Issues which history forgot

TODAY, the world seems to be divided into two groups: those who believe in the restrained use of natural resources as they are finite and those who hold that human technological intervention can stretch these resources indefinitely. Ponting, a British civil servant and historian, places himself firmly in the first group. He writes with great lucidity and erudition, and greater conviction, even passion, which provokes and persuades the reader to take sides.

Since this book is the first of its kind -- a world history written from a green perspective, synthesising a great deal of existing research but skilfully managing to avoid a single footnote -- it makes its points, both implicit and explicit, forcefully.

Implicitly, it suggests to the historian that the history written from an ecological perspective, is, in the truest sense, a world history rather than histories of different regions or peoples of the world brought together at one place. It also, implicitly, but very powerfully, questions the assumption that humanity has, ever since it learnt to control nature through its mastery over land and agriculture, followed a fairly secular linear progression.

Ponting's basic argument is that given the finite nature of natural resources, so long as human beings hunted and gathered food in the forests, they were able to make optimal use of these resources as well as their own bodies and time. The food they gathered was more varied and balanced, and they spent very little of their time in obtaining subsistence. The balance began to tilt against them as their population began to outgrow the resources that could sustain them at the hunting-gathering level. This is the scenario that led to the birth of agriculture.

Agriculture gave humans a greater amount of produce from a smaller amount of land and, thereby, population could keep growing even in the midst of periodic famines. But once human beings had learnt to force land and other resources to yield more than nature had intended them to and to sustain a larger population than the earth was meant to do, the unrelenting struggle with nature took its toll on both.

All subsequent history was constructed on the assumption that resources were infinite and subject to human control through technological intervention. Once this assumption was made and agricultural breakthrough achieved, other developments like industry, empire, colonialism, and so on, followed.

Ponting demonstrates effectively that positivism, Marxism, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and Keynesianism all share this basic assumption, their other differences notwithstanding. For him, all these constitute a series of disasters for humanity as a whole. For he questions their fundamental postulate: the infinite nature of resources.

Fair enough so far. But where do we go from here? Ponting makes no attempt to answer this difficult question. It would be futile to plead for a return to the good old days of hunting-gathering, however highly Ponting may regard it. But this does not diminish the worth of Ponting's argument.

For his basic proposition, that so far human beings have taken for granted the inexhaustibility of natural resources casts a shadow on the way humanity plans to go about its future. The problems due to environmental degradation are far too serious today for us to brush aside this proposition and go on exploiting nature. It is in this profound sense that Ponting makes history relevant, for he redefines it as never before.

Ponting's range of argument is impressive. He rummages through archaeological data, historical and philosophical texts, development economics, biology, social chemistry and so forth with an ease that is almost infectious! One needs to be a specialist in none of these disciplines to enjoy reading the book. In the end, one is left considerably shaken by the doubts cast upon almost every facet of received wisdom.

However, Ponting leaves one of his basic assumptions unexplained. While arguing that it is the growth of human population beyond the size sustainable through hunting-gathering which led to the discovery of agriculture and the subsequent unfortunate trajectory of humankind, he does not explain what led to this imbalance between human population and natural resources at a time when human beings had not yet brought these resources under their command.

He stresses that it was a growing population which led to agriculture and to later developments. But his argument seems to suggest the contrary: that agriculture led to population growth. Somehow, population growth seems to have become an independent variable for him, which does not quite match his overall argument.

Harbans Mukhia is professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.