What do Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US have in common? Ecological Imperialism!

After a couple months of picking and choosing readings from all over the environmental history reading list it came time to sit down and concentrate on one section. The lucky section? Ecological Imperialism because its shorts (2 books, 2 articles), its part of the first set of sections to be discussed with the supervisor in a couple weeks, and I had an 18 page article left to read. The whole section exists because of Alfred Crosby’s 1986 book Ecological Imperialism which illustrated the niche environmental history could fill in world history by giving agency to non-human actors and identifying the degree to which the trajectory of human history is influenced by the changing ecosystems humans are part of.

So what is ecological imperialism all about? There is Team Awesome of the natural world – plants, animals, and germs – getting help from the technology to get across an ocean and humanity’s ability to thrive anywhere with a food source. People bring the plants, animals, and germs with them across oceans and these three things begin the slow process of creating what Crosby terms a neo-Europe – the Europeans were the first to perfect crossing entire oceans and thus the first to engage in large scale colonization. It is colonialism with plants and animals replacing humans as the main actors and in their ability to adapt and thrive in a new ecosystem make it possible for colonialism to take place. Crosby differentiates ecological imperialism from colonialism by stating “European conquest does not necessarily render a land a neo-Europe. For that a demographic takeover is necessary”(226). It is here that disease and reproduction come into play. You can grow wheat in India but Europeans are susceptible to tropical diseases like malaria and their numbers were never large enough to out reproduce the native inhabitants, whereas in North America Europeans brought diseases that caused virgin-soil epidemics and gained the demographic upper hand because they out reproduced the indigenous population while it tried to recover from everything from the flu to smallpox. For Crosby the successful neo-Europes are Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. They could more accurately be called neo-Britains but I’m not sure Americans (or Québécois) would appreciate that. Ecological Imperialism created a new theoretical approach to the interrelations between the human and the non-human.

There are holes in Crosby’s work that recent scholarship have pointed out. Dunlup’s “Remaking the Land: The Acclimatization Movement and Anglo Ideas of Nature” identifies the role of evolving ideas of landscape in fueling ecological imperialism. He shows that in the Australia and New Zealand a number of the plants and animals imported from Europe were chosen for their cultural significance. The British settlers, for example, wanted to go hunting and the kangaroo or the emu was a poor replacement for a stag so they brought red deer herds over – not necessary in North America as elk and native deer species were excellent replacements for the red deer. While these neo-Europes eventually based parts of their national identities around the aspects of their environments that were distinct from Europe, there was still an aspect to ecological imperialism attached to leisure culture not subsistence culture. Piper and Sandlos’ “A Broken Frontier: Ecological Imperialism in the Canadian North,” successfully argues that ecological imperialism is not constrained by the temperate zone and linear all-encompassing ecological changes. They use the Canadian north to show that even in harsh climates it is possible to see localized effects of imported plants, animals, and diseases on an ecosystem. The changes in the north are not as obvious and not as radically transforming as in the south, but the same process is at work. They challenge Crosby’s assumption that neo-Europes are produced by a continuous, linear push through ecosystems by pointing out “ecological imperialism instead proceeded as a variable and erratic process over much of Canada’s land base, producing a sprawling but inconsistent archipelago of social and environmental change within a much broader landscape that defined and limited the incursions of human and nonhuman European invaders” (783).

Is it time to re-evaluate the idea of ecological imperialism? To take it from a tool of integrating the nonhuman into the grand narrative of European expansion and reshape it to better reflect the remaking of the various ecosystems on the large land masses that became the successful neo-Europes? Yes it is, because the process of Europeanization that European settlers used to transform eastern North America was improved upon by their decedents when it came time to push the frontier into the prairies and later the north.

The song for this one is definitely Pearl Jam’s “Rats” because Crosby devotes considerable space to rats and they do exactly what Eddie describes.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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