Adding Environment to the Picture

This post is part of a roundtable discussion on two historiographic articles by Joseph Hodge published in recent issues of Humanity. For more about the roundtable and all currently available posts please see this page.

Joe Hodge has done a great service with this insightful article. A good review should summarize, analyze, and situate existing literature but also point to new roads to walk down. This piece does exactly that. I find two of Hodge’s main points particularly important. The first is that “a more dynamic, multidimensional, and multifocal framework is needed” (158). Hodge rightly criticizes studies that paint development as monolithic and unchanging. And second, that “the contributions and perspectives of officials and peoples from the global south have been inadequately recognized” (158). This is difficult to do, but absolutely crucial. We need many more stories told from the perspective of not just the program planners but also the implementers and the ordinary people—themselves not a monolithic group!—who have seen wave after wave of development crash over them. Although I am very aware of power differentials and power’s ability to shape interests and knowledge, I fear that many critics of development sometimes focus so singlemindedly on the power of the outside program designers and implementers that they, like those they are critiquing, overlook the voices of ordinary people. Yes, of course power narrowed options, but there was also a lot of negotiation and adaptation.

Another aspect of Hodge’s essay that I find refreshing is Hodge’s explicit call for a history that is useful to development practitioners. Hodge wants development practitioners and policymakers to pay more attention to scholarship about development, especially historical scholarship. There are, of course, other important reasons for researching the history of development but I find this practical mission very important. Thus I worry that some critics of development paint themselves into a theoretical corner. The sometimes explicit, sometimes underacknowledged implications of their work often suggests that effective development is, when it comes right down to it, simply not possible. I’m not comfortable with that conclusion either intellectually or morally. Although I see and criticize the tremendous harm that development has done (and continues to do) and work closely with people who live with those problems (long after the project has ended and the implementers have gone home), I’m not willing to say that the barriers to good development are so great that we should end all programs and pull back to the borders. Historians should rightly hesitate to prescribe solutions, but I get frustrated with theoretical positions that seem, sometimes explicitly but often without realizing it, to close down all option, to pose no way out.

I fear that important works by historians and other academics get dismissed out of hand by many practitioners. Perhaps this is because those practitioners are not willing to confront the tough issues we bring up. Or perhaps it is because we sometimes (please note the qualifier) fill our writings with unnecessary jargon, speak too much to each other, write as if practitioners are all political hacks or naive dullards, and ignore what is happening on the ground in the real world. (I’m overstating the case here to make a point.) Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the works Hodge holds up as intricate and nuanced history is by Tanya Li, an anthropologist. Although also prone to the same pitfalls that historians fall into, anthropologists get into the field in a way that forces them to rub shoulders with people and practitioners and confront the material reality of developing world locations.

In the essay Hodge suggests environmental topics as an area of development history needing more exploration, affirming the core argument I make in a recent Cold War History article.[1] Weaving together environmental and development history, I point out, can yield great insights. Put simply, environmental history calls for examining the role of the biophysical world in history. It is materialist history where the material—the soil, rock, water, animals, plants, and pathogens—actually matters, but power and culture do not fall out of the picture. The best environmental histories show how these material things—some living, some not—shape human history and get shaped by human history in important and lasting ways. Indeed, the biophysical interweaves with human cultural and political history in a dance often so longstanding and complicated that it is hard to tell where the lines separating human and non-human fall.[2]

Most if not all development projects have significant environmental dimensions. That’s true not just because all human activity has significant environmental dimensions but also because most development projects involved shifting ideas, practices, and technologies from one environmental context to another and aimed at transforming nature in significant and often radically different ways. Indeed, “development” and “modernity,” terms not always well defined by historical actors or historians, often meant natural resource development or environmental transformation. Thus, just as the historical and cultural context of a development project is crucial, so too is its biophysical context. (Indeed, these are all interwoven.) The importance of environment and environmental context is clearly visible in several of the books that Hodge discusses, such as David Biggs’ Quagmire, a self-described environmental history that places water—and human ideas and practices related to water—at the very center of the story. But it is also visible, if not thoroughly examined, in other works. It only takes a light scratch on the surface of most development histories, including James Scott’s Seeing Like a State or Nick Cullather’s Hungry World, to find very significant environmental stories.

That said, most of the environmental history of development that exists, whether explicitly environmental history or not, has focused on three absolutely crucial but still somewhat limited subjects: dams, “green revolution” hybrid seeds and agriculture, and human health and disease. These works contain important insights, but for the historian interested in stories that weave together technology, politics, and the natural world, great swathes of relatively unexamined territory await exploration, including programs in transportation, urbanization, animals and animal disease, energy, forestry, “natural” disasters, mineral development, and tourism. Also relatively unexplored, despite an important recent study by Stephen Macekura, are the more explicitly environmental programs that became an increasingly large and central part of international development in the 1970s and 1980s.[3]

But environmental history can do more than just add new topics to the list of subjects needing examination, it can change the way we understand development and its legacy. I will discuss four ways it can do so.

First, it can tell us more about the origins of development, at least on the American side. Harry Truman’s Point Four programs calling for “the better use of the world’s human and natural resources” did not come from nowhere. Although historians have noted this, rarely is Point Four connected to natural resource development and conservation programs, particularly those that grew out of the US Midwest and West. One of the key influences on Truman was Gifford Pinchot, the former chief of the US Forest Service and grandfather of American conservation, who had been lobbying Franklin Roosevelt since the early 1940s and later Truman for a global conference on natural resource management. Many of the footsoldiers implementing development overseas were former or current workers for the US Department of Interior and the US Department of Agriculture. “The areas where technical cooperation is being carried along,” Point Four administrator Stanley Andrews noted in 1953, using the language of conservationists, “are almost without exception areas of great resources, but these resources, both human and natural, have hardly begun to be utilized.[4] Seeing development through the lens of natural resources allows us to connect it to a longer tradition of frontier exploitation, capitalism, governmental regulation, and shifting ideas about technology.

Second, environmental history can also help widen the frame of discussion about development. One example is with thinking about population, one of the ideas most intricately wrapped together with development thinking during the middle decades of the twentieth century.[5] Population was never a story about just race and gender (as important as they were), but also about agriculture, economics, migration, urban growth, and pesticides and pollution.[6] Thinking about resources, space, technology, and conservation shaped development programs around the world. Thus, for some planners, ideas about international development were wrapped up with ideas about suburban sprawl, overcrowded national parks, and inner city riots. As I note in my book The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, the converse is also true: critics of development along environmental lines—some of the most influential critics of development writing long before historians got in the mix—helped spur 1960s environmentalism. Conservationists and biologists who criticized Point Four programs set environmental politics on a new and remarkably powerful course (one that would eventually feed back into international development program design in the 1970s). Indeed, just as we cannot understand development without thinking about environment, we cannot understand the history of environmentalism without thinking about development.

Third, and perhaps most important, the environment provides an important lens through which to understand the implementation and impacts of development programs on the ground and in villages and towns, one of Hodge’s main points. This could work on multiple levels. The environment can provide a window onto the every day experience of practitioners and local populations. I sometimes like to think of the 1950s development programs in Nepal that I examine as the meeting ground of the tribe of the chemical and fossil fuel people and the tribe of those who cook with wood or manure, work with animals, and walk where they need to, often carrying loads on their shoulders. (I’m oversimplifying, of course). Understanding power on this level might give insight into the experiences and epistemology of program practitioners, and help explain the vast transformations they sometimes called for as well as their failures and shortcomings.

Similarly, environmental history can help document the long-term consequences of development projects. Some projects yield unintended environmental transformations and some created very intentional transformations, but, either way, these transformations usually continued for decades to shape the cultural, economic, and political lives of ordinary men and women. In my work, I examine the changes that came from a successful US-WHO-Nepali government project that almost overnight eradicated very deadly malaria from vast areas of Nepal, spurring huge migrations and other forms of development such as roads—big social and economic transformations that recently, many decades later, shaped the country’s civil war and constitutional upheaval. As Nick Cullather has shown, one of the longest lasting impacts of the US-led dam projects in Afghanistan during the 1950s and 1960s was the alkaline and saline soils that the dam and irrigation system left behind, problems which made growing traditional crops difficult but proved almost ideal for opium. Can we really understand the Taliban and Afghanistan’s recent troubles without understanding opium growing? In other words, many development programs literally remade the world, and we still live in that world.

Fourth, environmental history can give a tool for addressing one of the key questions of development history, how to compare one program with another. Such comparisons can be made by looking at the intentions or politics of the programs. But they also can be compared by examining the scale and intensity of the transformations involved, especially their environmental transformations. In his essay, Hodge notes that in my Cold War History review, I claim that Cold War development programs differed from earlier programs, despite some continuities, because of their “total” approach (p. 158). As part of the larger question of whether development programs could be seen as militarized landscapes (the theme of the CWH issue), I suggest that development programs of the 1950s and 1960s often took on an intensity, urgency, structure, and scale of operation associated with the technologies of “total” war, particularly those developed in World War II (and, later, the Cold War), such as hybrid seeds, DDT, aerial photography, bulldozers, and penicillin. The larger point here is that environmental approaches can give concrete ways to compare colonial and postcolonial development programs, communist and capitalist programs, governmental and nongovernmental program, and high modernist and low modernist programs.[7]

Thanks again to Joe Hodge for his excellent and thought-provoking article.


[1] Thomas Robertson, “Cold War Landscapes: Towards an Environmental History of US Development Programmes in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cold War History (2015): 1–25, available online, doi:10.1080/14682745.2014.950238.

[2] Paul S. Sutter, “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100, no. 1 (June 1, 2013): 94–119.

[3] Stephen J. Macekura, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[4] Stanley Andrews, “Address to the Southern Branch of the American Public Health Association Conference, Atlanta, Georgia,” April 25, 1953, Box 10, Stanley Andrews Papers, Truman Library, 9.

[5] Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[6] Alison Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2014); Thomas Robertson, Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[7] For a comparison of communist and capitalist development programs along environmental lines, see Michael Adas, Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

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About Tom Robertson

Tom Robertson teaches foreign relations and environmental history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is author of The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (Rutgers University Press, 2012). A more recent work is “Cold War Landscapes: Toward An Environmental History of U.S. Development Programs in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cold War History (In press, available on line). Tom's current research examines the environmental history of US development projects in Cold War Nepal, focusing on five case studies—the Rapti Valley Development Project (1950s), Malaria Eradication (1960s), Land Reform (1960s), Population and Environment Programs (1970s), and Chitwan National Park (1960s and 1970s). With Jenny Leigh Smith (Georgia Tech), Tom is editing Transplanting Modernity?: New Histories of Environment and Development, a collected volume of articles on the comparative environmental history of international development.