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Sunday, January 1, 2012



31.1 Introduction

31.2 How Europe Perceived the New Lands

31.3 The Importing of New Plant and Animal Species

31.4 The Wiping Out of the Indigenous Peoples

31.5 Were Human Beings Directly Responsible or Only Indirectly?

31.6 The Impact on Existing Ecosystems

31.7 Coal Mining

31.8 Changing the Face of Nature: The New England Example

31.9 Turning Forests into Cultivable Land --- The Case of Northern India

31.10 The Coming of the Railways

31.11 The Development of an Ecological Awareness

31.12 Summary

31.13 Exercises


The Industrial Revolution changed the lives of people in Europe in a most dramatic way. It brought them from the countryside to the city in search of jobs; it changed their life patterns, created new tastes and recreations. Most significantly, it saw the organization of production of goods on a scale never known before. Factories required fuel and raw material. As new industrial townships came up there was a huge demand for construction material like bricks, in the manufacture of which large quantities of wood were required. There was also a growing need for food grain to feed the growing urban population.

How did all this impact on nature? In a very big way because it was Mother Nature alone that could provide all the materials required for this major change. The most noticeable change was the conversion of wooded or forest lands to cultivable tracts. Millions of hectares of land were brought under cultivation. The well-known historian E.J. Hobsbawm, in his book Age of Capital 1848-1875, tells us that Sweden more than doubled its crop area between 1840 and 1880, Italy and Denmark expanded it by more than half, Germany and Hungary by about a third. In southern Italy and its islands, about 600,000 hectares of trees disappeared between 1860 and 1911. Forests and grasslands, which were teeming with biodiversity, were made to give way to the simplifications of commercial agriculture. This brought major ecological changes, which we will discuss later in this Unit.

New industrial cities brought unhealthy living and pollution in its wake. In England and later in Europe, writers, poets and painters recoiled at the ugliness of the new urban centres. Some writers like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell described the squalor in their novels. Here is an account of an English industrial town in Elizabeth Gaskell’s
16 novel, North and South:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay…Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, helpless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black
‘unparliamentary’ smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which
Margaret had taken to foretell rain.

The Romantic poets and painters turned their faces away from the squalor and desperately sought to return to nature. They believed that outside the city survived a lost innocence, which they respected and venerated. Their passion moved the general public. From 1865 onwards numerous societies like the Commons Preservation Society, the Lake District Defence Society and others, which we will refer to later, emerged. But there was no setting the clock back. Capitalism had come to stay and it was like a hungry giant, whose appetite for raw material and markets was insatiable. This hunger could only be fed by exploiting the colonies of Asia, Africa and the Americas, which were very rapidly coming under European control.

This was one of the dilemmas of development. On the one hand there was progress. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the centuries of major developments in science and technology. While one branch of science concentrated on uncovering the laws of nature, another was committed to harnessing nature to the needs of capitalist development. The lives of men and women were being transformed as never before. There were new conveniences to be enjoyed but there were, at the same time, new health hazards and new natural disasters to contend with. The negative consequences of the new developments were recognized rather early in the day – in fact in the nineteenth century itself. The problem of nature was understood to be a serious one and policy makers had to strike a balance between maintaining the existing natural order and disturbing it. At the same time development could not be compromised, especially at a time when each nation was involved in the race to surpass the other.

What made the whole issue more complex was Imperialism. Since this was the era of imperialist expansion and colonial exploitation, the dilemmas of development would involve not just Europe but Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia as well. Given the equation between the imperialist powers and their colonies, it was only to be expected that the ecological changes would be on a much larger scale in the colonies.


In fact, these changes had begun even prior to the Industrial Revolution. Even as the Europeans moved out of their homelands, fired by a new spirit of adventure or because of a sudden population increase, as occurred around the 1750s, or because of religious persecution at home or in order to make profit through trade, they triggered off many ecological changes in the new lands they entered. Their attitudes towards the new regions they inhabited were varied. Some saw the lush green tropical areas as the lost Eden. The French navigator, Louise Antoine de Bougainville arrived in Tahiti in the South Pacific in 1768 and thought that he had been transported into the Garden of Eden. The natural abundance of the tropics seemed to contrast with the frugality of nature in Europe. Another type of reaction, at the other extreme, was of hostility towards
the existing flora and fauna. The marshes and swamps were seen as breeding grounds 17

Dilemmas of Development of disease and must be cleared. A third type of reaction was of interest in the exploitability of these natural resources and their commercial value. Here, nature was seen as inexhaustible and waiting to be put to “productive” use. If, in the process of tapping natural resources, much of the existing natural vegetation and animals were destroyed, that could not be helped. The superior forces of Europe were merely prevailing over the inferiorities of the rest of the world. It was an assertion of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.


When the settlers came to the New World, (North and South America), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other lesser-known parts of the world, they brought with them the plants and animals they were familiar with. These plants and animals formed an important part of their diet. For instance, the Europeans brought in the pig to many colonies, because it was a rich and convenient source of food.

But soon the species multiplied so rapidly that it became a menace, competing with human beings for the land and its resources. The new animals also needed certain kinds of fodders and grasses for their sustenance. These grasses were often imported from the home countries and would spread like wild fire. Existing grasses and weeds were wiped out as a result. Alfred Crosby in his Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, explains how, along with other regular plants, a large variety of weeds also found their way across the seas into the new lands. In the case of Australia, the onslaught of European plants and weeds began in 1778 when the first expedition sailed from Britain to Botany Bay. Most of the northern parts of Australia as well as its interior were too hot and dry for European seeds and grasses. So it was in the southern coasts and Tasmania that Europe’s flora took root. They wiped out other indigenous plants in this region.

Like the weeds and the pigs, rabbits could also be uncontrollable. In 1859 some rabbit species were released in southeast Australia. They multiplied in such alarming numbers that they began competing with the sheep for grasses and herbs. It was much the same story in New Zealand, which had been annexed by the British in 1840. Here, since there were no large native predators, all the Old World livestock that had been introduced
– i.e. horses, goats, pigs and sheep – multiplied very rapidly and soon outstripped the
human population. What made the New Zealand story even more distressing was the fact that the flora and fauna here was extremely unique, since they had evolved in isolation for some 80 million years.

Sir Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist who made a fortune mining diamonds, introduced the Himalayan Tahr, a long-haired mountain goat to South Africa in the 1920s. It was considered an exotic specie and some three or four specimens were brought for a zoo at the base of the Table Mountains. The goats, however, escaped from the zoo and multiplied. Soon they had established a colony and began to run riot, threatening the natural habitat of the region. These goats are now considered such a menace that the South African National Parks authority has taken a decision to eliminate these animals. But that decision has triggered a controversy and a group of animal lovers in Cape Town have now formed a support group called Friends of the Tahr (FOTT) to rehabilitate this near-extinct species.


So there were two types of ecological changes: the intended and the unintended. Both had very far-reaching consequences and usually upset the ecological balance of the regions where they appeared. As we have seen above, even the intended changes ended up having unintentional repercussions. And these repercussions could affect not only plant and animal species but also entire races of humans, as will be seen below. And this in turn could have important political consequences.


Just as the introduction of new animal and plant species sometimes resulted in the wiping out of the indigenous species, so too the coming of Europeans to the New World could mean the extermination of large sections of the existing population in that region. In Central and South America, for instance, the Aztecs and the Incas were suddenly exposed to the smallpox virus when the Spaniards arrived in the second decade of the sixteenth century. Since they had no immunity to this disease, it spread rapidly and caused huge loss of lives. This led to political collapse and demoralization, as a result of which it became possible for a few hundred Spanish adventurers led by Hernan Cortes, to defeat the 5-million strong empire of Montezuma in the Mexico region. As for the Incas of Peru, the reigning Inca as well as his son and heir fell victim to smallpox and since there was no clear successor, the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro was able to exploit the ensuing disunity to conquer the area with ease.


The larger question that is raised by writings like those of Alfred Crosby is the extent to which human beings can be held responsible for ecological disasters. The title of Crosby’s book - Ecological Imperialism – The Biological Expansion of Europe is significant. It seems to suggest that the ecological impact of imperialism was not man-made but due to the biological changes that occurred when men and women moved into the new areas. Diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus and influenza were of common occurrence in Europe in any case and they only found a more congenial environment in the new areas that the Europeans travelled to. Critics of the Crosby type of explanation such as David Arnold in his book The Problem of Nature, say that it underplays the destructive aspect of human actions. Arnold argues that in the case of the Aztecs and the Incas, the other policies of the Spaniards i.e. of massacres, of forced labour in mines and plantations and the destruction of indigenous agriculture were also contributory to a significant population decline even before the arrival of smallpox in 1519.

The European conquerors also weakened the native population by appropriating their food reserves. Since most of these areas had a subsistence economy, i.e. the people produced just enough to meet their own immediate food requirements, their precarious nutritional balance broke down. They now became more susceptible to illnesses and subsequent death.

There is no doubt that major ecological changes were being triggered off in the areas occupied by the imperialists. Even if they were unintended, they suited imperial interests. The wiping out of indigenous plant and animal species and the killing off of native populations all fitted into a pattern and rendered easier the tasks of accommodating the surplus population of Europe and of creating a subsistence base for them.


Dilemmas of Development



Since most of the colonies had been acquired to fulfil the needs of industrialization, especially the growing demand for raw materials, the ecosystems of these areas were bound to be affected. All parts of the earth have their own natural ecosystems. These could be very small, like a simple pond, or an entire rain forest or a desert – it could even be the whole earth. Ecosystems have been compared to machines that run on and on automatically, checking themselves when they get too hot, speeding up when they get too slow and so on. However, when outside forces disturb these ecosystems, the equilibrium is affected and the entire system could collapse.

Environmental historians like Donald Worster, in The Ends of the Earth, tell us that for a long time the most dramatic environmental alterations came from the massive conversion of natural ecosystems into croplands. As mentioned before, immense tracts of forests and grasslands were cleared and brought under cultivation. The bio-complexity of these regions was lost. Species of plants and animals began to disappear at an alarming rate. As Worster puts it: “First it was one species every year, then one every day, soon it will be one every hour, one every half hour, one every 15 minutes.” There were plants on which man had depended for food, for medicines, for building materials and so much else for centuries. They now disappeared without a trace. Not only was the natural process of evolution suspended, it was even reversed.

Let us take up some examples of the effects of modern capitalist development on the colonies.


During the period of the industrial revolution coal was the major source of energy. As the industrial revolution gathered momentum, the demand for coal went up dramatically. Where was this coal to be obtained from? There were parts of Europe, which were rich in coal like Poland and southern Russia, and mining was carried out here. But another major source of coal was the Appalachian mountains of the United States. Here, the method of strip mining was used to extract coal. Vegetation was obviously removed to enable the mining to take place and once that happened, there were major landslides. These landslides destroyed neighbouring farmlands and even roads. River systems were also affected as sedimentation increased and the flowing capacity of streams and rivers was reduced. Apart from all these was the pollution – sulphuric wastes were generated and these entered the water system. It is estimated that in the Appalachian region, the waste from the mines polluted some 16,000 kilometres of waterways.

These were the effects of coal mining on the regions from which it was extracted. What about the places where coal was being used as a source of fuel? The burning of coal releases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which seriously affects the ozone layer. As is well known, it is the ozone layer that protects the earth from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. When the ozone layer gets depleted it can cause a variety of health problems.


New England was that part of North-Eastern America around present-day Massachusetts, which was colonized by Britain in the seventeenth century. The impetus for this colonization came from the Puritan movement for religious reform in England. In

the first quarter of the seventeenth century the Puritans faced discrimination from the local Anglican Church in England. Some of their leaders felt that the Puritan salvation lay in America, where they could set up a model church and state. Since 3,000 miles of ocean separated them from England, they would be free to govern this new land as they wished, with no interference from the home church. This was how the English settlement of New England came into being. By the early 1640s more than 20,000 Englishmen had made the pilgrimage to New England. The rates of population growth were also rather high.

This region had several kinds of furred animals, which were not known in Europe. There was the ocelot – a medium-sized cat with a striped deep yellow or orange coat; the coyote – a wolf-like wild dog and the bobcat – a small cat with a spotted reddish- brown coat. The skins of these animals began to become popular for fur coats in Europe and as they entered the European fur market, the large-scale destruction of these animals began. It is estimated that beaver skins comprised over half of England’s total fur imports between 1700 and 1775. Soon, beavers vanished from New England, their original habitat. Beavers are also builders of natural dams, and when the beavers disappeared, other species such as otters and muskrats were either flooded or frozen out. Many varieties of ducks and other birds that used to breed in beaver ponds also became extinct. The ponds themselves shrank into marshes and finally became meadows. Even larger animals like the moose (a large-antlered deer found in North America) and other varieties of deer were affected by the disappearance of beaver ponds because they used to escape from flies by standing in the cool water. Tree stumps that were cut down by beavers for building ponds used to sprout tender stalks and leaves on which deer, rabbits and hare fed.

By 1800 most game animals had dwindled in the New England area and by the mid- nineteenth century they had vanished. These included the white-tailed deer and the buffalo. The moose and the caribou disappeared a little later – i.e. by the beginning of the twentieth century.

But the Puritan settlers welcomed all this and rejoiced when the shrieks of the wild panther were replaced by the sound of Sunday church hymns and the busy hums of machines.


Most colonial states derived a large amount of their revenue from agriculture. Hence it was in the State’s interests to expand the area of cultivation. For this it was necessary to clear forestlands. In British India an 1894 document, which codified Governmental land use policy, clearly stated that there should be no hesitation in sacrificing forests where the demand for arable land could only be fulfilled in this way. Ironically, at the same time, Wilhelm Schlich, who was the Head of the Indian Forest Department, was waxing eloquent on how forests reduced the temperature of air and soil, regulated climate, increased rainfall, helped reduce violent floods and prevented occurrence of land slips, avalanches and siltation of rivers. He went on to add – all this in his Manual of Forestry — that forests also assisted in the production of oxygen and ozone and thus helped to improve the health of the country!

But to get back to our story of the Ganga Jamuna Doab. This region, in present day Uttar Pradesh, is the area lying between the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. From the foothills of the Himalayas the two rivers flow parallel to each other for about 500 kms, separated by 80-120 kms of land. As they move eastwards the two rivers run closer to


Dilemmas of Development each other until they finally merge at Allahabad. The Doab region was one of the most fertile regions of Northern India

The English East India Company acquired control over this region in 1801 and what followed thereafter was a series of blows to the sensitive ecological system of the Doab. There was a thick forest belt between Bulandshahr and Kanpur, incorporating the districts of Aligarh, Etah, Mainpuri and Kanpur, at the beginning of the 19th century. The predominant tree species of this region was the dhak – butea monosperma, — more popularly known as the Flame of the Forest. Since the soil here was rather saline, the only vegetation that could survive and thrive was the dhak tree. But the new conquerors decided to bring these areas under cash crop cultivation – indigo, cotton and sugarcane. Besides the revenue incentive for bringing the land under the plough, an additional argument advanced was that the clearing of the forests would help to control crime. In this part of northern India there were several bands of dacoits who were believed to be seeking refuge in these jungles. By the 1840s, a substantial portion of the dhak jungle had disappeared and by the 1880s there were hardly any trees left outside the properties of the large landlord.

What happened to this region when these forests were cut down? Climatic changes began to occur. By the 1840s there was a visible rise in temperature and the intensity of the loo or hot wind that blew in the summers increased. It loosened the surface of the now unprotected soil which was then washed away in the monsoon rains. The subsoil lost its water retaining capacity and ponds and lakes began to dry up. All this led to the severe drought of 1837-38, which came as the climax of a succession of dry years. The number of cases of malaria increased dramatically due to the stagnant water in dried out riverbeds and lakes.

With the disappearance of the dhak tree, the soil also became more saline and in due course of time, the fields became less and less productive. By the 1820s, this process had gone so far that entire villages had to be abandoned. Moreover, due to intensive cultivation, which left little time for fallow periods, the productive capacity of the soil was also greatly reduced.

The Doab story, thus, is one of causing ecological damage to fulfil the needs of development. But very soon, development was itself the victim of this assault on nature and agricultural productivity, which far from being increased, was actually reduced. As a result the whole policy for this region had to be reviewed.


The modern world is generally associated with faster and more efficient means of transport like steam navigation and the railways. From the 1840s an ever-expanding network of railway lines began to criss-cross the European continent and shortly thereafter spread to those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which were in the hands of the imperialist powers. In India it has been estimated that the total length of rail track increased from about 5,000 kilometers in 1870 to 20,000 kilometers in 1890 and thereafter, in every decade, about 10,000 kilometers of rail track were being laid. Railways were an extremely effective means of maintaining administrative control over far-flung and hitherto inaccessible areas. They also helped to transport raw materials and finished products from the rural hinterlands to the ports with greater ease.

The sight of a steam engine hurtling down the countryside was awe-inspiring and magnificent. It came to be associated with the might of empire and technological advancement. But what implications did the coming of the railways have for the natural
22 environment? Railway tracks are usually laid on beams of wood, which are called

sleepers. In recent times metal sleepers have replaced wooden sleepers but throughout the nineteenth century, when the railway network was expanding rapidly, wooden sleepers were in use. It is estimated that each mile of newly laid track required 1760 sleepers. The sal and deodar trees of northern India and the teak of southern India were found to provide ideal wood for the sleepers since they were strong enough and resistant to termites and fungal decay. An average tree could provide between five to ten sleepers. This meant that thousands of trees would be cut down for railway construction and sometimes whole forests would be devastated. In some cases more trees would be cut than could be easily transported out of the forest by unscrupulous contractors. These would be left to rot in the forests and contribute to forest fires and further destruction.

In the early years of railway construction forests were ransacked indiscriminately. But very soon the colonial state realized that such methods would be disastrous in the long run and so it began enacting legislation which would enable them to manage forests in such a way that they were assured of long-term supplies of wood. Forests began to be reserved but this meant that even people who had been using the forests for centuries for firewood, fodder, honey, fruits, roots and numerous other produces, were now prohibited from entering these forests.


Man knew the disadvantages and hazards of overexploiting nature from early times. In Ancient Greece, where large areas of countryside were turned into a barren waste during the Peloponnesian War (431-421 BC), Theophrastus of Erasia, who was Aristotle’s biographer and botanical gardener, developed a theory in which he linked deforestation with the decline of rainfall in Greece. Coming to more recent times, in Germany, there was a shortage of wood after the Seven Years War of 1756-63. The government of the time realized that the woodlands would have to be preserved and hence decided to exercise state control over the forests. But here there was a twist to the tale. The forest was now to serve the needs of the national economy – especially its industrial needs. The larger, national interest was projected as being more important than local, regional needs. In the process the idea developed that forests had to be preserved from man, i.e., there was an attempt to restrict the rights of traditional forest users. This caused resentment among the local people and there were many protests over access to forest resources. Thus, just as traditional artisans were protesting against the displacement caused by industrialization, so too the forest dwellers felt threatened by the new forest laws and state takeover of forests in the countries of Europe and later other parts of the world. This tussle continues even today.

State takeover of forests and the harnessing of forest resources for industrial development had its effect on the nature of the forest. Often, mixed forests had to give way to monoculture stands of species like pines, which were more suitable for construction and industrial needs. Not only were the requirements of the local inhabitants overlooked but the very health of the forest was compromised in the process. The natural biodiversity that existed until then was destroyed.

Thus we can say that though the importance of the forest was realized it was still regarded as an exploitable resource, to be modified and distorted to serve the interests of the “nation”. Who constituted the “nation”? The powerful classes that were emerging and consolidating themselves at this time. The less powerful, traditional groups were being steadily marginalized by the industrial development of the period.


Dilemmas of Development But these other groups did not remain silent, as Ramchandra Guha tells us in his book Environmentalism: A Global History. In the United Kingdom a large number of public associations emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Scottish Rights of Way Society, formed in 1843, intended to protect walking areas around the city of Edinburgh. The Commons Preservation Society, begun in 1865, wanted to prevent the encroachment of cities on woodland and heath. For the protection of rare birds, beautiful plants and threatened landscapes, there was the Selbourne League, formed in
1885 and named after Gilbert White of Selbourne, a famous eighteenth century naturalist.
There was also the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, started in 1898 as an independent pressure group to make the government enforce pollution control laws on erring factories. Largely because of all these efforts, Guha tells us, it has been possible to save “at least some parts of England from the contaminating effects of urban-industrial civilization.” But the colonial state in India was not fettered by such pressure groups and attempts at conservation could only emerge from within the state apparatus itself.

This is not to say that Indians did not realize the ill effects of industrialization. Even though the Industrial Revolution had largely left India untouched in the colonial period, and there were nationalists who saw industrial development as the need of the hour, Mahatma Gandhi was opposed to such a path of development. In his Hind Swaraj, published in 1909, he saw industrialization as being destructive of nature. Some twenty years later he wrote:

God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.

Some of his followers like Mira Ben and Sarla Behn were very active in the environment protection campaign. Mira Ben’s Pashulok Ashram, situated between Hardwar and Rishikesh, was witness to some of the most devastating floods from the upper reaches of the Ganga which not only swept away bushes and trees but also cattle and human beings along with their dwellings. She realized that this fury of nature had its origin in the wanton destruction of forests in the mountains. She also realized that the solution to the problem lay not in the planting of trees like the pine, but in more ecologically appropriate trees like the oak. The Himalayas had also become ecologically unstable because of the replacement of mixed forests by monoculture. As more and more women and men came to be influenced by her ideas as well as those of Sarla Behn, who had set up an ashram for educating hill women in Kausani, Almora district, the powerful Chipko movement took root.


The dilemma of whether to preserve the environment or exploit it for development, which revealed itself in a strikingly sharp manner in the nineteenth century, continues to be an important issue for policy makers and the people even today. The Industrial Revolution and the growth of empire changed the face of nature irrevocably in almost all parts of the world and we are now left with its lasting impact. But with the growth of democratic institutions, public awareness and political accountability, it is no longer possible for governments to ignore the voices of protest that are emerging from various quarters. But often it is a bitter tussle. The controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Narmada Bachao Andolan illustrates this clearly. Which is more important? The benefits that this ambitious project will bring to some parts of the country or the ecological damage and the displacement of large numbers of people living in the areas which will
24 be submerged?


1) What is the linkage between the process of industrialization and ecological damage?
Discuss briefly.

2) Describe the process of European colonization of new lands and the environmental losses with respect to one particular area discussed in this Unit.

3) How has the progress of modernity led to the awareness towards ecological issues?
Outline the issue with specific instances.


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