Power: energy; strength or force; level of magnification; capacity to influence. For a short word, power—in any of its manifestations—has far-reaching, complex implications for humans and for nature. Each of this issue’s articles and all of the essays included in the special Reflections section address some facet of power, illuminating the role nature plays in human history, either as a dynamic force that shapes cultural understanding and manipulation of the material world, or as an object over which competing social and political groups wish to exert physical or intellectual authority. Our exploration of power begins in South Africa, with two articles focused on issues of expertise and knowledge. In “Talking about the Weather,” Meredith McKittrick digs deeply into conversations about climate in the early decades of the twentieth century when it appeared that South Africa was “drying up.” Although scientists at the time concluded that rainfall had not declined, farmers continued to argue otherwise, resting their assessment on experience, memory, and a variety of ideas about weather and climate that circulated at the time. Rather than pitting so-called progressive scientists against backward farmers, McKittrick presents a nuanced analysis of both sides of the debate, revealing that discussions about weather are as much about power and expertise as they are about the rain. At the same time South Africans debated climate change and declining rainfall, they also clashed over fire’s role in managing the region’s grasslands, the subject of Simon Pooley’s article “Fire, Smoke, and Expertise in South Africa’s Grasslands.” Pooley examines how imported ecological ideas (specifically Frederic Clements’s notion of vegetation succession) reinforced “a powerful anti-burning narrative among experts” that conflicted with farmers’ practical experience and economic limitations. Like McKittrick, Pooley does not seek to arbitrate the disagreement, but instead he intends to illustrate the complex nature of expertise and to explore how (and if) that expertise influenced practice. He concludes that scientific recommendations against burning held little sway over farmers, for whom fire offered the most practical and economic option for managing their land. Our next two articles shift geographic focus from Africa to Latin America and share an interest in the subject of energy. In “Death by Water,” Richard Niland uncovers the once-stunning cataract of Los Saltos del Guairá, or Seta Quedes (Seven Falls), that disappeared with the construction of the massive Itaipú Dam on the Paraná River between Paraguay and Brazil. Among the largest and most spectacular in the world, the falls were sacrificed in 1982 to produce hydroelectric power and relegated to memory in the two short weeks it took to fill the reservoir. Niland artfully reconstructs the falls through the words of those who witnessed its free-flowing power from the seventeenth through mid-twentieth centuries, charting “a journey from trepidation before the natural sublime to an emerging awareness of the possibility of material intervention and control over nature.” Germán Vergara also explores questions connected to energy generation. In “How Coal Kept My Valley Green,” he examines the debates and processes surrounding Mexico’s energy transition from wood to coal and oil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Deeply concerned about rampant deforestation, Mexico’s policymakers sought a viable alternative that would protect the nation’s natural heritage while at the same time support its industrial efforts. The transition to fossil fuels did not entirely solve the deforestation problem, and as Vergara makes clear, “in seeking to conserve forests without disrupting industrial growth, these individuals unwittingly promoted the adoption of energy and economic regimes that have had unprecedented and unforeseen environmental consequences not only for Mexico’s forests, but for the world.” Our final set of essays comprises a Reflections Collection, a series of invited peer-reviewed pieces organized around a single question. I commissioned each of these essays with an eye toward promoting discussion about how environmental history—as a field and in its practice—is affected by and, in turn, can affect political change. The collection is far from comprehensive, but, I hope, is expansive enough to generate continued debate, productive conversation, and further reflection. With that, I dedicate this issue of Environmental History to all who use their power—intellectual, physical, professional, or whatever form it takes—for the common good. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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