulrike von Hirschhausen teaches Modern European and Global History at the University of Rostock. She has specialized on Empires on the 19th and 20th century. In 2023 her new book Empires will come out with C.H. Beck publisher.
Environment as an imperial means of warfare: The Caucasus War 1830-1860
Environment and Empire were closely knitted means of policy in imperial Russia. Looking at concrete strategies of warfare can illustrate how the Russian Empire used environment also as a means against its enemies. In the colonial war, which Russian forces waged against the Caucasian leader Shamil and his Jihad-state, environmental tactics played a pivotal role on both sides. The paper will argue why environment became a central tool of politics in colonial wars and how it affected other spheres of society beyond the battlefield later on.
Leonoor Zuiderveen Borgesius MA (University of Oslo)
I am a PhD candidate at the Department for Culture Studies at the University of Oslo. My research focusses on the practices, politics, and principles of civil engineers in the Netherlands and Suriname between 1880 and 1930. It concentrates on the colonial histories of infrastructure from an environmental history perspective. I was a guest researcher at the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters.
On environmental history, development thinking, and a history of the Dutch Empire. The case of Suriname in the early 20th century.
Environmental historians have started to draw attention to the consequences of colonialism as an extractivist practice that has permanently altered the ecologies and geologies of the planet. This paper takes the connection between environmental degradation and the ideological foundations of colonial power as a lens to investigate the historical roots of the temporal trajectories of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ that continue to inform political debate about climate action.
To illustrate, I draw upon the example of the Lawa-railroad in Suriname. It was built between 1902 and 1909 and ran from the capital Paramaribo to the Surinamese interior. Engineers anticipated that the mechanization of transport would incentivize large-scale exploitation of gold-deposits. However, the railroad turned out to be redundant and expensive, and the construction was halted half way through. The project became a symbol for the self- overestimation of the Dutch and shows the utopianist fallacy of development logics. Like in other colonial spaces, large infrastructure was seen as a symbol or vector, as well as product of the progressive trajectory of civilization and development. Colonial powers imagined themselves at the top of this hierarchy, and thereby ideologically legitimized their violent politics. Historical examination of the ways in which ‘development’ manifests as a self-evident model for political time and action opens up avenues for critical thinking about the lingering power dynamics of empire in times of climate crisis.
Paul van Dijk MA (University of Amsterdam)
I studied history at Utrecht University and am currently working on my PhD dissertation about the ‘imperial situation’ in the Russian empire, which focuses on changes in land use and the emergence of public health management in the provinces of Livland and Ufa between 1861 and 1917 in order to analyze what made these practices ‘imperial’, ‘modern’ or ‘hybrids’.
Knowing the Imperial, Understanding Its Environment: The ‘Imperial Situation’ of Changing Land Use and Public Health in Two Peripheries of the Russian Empire, Livland and Ufa provinces, 1861-1917.
I think it is necessary to consider empires not as ‘types of states’, but as the predominance of certain social and political attitudes that produce particular practices; this ‘imperial situation’ denotes the prevalence of attitudes that are not troubled by having incongruent principles of organization. This means that writing a history of the environment in empires might work very well if you take the environment itself as the starting point, but it might not accurately reflect how ‘the political’ in empires work. I would argue that addressing the variable imperial hierarchies is very important to writing the politics of the environment and will focus on (changing) ideas about land use and public health of two peripheral provinces of the Russian empire, ‘European’ Livland in the Baltics and ‘Eastern’ Ufa on the Kazakh steppe. I show that changes to the regional environment were not merely shaped by existing imperial hierarchies, but that these very changes created new diversities and hierarchies too. This explains evident regional differences even when the Russian empire was consciously modernizing and suggests that it is necessary to know ‘the imperial’ to properly understand the politics of environment and diverging or even unequal environmental changes within empires.
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Conference venue: KNAW TrippenhuisConference venue: KNAW TrippenhuisKloveniersburgwal 29 1011JV Amsterdam Netherlands