Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

The Ecological Side of Magic: The Gathering

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Most games impose resource limits on you. Whether that be a certain number of turns, a window of time, a source of energy, or something more mysterious. Magic: The Gathering, however, probably has my favourite resource system in all of gaming, both in terms of its mechanical implications and its environmental flavour. Magic, as anyone who plays will know, casts the player in the role of a powerful wizard who taps into the land itself for mana, which allows spells to be cast, creatures to be commanded, etc. Because the game uses landscapes and seascapes themselves as resources, Magic can be a rich vein of speculation and fantasizing about our relationship to our surroundings. The very act of playing can be seen as a struggle with environmental opportunities and limitations as much as it is a human battle of wits.

To elaborate a bit further, I’ll do a quick explanation of how lands both enable and limit how players can play in Magic. There are five land cards: plains, islands, swamps, mountains, and forests. Each land is tapped, or used, for mana of a corresponding colour: white, blue, black, red, and green. Lands are cards in the player’s deck alongside the spell cards that do desirable things for you or bad things for your opponent. If you don’t have a forest, you can’t use a green spell, you need swamps to cast black spells, and so on and so on. A Magic player is, in most circumstances, entirely without power without these land cards in play. Building a deck and playing the game, therefore, involves a great deal of thinking about what lands to use, which cards to use with those lands, and how to balance the power of using many lands with the problem of potentially not drawing the lands you need.

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Mana, and the environment, are not always there for the player in Magic. In a similar card game, Hearthstone, the player gets one mana per turn until they reach ten, with mana represented by crystals. To take out some of the guesswork of drawing cards and making the game smoother, Hearthstone made it so mana is always there. Money is a good representation of this: crystals are icy blue, artificial, steady. Lands, however tranquil they might appear, are much more volatile. They require effort to tame and can be destroyed or disrupted. Losing a game might come down to not drawing an adequate number of lands, or drawing too many. Though this causes a lot of understandable frustration, I think that the mana system, drawing on often chaotic lands as mana sources, is better both for building decks and, more importantly, as a way of communicating a material relationship with resources.

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Seen in an ecological light, Magic is about exploring worlds and systems. Individuals and civilizations are present, and highly important–this is not a game about untouched wilderness, even for green–but they are nothing without their environment. Every land, every colour has a distinct character of its own, and expresses a different philosophy and ethos. Some game strategies even revolve entirely around lands, my personal favourite being a combo deck built around two cards called Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Scapeshift.

In essence, the entire deck is built around finding a Valakut, a fiery volcano, and using Scapeshift to put many, many Mountain cards on the battlefield in order to rain fiery death on your opponent. Though there are creatures and more stereotypical spells in the deck, the vast majority of it is not built around individual beings but rather directly using the power of the world.

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The Aetherborn are a race in Magic that are born from fuel refinement processes and live very short lives in an industrial paradise.

As an environmental historian, Magic: The Gathering is full of thematic threads and ideological fragments that relate to our ecology. Devastation, rampant growth, evolution, and the flow of seasons all exist within the world of the game, waiting to be tapped. Magic deserves closer study as a representation of environments and ecological systems, not to mention a potential way of creating stories both within the cards themselves and in the interaction between players that have fascinating implications. Magic is by far my favourite game to play, and this richness of detail and nuance in dealing with the environment is one of the main reasons why.Image-1.ashx.png

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

Insights from Richard Grove: Imperial Conservationism

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Reading history in academia often means gutting and flaying a book like fresh snapper. The practice transforms an object with intrinsic worth and literary integrity into a utilitarian conversation piece. Analogies like “strip-mining” and “gutting” try to capture some of the violence of this practice, which is conditioned by necessity and enforced by convention. Only rarely, therefore, do books read for class have an immediate emotional impact on me.

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, or Green Imperialism to its friends, made an unusual impression on me as I read it. Hastily turning pages and searching for topic sentences, I lamented that I was not able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the book and its argument. Nonetheless, I wanted to present some excerpts from the book with light commentary with the intent of sharing its virtues.

Insight 1: Physiocrats and Bureaucrats

“The environments of tropical islands thus became even more highly prized, so that it may come as no surprise to discover that it was upon one of them, Mauritius, that the early environmental debate acquired its most comprehen- sive form. Under the influence of zealous French anti-capitalist physiocrat reformers and their successors between 1768 and 1810, this island became the location for some of the earliest experiments in systematic forest conservation, water-pollution control and fisheries protection. These initiatives were carried out by scientists who characteristically were both followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and adherents of the kind of rigorous scientific empiricism associated with mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment botany. Their innovative forest-conservation measures were based on a highly developed awareness of the potentially global impact of modern economic activity, on a fear of the climatic consequences of deforestation and, not least, on a fear of species extinctions.”

–Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, 11.

For those without the patience for blockquotes, I’ll summarize: tropical islands became on of Western environmentalism’s first theatres of struggle. Under the influence of the Physiocrats, early political economists who thought agriculture was the only truly productive economic activity, French intendants in places like Mauritius implemented conservation regimes. Tropical islands were especially important areas for the development of Western imperialist environmentalism because it was there that the contradictions between colonial resource extraction and the vitality of natural systems was the most obvious. In other words, islands are small, vulnerable places that are both more easily experimented on and more easily drained of resources.

So much for a brief summary of the material contradictions that incited these attempts to design and implement conservation policies. Another aspect that Grove emphasizes is the European association of tropical islands with Eden and paradise.

The increasing empiricism of travel literature derived simply from the greater frequency and regularity of long-distance travel. During the seventeenth cen- tury, as the work of John Donne suggests, the axis of interest began to shift away from the Americas towards the East, where a growing intellectual and Orientalist curiosity was developing alongside commercial concerns…Because of their geographical position astride the trade routes, St Helena and Mauritius became naturally prominent in this literature. Both islands were important staging posts on the Cape and Indian trading routes. Being uninhabited, they were peculiarly amenable to the kinds of projection and Edenic treatment described above. To sailors exhausted and weakened by long voyages, they were veritable paradises, bowers of untouched woodlands made up of plant species and inhabited by birds never before seen by man.

Green Imperialism, 42.

Tropical islands, especially uninhabited ones like Mauritius, embodied the aspirations of people who wanted a clean break from a morally unclean world. Aside from the real relief they provided to sailors, they also captivated travellers and writers, including Shakespeare. It now seems apparent to me that ideologies of protecting untouched nature or an edenic paradise and the “empty land” ideologies of settler-colonialism share a common nature. That is, they fabricate an ideal to which the land must conform and produce that imagined space in the real world, displacing previous inhabitants where they exist. Indeed, liberal and reactionary environmentalism often dominate over the radical kind, and even the physiocrats put up a stronger anti-capitalism than many present-day green activists we’re familiar with.

I plan on reading Green Imperialism more thoroughly over the next few weeks. At some point, I may produce a full review of the book. For now, I have presented some of its key insights, which are developed with rich detail and an admirable attention to method in the book. I am still grappling with its underlying thesis, but I feel fairly sure of its relevance to us: the periphery of the colonial system was the place where the contradictions of capitalism and the environment first became apparent. That thesis is just as true in the era of climate change as it was when the dodo was just going extinct.

Book Review: Japan at Nature’s Edge

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Environmental history has the potential to be a major player in the transformation of history as a discipline. Current ecological crises, though not necessarily death knells for capitalism as such, certainly cast a shadow of foreboding over our political and social situation. Though the lynchpin of historical materialism should always be class, our history is baseless and useless without addressing the connection between humanity and the rest of nature. We need to reject the merest suggestion that human beings can produce their lives from nothing. Without soil, without water, without air, without the immense base of resources we transform into valuable goods (use values in Marxist talk), we would amount to nothing. All societies, including future socialist ones, are obligated to live as a part of nature, and environmental history is a tradition that responds to that obligation in a limited but necessary way.

So I was glad to read Japan at Nature’s Edge, a book of essays on what the book’s subtitle calls “The Environmental Context of a Global Power.” From the title, one can tell that the book is not just about the birds, bees, flowers, trees, oceans, and seas in Japan but their relationship with the development of modern Japan as a major political power. It’s about human appropriations of nature, the pull of the oceans on Japanese imperialism, the long, slow death of communities wounded by chemical poisoning. It’s about scientists, mountaineers, and fishery workers leaving their traces on our history––and our global environment.

As is the case in most social and culture-savvy histories these days, the contributors approach Japanese environmental history from two angles. One is the factual stuff of history, the gritty reality that defined the lives of people in the past. This mostly concerns people making something physical out of nature, whether it be fish for the table and whales for oil or chemicals for industrial uses. The second angle is to look at nature’s relationship with the human imagination, and concerns the intellectual and ideological products that people created in response to nature. At their best, the essays do the real work of historical materialism in the historical field: narrating not only “what really happened” and the material structures underlying history, but also what people thought of themselves and their own situation and why there might be a distance between those ideas and the reality.

For example, the essay “Fisheries Build Up the Nation” by Micah Muscolino discusses the relationship between Japan and China in the realm of fisheries. Both states, responding to universal pressures to “catch up” with the West in terms of capitalist development, began to expand and refashion not only their fishing equipment but also the way that people related to each other within those industries. It also explores the tension between the two dominant state ideologies that grew up and around these fisheries. In Japan, the dominant ideological factor was imperialist, an expansionist tendency that sought new markets for its fish and opened ever-expanding swathes of ocean to exploitation. For China, meanwhile, the dominant conception of fisheries was that they represented national independence and sovereignty. And while the article tends to have a too-simple vision of nationalism as always and everywhere destructive, ignoring its potentially progressive uses (particularly during the early decades of the People’s Republic), it points out that both were caught up in the capitalist hustle for growth and domination of the environment. It also indicates, but does not explicitly name, the truth that capitalism’s unevenness, which allowed Japan to leap ahead of China in terms of technology and thus serve as a model for nationalists in the latter country, arises from imperialist exploitation.

Another great essay in the compilation is Takehiro Watanabe’s “Talking Sulfur Dioxide,” which fits firmly in the group of articles about intellectual and ideological history, though it’s well-grounded in an account of sulphur pollution and its effects on Japanese communities. The crux of his work, however, is the political (and class) struggle over the definition of pollution and of certain chemicals. Afflicted villagers advanced one definition while companies advanced another while the state acted as the mediator between the two. It shows the kind of callousness of capitalist legal settlements and systems: even when the victims received philanthropic compensation for the company’s negligence, their pain and suffering remained ultimately unquantifiable. Translating the price of human suffering and human life into a payment account on a corporate ledger, the article notes, is similar to the general drive for scientific and rational administration and control that the Meiji embodied. From an early age, the modern Japanese state scooped certain branches of science into its sphere of influence, which has had a profound impact on the way that the Japanese state and, to a different extent, the Japanese people, have related to nature and technology’s role within it. On the other hand, the tenant farmers who lobbied this case were eventually further politicized and unionized, partly as a result of their collective struggle over sulphur pollution compensation. Articles like these show how history can in this way explore social reality more fully through an engagement with nature and its relationship to collective human lives.

Given the date of publication of the book, within the last few years, it’s unsurprising to find an entire section dedicated to that most unstable basis for Japanese society: the Earth itself. The 3/11 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown takes up the last part of the book, discussing the event as an “envirotechnical disaster.” I enjoyed this part of the book greatly because environmental history often appears as a discipline of long and deep histories that stretch back through geological time. When that kind of lengthy perspective and care for non-human natural detail is applied to current events, the results can be impressive. I would recommend this final part of the book most of all, especially for people who are interested in the limited capacity of capitalist societies, even ones as rational and bureaucratic as modern Japan, to deal with sudden outbreaks of chaos and disaster. These interventions from “outside” the usual realm of human authority––earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis––expose the contradictions and divisions inherent in our human social structures. The fact that the Japanese state was bumbling and alienated from the people it was ostensibly helping, and the fact that it continues to press for nuclear power regardless of popular anger, can be incorporated into a case for radical change in this very powerful East Asian country.

fort-mcmurray-alberta.jpg
Surely the fires in Fort McMurray also represent a sign of our exploitative and unsound society here in Canada.

Though not anticapitalist by tendency and certainly an academic rather than activist book, Japan at Nature’s Edge is a jewel of insight and, usually, clarity on some of the most pressing issues in contemporary Japan. Integrating social, cultural, intellectual, and economic history in an environmental context, it parades of a group of talented scholars before us and leaves us with the question of how to resolve these issues not just in Japan but in our own communities as well. It’s certain, after all, that if a grassroots human response does not materialize, capitalism will adapt to its own advantage, and I’m not sure how much more of that the human race can take.

 

Japan at Nature’s Edge 2: “From Meat to Machine Oil”

Miller

Our next foray into the environmental history of Japan is this short and sweet essay by Jakobina Arch. “From Meat to Machine Oil” tells another nautical tale, this time about the modernization of the Japanese whaling industry and its shift from shore-based to pelagic (aka oceanic) operations. She frames this narrative within the larger context of both the Meiji modernization campaigns and the depletion of easily accessible whales by industrial Western and Japanese whaling operations.

Japanese fishers had, of course, hunted whales from the shore for a long time before the Restoration. According to Arch’s account, traditional whaling was dominated by “local family elites” based in coastal villages. One consequence of the modernization of whaling was the consolidation of operations, so that “by the 1910s, the there were only three whaling companies in Japan running all offshore operations.¹”

What’s notable is that the revolutionization of whale hunting and processing did not proceed evenly throughout Japan. Those who were at the centres of traditional whaling struggled to adapt to the introduction of new technology. Adaptation to a global shift in fishing, which required advanced technology to pursue increasingly scarce and evasive prey, mandated not only massive amounts of capital––and thus the aforementioned consolidation of the industry––but also the redefinition of whaling in subjective terms. Whereas the whaling had previously been restricted to short-term missions where prey was caught close to shore and brought in for processing, the space for it opened up to long-term voyages into the ocean.

Arch’s article points out the problem with the common Western (and Japanese) view of the Japanese as inherently “in tune” with nature. Indeed, Japan has been at the centre of controversy for its continued pursuit of whaling long after its prohibition in other countries, who are now content to exploit whales in theme parks and aquariums. Under pressure from global capitalist developments as well as nationalist imperatives to expand the fishing and whaling industries, the local fishers were transformed into a seafaring industrial proletariat, torn from their villages and traditional ways of life and thrust out far into the sea. Whatever sacred connotations the sea might have had and even retained through the Meiji Restoration was transformed and dissolved by exposure to the demands of capital.

Notes:

  1. Jakobina Arch, “From Meat to Machine Oil: The Nineteenth-Century Development of Whaling in Wakayama,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 49.

Japan at Nature’s Edge 1: “The Pelagic Empire”

Kiyochika_(1904)_Nichiro_Jinsenk-o_kaisen_dai_Nihon_kaigundaishōri_Banzai
Print commemorating the Japanese naval victories over the Russians in their war.

Environmental history is a concerted attempt to add critical bite to the common sense assertion that the development of a country cannot be separated from its physical geography. Japan at Nature’s Edge, a bound collection of articles edited by Ian Jared Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Brett L. Walker, contains a number of entries that have inspired me to write about them. Situating modern and premodern Japanese history within an oceanic, terrestrial, ecological, and health context, the collection’s authors all explore the relationship between the human and the non-human in Japan’s history. For each article, I will briefly summarize the contents before offering a brief word of criticism, praise, or insight inspired by the article.

Our first entry, and the opener of the book, is William M. Tsutsui’s “The Pelagic Empire,” which attempts to reframe modern Japanese imperialism and expansion in oceanic terms, correcting what he sees as a “terrestrial bias” in the work of historians to date. When considering imperialism theoretically and empirically, historians attend most closely to its earthbound elements: factories, workforces, military campaigns, financial institutions, colonies, neo-colonies, etc. Oceans, meanwhile, are considered, if at all, as “negative spaces” just serving as barriers/avenues for transportation between landmasses. Tsutsui’s goal is to see the sea itself as a zone of exploitation and expansion, as a live and human territory deeply marked by imperialism. An unusual goal, to be sure.

In order to realign his readers, Tsutsui chooses to focus on Japan’s exploitation of fishing resources in the Pacific Ocean. In the short history he produces, Japan’s late 19th century imperial expansion is identified with, though obviously not exhausted by, the growth of a modern fishing industry in the deep Pacific. What had been a traditionally subsistence or lower-scale mercantile economic activity largely confined to coastal fisheries ballooned, by the 1940s, into a complex, state-sponsored sector of imperial Japan’s economy. As Tsutsui notes, the Japanese state mobilized scientific resources to rationalize fishing:

“A number of prefectures opened their own fisheries experiment stations, the central government operated numerous oceanographic research vessels, and marine science degree programs were offered at imperial universities in Tokyo and Hokkaido.”¹

In other words, the creation of a vast industrial fishing army required not only immense capital investments in fuel, steel, proletarian workers, etc., but also the organization and regulation of knowledge. The empire Tsutsui discusses imposed its borders and logics––in other words, its sovereignty––over a vast area of the ocean from the Antarctic to the Arctic Circle.

In the second half of the short article, the author discusses what might be called the ideology or subjectivity of the Pelagic Empire. He asks how the material reality of Japan’s oceanic dominance reflected in the minds of its ruling class, citizens, and international observers. In Japan, academics and elites identified the Japanese as “children of the water,” or as native island people, seafarers who possessed a natural mastery of the ocean. In 1941, the country even proclaimed a Marine Memorial Day (海の記念日)dedicated to the “blessings of the sea and…the prosperity of maritime Japan.”²

Tsutsui’s argument is essentially that Japanese Empire of the early 20th century and late 19th was primarily a maritime one, and that it envisioned itself as such. These are two separate arguments but they are both fairly well supported despite the brevity of the piece. At the same time, a few of his historiographical claims and comments about prevailing theories of imperialism are more questionable. For instance, he argues that Lenin and Hobson, early theorists of imperialism, “were clearly not thinking oceanically when they proclaimed the motor of imperialism to be the capitalistic hunger for for new outlets of surplus capital and new markets for surplus production, neither of which could apparently be satisfied at sea.”³

Obviously, most Marxist theorizing on imperialism is not focused on the ocean because it is primarily focused on understanding not the territorial expansion of empires over the sea but rather its parasitic domination of dependent nations and peoples. It only takes a slight geographical adjustment to make Lenin’s theory of finance-driven imperialism apply equally to competition over oceanic resources, understanding the sea, too, as a site of imperialist exploitation of workers, nations, and natural resources. At the same time, the fact that people do not generally live out in the open ocean where Tsutsui focuses makes the impact of imperialism on its more muted from a human vantage point.

Still, it seems valuable to me to include the ocean in considerations of Japanese imperialism, at least. Its territories and ambitions clearly included marine conquests as well as land-bound ones, so I would consider Tsutsui’s intervention to be quite positive overall, even if it doesn’t present its case with much theoretical elaboration.

Notes:

  1. William Tsutsui, “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 28.
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid, 22.