Roundtable Environmental History of Asia: Accomplishments and Trends

AHA Session 79
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 5
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Roosevelt Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, Yale University
David Biggs, University of California, Riverside
Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago
Mahesh Rangarajan, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, Yale University

Session Abstract

Compared to other histories of Asia – of nationalism, trade, agrarian change, or religions, to take but a few examples – the environmental history of Asia must be considered a stripling, if not a babe in the woods. Yet, much has happened in the last three decades to bolster the claim that it is now a robust, exciting, and ever-growing field of inquiry in which, probably more than others, we can witness the fruitful collaboration of historians and scholars in other disciplines. The resulting corpus of work, especially for the modern period, is impressive. We know, for instance, in some detail about Dutch and British colonial forestry and its effects on forests and agriculture in insular Southeast Asia and South Asia. The impact of industrial-scale agriculture, in the form of plantations – of tea, spices, rubber – across countries like Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, on farming, borderlands, ethnic minorities, and migration has been revealed in studies that have creatively combined environmental history and the history of state formation or the history of relations between people in uplands and lowlands, people who pursued mobile livelihoods and others who settled in river valleys for dense concentrations on wet rice cultivation. Environmental history has been slow to begin, but is making appreciable progress in Japan and China, where, too, forests and agriculture, have been at the center of emerging environmental scholarship.

We can delve deeper into the lessons that environmental history has taught us about other aspects of Asian History, but we can also reflect on areas of environmental history that remain largely unexplored, starting with human-animal relations, the trade in natural commodities and extracted resources, or the transport of precious gems and minerals. We should also discuss the ways in which the field of urban history may be approached from more explicitly environmental perspectives like urban ecology or green design and the history of infrastructure and energy.  The twentieth century, especially, holds important lessons for the environmental consequences of high modernism, surely an experience that most parts of Asia have failed to escape. Be it for large dams or multipurpose landscape engineering projects, or the translocation of millions of people into frontiers targeted for settlement and intensive development, Asian lands from Sumatra to various parts of China, Laos to remote locations in the Philippines, have been transformed by physical and social alterations remarkable in their intensity and rapidity. 

The growth of oceanic history, and the history of transnational flows and connections, that has generated multiple perspectives for the examination of Inter-Asia, also holds great promise for environmental history. As do histories of climate and cataclysmic disasters – tsunami, deadly epidemics, or devastating earthquakes - that mock the boundaries within which Asian histories have often worked. This round table would also reflect on the opportunities for new scholarship that such greater regional histories might find, as Asian historians traverse new terrain with new questions about environment, state, society, and politics.

See more of: AHA Sessions