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Response to Review of Environmental History: As if Nature Existed

First, let me make clear that I respond here as one of three co-editors of the book Environmental History As If Nature Existed. My co-editors, Mahesh Rangarajan and Jose Augusto Padua, bear no responsibility for the remarks that follow. They might well disagree with parts of what I have to say.

Second, my thanks to Professor Lise Sedrez for reading the book carefully and writing such a generous review.

The origins of the book indeed lie with the New Delhi conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics. But they especially lie with one of that conference’s co-organizers, Joan Martinez Alier. He more than anyone wanted to see fruitful dialogue between the two rogue sub-disciplines of environmental history and ecological economics. Our book sought to bring that about. One of the lessons I learned in the process is how difficult it can be to bring disciplines into dialogue, and to be fully frank, I don’t think we achieved it well in our book, although having the courage to try is worth something.

Very few of the papers we published from that conference really spanned the divide in training and outlook between ecological economists and environmental historians. Each author made an effort to reach out to the field he or she was not trained in, but one can only step out of one’s own skin so far. I will not critique the chapters one by one – an unseemly thing for a co-editor to do – but will confine myself to the general statement that few if any of our authors were able to straddle both fields. Martinez Alier is one of the very few people whose training, background, and predilections allow him to write as both an environmental historian and an ecological economist at the same time. As readers can tell, I am not fully pleased by the book – not even by the parts I wrote myself.

But it was worth a try, and still is. For 150 years or more, academic inquiry has been partitioned into boxes called ‘disciplines’ that correspond with the organization of faculties at German universities. Marvelous work within these disciplines has illuminated a great deal about the human experience and the natural world. As a result, diminishing returns to effort has set in more or less across the board. Academics for a generation or more have struggled for new ways to make their work seem new. One of their chief strategies has been, and remains, interdisciplinary research. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once maintained that interdisciplinary work is the process that multiplies the assumptions of one discipline by those of another. He apparently took a dim view of such efforts. I maintain that interdisciplinary work remains a hopeful way forward for intellectual inquiry, even if it does seem to multiply uncertainties. I say this despite my sense that our book fell short of genuinely interdisciplinary research and thinking.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the book will prove fruitful in provoking more fully interdisciplinary perspectives involving environmental history. If that were to happen, my misgivings would remain, but my frustrations would vanish.