This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on January 24, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Environmentalism: A Global History, by Ramachandra Guha. New York: Longman (2000), xiii, 161 pp.


Reviewed by Kathryn Hochstetler, Department of Political Science, Colorado State University

Environmentalism: A Global History is best read as a short but ambitious text that will introduce readers to a series of environmental thinkers from across the globe.  In Guha’s own explanation of the book, “this is a historical account and analysis of the origins and expressions of environmental concern, of how individuals and institutions have perceived, propagated, and acted upon their experience of environmental decay” (p. 2).  As such, it is not a history of the environment itself, which he leaves to scientists, but a history of environmental ideas.  In just 145 pages of text, Guha covers many of the most prominent environmental thinkers over the last two centuries, and adds a few lesser known as well.  The thinkers are placed in their social contexts, with particular attention to the unfolding of industrial and colonial (and post-) processes.  Taken as a whole, the book is well written and engaging; I think it would be successful as a text chosen to instigate discussion of global and historical varieties of environmentalism.

Guha divides the book into two halves, one for each of two waves of global environmentalism.  In the first wave, which began in the 1860s and continued through the interwar period, three varieties of environmental thought competed to construct a diagnosis of environmental degradation and an alternative vision to it: the “back to the land” movement, the scientific conservation movement, and the wilderness movement.  The “back to the land” movement found strong adherents in England and Germany, as industrialization brought a revival of agrarian sentiment.  Pre-industrialized India also contributed a more practical agrarian thinker in Mahatma Gandhi, who read Carpenter and Ruskin while studying in England.  Scientific conservation, characterized by a concern with environmental degradation and confidence in science’s ability to reverse that degradation, also took root in Britain and Germany before spreading elsewhere.  Global transmission of the ideas of scientific conservation was more direct and custodial, as colonial powers established state-run departments to manage their colonies’ forests, soil, water, wildlife, and fisheries.  Guha strongly criticizes these management efforts on both social and environmental grounds, preferring Japan’s indigenous forest science.  Similarly, colonial rule spread the wilderness idea to Europe’s colonies, with protection of native wildlife often taking priority over native peoples.  The wilderness thinking of the Americans John Muir and Aldo Leopold (born in Germany) is presented more sympathetically, with attention to their differences as well as their shared appreciation for non-human species.

The first wave of environmentalism ended with an interlude of  “ecological innocence” after World War II, when both North and South were committed to economic growth through technology.  Dissenters from technological optimism ­ Sauer, Mumford, Schumacher, Mira Behn (in India) ­ were easily ignored in the industrialized world, and the newly independent countries sought economic liftoff on the western path, not a renewed village economy.

With numerous others, Guha dates the beginning of the second wave of environmentalism to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which he extols for its impact and quality.  Across the globe, the second wave added an environmentally engaged public to the previously expert arena of environmental thought.  Guha organizes his discussion of the second wave with three chapters on what would once have been called the first, second, and third worlds.  Among the affluent, both the threat of impending doom and the desire to consume nature as another good drove the steady growth of the environmental movement after 1962 (Guha’s data end with 1991).  Guha differentiates deep ecologists from environmental justice activists in American radical environmentalism.  A section on the German Greens, “the finest achievement of the second wave of environmentalism” (p. 97), completes this chapter.  Guha cites Gandhian influences in all of these branches of modern environmentalism, but still sees a strong polarization between this environmentalism of the affluent and the environmentalism of the poor of the next chapter.  He rejects the hypothesis of Inglehart and others that environmental concern belongs to the wealthy, but notes a change in its concerns.  When peasants and indigenous peoples of Malaysia, India, Thailand, and Brazil mobilize on environmental issues, they link environmentalism to social justice and livelihood concerns.  Sections comparing Brazil to India and Chico Mendes’ rubber tappers to the Chipko movement offer some rare extended concrete examples of environmental thought in action.  Finally, a brief chapter on environmentalism (or the lack thereof) in the Soviet Union and in China serves mostly to underline that the strongest debate of the second wave is that between North and South.

A concluding chapter argues that a shared global common future would have to be based on a genuinely equitable and participatory global democracy.  In the absence of that democracy, concrete environmental debates will be conflict-ridden.  Yet Guha’s final word is that two ideas unite all the kinds of environmentalists he has discussed: restraint, in the sense of limits on behavior toward both the environment and other humans, and farsightedness, looking toward “a common future ­ and the multiple paths to get to it” (p. 145).

As should be clear from this summary, this global environmental history synthesizes a very broad array of environmental ideas, across both time and space.  As Guha himself says, this requires him to be “savagely selective” (p. 7).  Fitting the introductory nature of this book, the selection criteria favor the better-known thinkers and movements, but there are plenty of lesser-known stories to send the more experienced reader to the bibliographic essay at the end.  (This is especially useful since there are few citations in the text, and no conventional bibliography.)

The first part of the book, on the first wave of environmentalism, best achieves Guha’s two aims:  to present a “trans-national perspective on the environmental debate” and “to document the flow of ideas across cultures” (p. 8).  In this section, we see clear linkages across cultures as travel, reading, and colonial institutions moved ideas around the world both freely and by force.  These chapters show at once the global relevance of certain environmental ideas, such as wilderness, and their very different local meanings depending on where, how, and by whom they are put into practice.

In the second section, on the second wave, there is much less attention to the transnational flow of environmental ideas, despite the fact that global news reports, the internet, and international travel and meetings have shrunk the effective distance between peoples.  This is especially noteworthy in the chapter on the southern challenge, where several of the examples Guha uses are commonly cited as classic instances of international advocacy networks (see Keck and Sikkink 1998).  Guha stresses their domestic origins, which are certainly also a part of the story, but his references to the “prolific the international media” (p. 119) do not do justice to the transnational flow of ideas, perspectives, and activists at work.  Similarly, he misses the ways that at least parts of the environmental justice movements of the north were inspired by their southern counterparts.  I would have liked to see a fuller analysis of transnational environmentalism as we turn into the 21st century.  Is it, as some have argued, a new variant of the 19th century’s colonial relations?  Could it be, in contrast, a manifestation of the more equitable and participatory global democracy Guha seeks?

Throughout the book, Guha’s characteristic post-colonial critiques give the book a consistent perspective, which will challenge the northern students who are likely to be among the book’s readers.  Because of its focus on environmental thinkers across the globe, it is not the best presentation of the complexities of Guha’s own perspective, however.  For that, I prefer some of his other works, such as Ecology and Equity (with Madhav Gadgil, 1995) and Varieties of Environmentalism:  Essays North and South (with Juan Martinez Alier, 1997).

References Cited:

Gadgil, Madhav, and Ramachandra Guha. 1995. Ecology and Equity: The Use of Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India.  New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Guha, Ramachandra, and Juan Martinez-Alier. 1997. Varieties of Environmentalism:  Essays North and South.  London: Earthscan.

Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.