Insights from Richard Grove: Imperial Conservationism

by tigermanifesto


Reading history in academia often means gutting and flaying a book like fresh snapper. The practice transforms an object with intrinsic worth and literary integrity into a utilitarian conversation piece. Analogies like “strip-mining” and “gutting” try to capture some of the violence of this practice, which is conditioned by necessity and enforced by convention. Only rarely, therefore, do books read for class have an immediate emotional impact on me.

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, or Green Imperialism to its friends, made an unusual impression on me as I read it. Hastily turning pages and searching for topic sentences, I lamented that I was not able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the book and its argument. Nonetheless, I wanted to present some excerpts from the book with light commentary with the intent of sharing its virtues.

Insight 1: Physiocrats and Bureaucrats

“The environments of tropical islands thus became even more highly prized, so that it may come as no surprise to discover that it was upon one of them, Mauritius, that the early environmental debate acquired its most comprehen- sive form. Under the influence of zealous French anti-capitalist physiocrat reformers and their successors between 1768 and 1810, this island became the location for some of the earliest experiments in systematic forest conservation, water-pollution control and fisheries protection. These initiatives were carried out by scientists who characteristically were both followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and adherents of the kind of rigorous scientific empiricism associated with mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment botany. Their innovative forest-conservation measures were based on a highly developed awareness of the potentially global impact of modern economic activity, on a fear of the climatic consequences of deforestation and, not least, on a fear of species extinctions.”

–Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, 11.

For those without the patience for blockquotes, I’ll summarize: tropical islands became on of Western environmentalism’s first theatres of struggle. Under the influence of the Physiocrats, early political economists who thought agriculture was the only truly productive economic activity, French intendants in places like Mauritius implemented conservation regimes. Tropical islands were especially important areas for the development of Western imperialist environmentalism because it was there that the contradictions between colonial resource extraction and the vitality of natural systems was the most obvious. In other words, islands are small, vulnerable places that are both more easily experimented on and more easily drained of resources.

So much for a brief summary of the material contradictions that incited these attempts to design and implement conservation policies. Another aspect that Grove emphasizes is the European association of tropical islands with Eden and paradise.

The increasing empiricism of travel literature derived simply from the greater frequency and regularity of long-distance travel. During the seventeenth cen- tury, as the work of John Donne suggests, the axis of interest began to shift away from the Americas towards the East, where a growing intellectual and Orientalist curiosity was developing alongside commercial concerns…Because of their geographical position astride the trade routes, St Helena and Mauritius became naturally prominent in this literature. Both islands were important staging posts on the Cape and Indian trading routes. Being uninhabited, they were peculiarly amenable to the kinds of projection and Edenic treatment described above. To sailors exhausted and weakened by long voyages, they were veritable paradises, bowers of untouched woodlands made up of plant species and inhabited by birds never before seen by man.

Green Imperialism, 42.

Tropical islands, especially uninhabited ones like Mauritius, embodied the aspirations of people who wanted a clean break from a morally unclean world. Aside from the real relief they provided to sailors, they also captivated travellers and writers, including Shakespeare. It now seems apparent to me that ideologies of protecting untouched nature or an edenic paradise and the “empty land” ideologies of settler-colonialism share a common nature. That is, they fabricate an ideal to which the land must conform and produce that imagined space in the real world, displacing previous inhabitants where they exist. Indeed, liberal and reactionary environmentalism often dominate over the radical kind, and even the physiocrats put up a stronger anti-capitalism than many present-day green activists we’re familiar with.

I plan on reading Green Imperialism more thoroughly over the next few weeks. At some point, I may produce a full review of the book. For now, I have presented some of its key insights, which are developed with rich detail and an admirable attention to method in the book. I am still grappling with its underlying thesis, but I feel fairly sure of its relevance to us: the periphery of the colonial system was the place where the contradictions of capitalism and the environment first became apparent. That thesis is just as true in the era of climate change as it was when the dodo was just going extinct.