Green Imperialism

Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.*

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism was especially interesting to me because just a couple of days prior to reading it, I saw a query on a Web discussion site about the origins of environmentalism in the U.S., and most people who responded linked its emergence with the popularization of Native American traditions (the “Ecological Indian”) and to Hollywood westerns (I’m not quite sure why). Nobody mentioned Thoreau, but one knowledgeable person did reference Theophrastus and deforestation in ancient Britain. Thus, Grove’s account of the role of European colonial expansion in tropicalEdens” in the creation of the modern concept of environmentalism adds a valuable global perspective to histories that focus primarily on North America (like William Cronon) and emphasize American issues, such as national parks, and historic American figures such as John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt.

Grove traces the ancient roots of environmental thinking and argues that European ideas about conservation were well developed by the mid-eighteenth century. He explores the cultural metaphors and images the Europeans used to identify and categorize their responses to the natural environments they encountered in their “discoveries” in the tropics, and identifies two primary themes: the island and the garden (which was also a powerful image in American conceptions of the landscape, as explored in classic works such as Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth). These symbols promised redemption and the hope of Paradise; and such religious and cultural ideas were highly influential in molding human responses to ecological deterioration. In fact, Grove asserts that “at the core of environmental concerns lay anxiety about society and its discontents” (p. 14), but this is not entirely convincing, as most of his evidence appears to indicate that usually very real and pragmatic concerns about fuel and water provided the impetus for conservation efforts. Social “discontents,” in other words, may be a direct consequence of degraded environmental conditions, and the economic and technological developments that produce them.

However, Grove makes a number of important points about the intersections of culture, science, and the natural environment. As European states became secularized and began to rely more heavily on statistical data and empirical knowledge, doctors and scientists became more important in shaping government policies regarding resource management and public health. He notes that island deforestation stemmed not just from capitalism, but also from medical theories about disease and unhealthy forest conditions and colonial preferences for manicured, park-like European landscapes. The colonial botanical garden had medical and therapeutic purposes and was a barometer of the state of European ecological knowledge, and the tropical island became the “focus for understanding natural processes and a metaphor for handling new ideas about nature, ‘new worlds,’ and social Utopias” (p. 95).

European expansion in the tropics is not usually viewed today as a positive development for either tropical environments or the people who originally inhabited them, but Grove’s analysis of the complex role of colonialism in the origins of Western environmentalism is intriguing and adds a useful global dimension to the topic.

*Another reaction paper from a reading seminar in U.S. and global environmental history.

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