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Here's a state of things
Local Ecologies
Grand Histories
Modern Predicaments
What next?

Local Ecologies
Grand Histories
Modern Predicaments
What Next?

Essay Assignments for Unit 3, Grand Histories

Due electronically to the intstructor at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, May 9

Write on one of the following topics:

A) There is a huge dispute today about the relationship between population and environment. On the one side are the demographic determinists or Malthusians, who say that overpopulation is one of the main causes of environmental degradation. On the other side are the social justice theorists, who say that maldistribution of resources across different segments of the population is the problem: the poor, the geographically marginal, the minorities starve, or are forced to degrade their environment not to starve, while the rich, the centrally located, the culturally orthodox thrive. Which of these two viewpoints best explains the local and more general degradation of the environment in imperial China described in the several case studies we are reading and talking about in the April 26 class? How do the different points of view about Matlhusianism in China taken by Lee et al. and by Wolf bear on the question of the relationship between population and environmental degradation?

B) Mark Elvin very forcefully presents the thesis that the environmental history of China was a slow train to disaster, that the very existence of a bureaucratic-military civilization like China's guaranteed that eventually people would

  • Use the available natural resources at a rate faster than they could be replenished
  • Decrease the resilience of local and regional ecosystems
  • Be driven to impoverishment, environmental injustice, and social disorder
At the same time, it seems clear that at the local level people could live according to what Eugene Anderson (in a personal communication) called "everyday sustainability." In other words, as demonstrated in the case studies of water conservancy presented by Perdue and Schoppa, while there were forces working toward degradation, there were also forces promoting resilience. In addition, my chapter on the ecology of the Chinese peasant household illustrates some of what Dr. Anderson was referring to. So this leads to two questions:
  • Was degradation inevitable given the existence of a bureaucratic-military civilization?
  • If degradation was not the inevitable fate of the East Asian Zone of Intensive Agriculture, then why did degradation happen anyway?

C) In your readings for Unit III, "Grand Histories," you have encountered numerous historical examples of how agriculture, war, transportation, flood control, and other human activities have altered the environment for human benefit. Some of these have indisputably reduced the sustainability and the resilience of the local or regional ecosystems, and by the end of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese environment was in a precarious state. Given the emphasis on anthropocosmic harmony in Confucianism, on non-interference in Daoism, and on detachment, compassion for living creatures, and the interconnectedness of all things (a very ecological concept) in Buddhism, it appears that there was disjunction between beautiful theory and messy or even ugly reality. This suggests a number of possibilities, and your assignment is to evaluate them:

  • The traditional Chinese, like so many people, were hypocrites; they preached lofty ecological principles but cynically acted out of greed and short-term self interest
  • The philosophers and the common people appreciated ecological thinking, but the state ignored it because of their concern for the imperial equivalent of our current notion of "national security"
  • The principles themselves were not up to the task of maintaining the environment in a sustainable state
Or, of course, some combination of these in different cases. Make sure you refer to as many of the cases we have read about as you can.

Essays should be between 1500 and 2000 words in length, not counting bibliographic references. You may use any style (footnotes, endnotes, or embedded author and date) for references, as long as it is clear where you have gotten your information. Quotations should always be referenced, as should any information that is taken explicitly from a given source.