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Ecology and capitalism

Print edition : Mar 31, 2001 T+T-

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis; Verso, London and New York, 2001; pages 464, &pound20 (hardback).

EVERY age has its prevailing mythology - established, embellished and militantly propagated by the ruling interests of the day. A century ago, upholders of British imperialism could loftily present the Raj in India as an exercise in munificence, an outpo uring of charity unparalleled in human history. Today, the globalising free market is purported, by its extollers, to exert a similarly beneficial impact on needy people the world over: neo-liberalism, untrammelled by state meddling and Luddite oppositio n, will (so the claim runs) bring growth, opportunity, betterment for all.

If imperialism-as-charity today finds few adherents, important elements of the mythology of empire live on. In Britain, the view that colonisation had a 'civilising' impact still persists, and not merely within the older generation. One university studen t this writer encountered recently believed the British had fought the Opium Wars in China in order to stop the opium trade. More insidiously, imperialist ideology shapes general perceptions of the world about us. For people living in advanced cap italist economies, this takes the form of consigning much of the rest of humanity to a 'third world' slough of backwardness that is assumed to be centuries deep. India, China, Brazil, Africa are commonly perceived as historical 'lands of famine' only now stumbling into the modern age. Western colonialism - for all its excesses, its racist attitudes, its cruelties - is still understood as an agent of transformation, stirring the world's backwaters and propelling entire tradition-locked societies into the future. The counterpart view, held by some disillusioned citizens of former colonies, is that 'things were better' in the halcyon days of empire; it would have been much better if the British (or the French, or the German) had never left.

The achievement of Mike Davis, in a new book that is an incendiary fusion of scholarship and moral outrage, is to cut to the quick of capitalist mythology and stand such assumptions on their head. Nothing is more 'modern' and of these times, he reveals, than the emiseration of millions, the transformation of large parts of the world into lands ravaged by hunger, disease and environmental degradation. Far from acting as an agent of progress, globalising world capitalism has functioned as an engine of cat astrophe, generating riches for the few while locking millions into dehumanising, life-threatening poverty. And at specific moments in the recent past, the economic imperatives of the world capitalist system have interacted with cyclical climatic factors to produce killing fields almost beyond our powers of imagination. In particular, three great drought-famines of the late 19th century, triggered by the synchronous weather system known as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), but transformed by the imperatives of empire into cataclysmic events with a combined toll of 30 million human lives, deserve to be seen for what they are: not as 'natural' events but as holocausts in which the requirements of global capitalism, interpreted and executed by wilf ul human agents, decreed that millions must perish.

Davis argues that if we are to gain the measure of these events, to fathom the complex interplay of human and natural forces, classical Marxist analysis needs to be extended into, and married with, the evolving new science of ecology. A veteran of the la bour movement in the United States (he worked as a meat-cutter, and a long distance truck driver before becoming a teacher of urban theory), Davis has in a sequence of controversial, assumption-challenging studies explored the explanatory potential of ra dical political ecology. Much of his previous work has focussed on the Californian experience. His Ecology of Fear, an analysis of the ways in which capitalism has turned Los Angeles into a potential disaster zone, provoked outrage among the city' s bourgeois elite for its suggestion that the affluent Malibu suburbs, insanely built in fire traps within a parched landscape characterised by endemic incendiary outbreaks, might best be left to burn.

In his new book, Davis attempts, through a dramatic and ambitious application of Marxist political ecology, a totalising engagement with the past. In pursuit of what he calls the 'political ecology of famine' he adopts a three-pronged strategy. First, he seeks, through conventional historical narrative, to establish the reality of the great 19th century drought-famines as lived human experience. Here, statistical estimates of the carnage are enriched and contextualised by eyewitness testimony; whistlebl ower accounts are set against the voices of the servants of empire - Lytton, Curzon and their farflung counterparts - whose decisions spelt death for millions across a vast sweep of the world's tropical zone, from China to Brazil, from India to the heart lands of Africa. The horror of it all is sharpened by the density and assiduousness of Davis' scholarship. There is a Chomsky-like quality to the richness and range of his sources, to his attention to detail.

As his second prong, Davis explores, and seeks to demystify, the synchronous climatic-atmospheric events which served as the proximate cause or initiator of the three great drought-famines. Here, the reader is guided through a scientific detective story. The arduous, obsessive search (analogous, Davis suggests, to the hunt for the "elusive great white whale") for the cause of global drought. What is striking here is the recentness of the breakthrough. It was only in the late 1960s that ENSO came to be u nderstood in all its interlocking complexity. The crux of ENSO theory, suggests Davis in helpfully plain language, is "the recognition that normal rainfall patterns over much of the globe change in response to... giant oscillations of ocean temperature a nd air pressure in the equatorial Pacific." Within this "planetary game of musical chairs played with jet streams and semi-continent-sized air masses" there are cycles within cycles, resulting in great variations in ENSO intensity and periodicity. But wh at seems clear, from our current level of knowledge, is that three times in the closing decades of the 19th century - in 1876-78, in 1889-91, and finally in 1896-1902 - ENSO played out its planetary game with peculiar intensity, aborting monsoon rains ac ross the broad sweep of equatorial earth and triggering generalised crop failure.

But the ENSO events of the late 19th century, while striking in their assertiveness and depth, were hardly new to human experience. Recent research shows synchronised climatic assaults to be deeply woven into the fabric of history. An example is the grea t drought-famine of 1743-44, an ENSO-provoked event which devastated agricultural production across northern China. But while extreme hardship followed, there was nothing approaching the mass mortality from starvation and disease that would engulf the sa me countryside a century or so later.

IN his third prong of attack, Davis asks why this was so. On the basis of detailed case histories of the experience of India, China and Brazil, he concludes that the crucial variable - the factor that more than any other transformed the late 19th century ENSO events into cataclysms of comprehension-defying proportions - was the growing social vulnerability of huge sections of humanity. People perished in their millions not because the monsoons failed. They died because complex, historically evolved prot ective structures and practices had been stripped away in consonance with 'free market' dogma. They died because high taxes, chronic indebtedness, tumbling terms of trade for their produce, enclosure, and a hundred other blows denied them the possibility of survival. They died alongside the railway tracks that, under different circumstances, might have been conduits of lifesaving grain from surplus areas; they died in the shadow of grain stockpiles guarded by troops to maintain inflated, profiteering pr ices. Meanwhile, the European empires, together with Japan and the U.S., seized the moment to extend capitalism's globalising reach, wresting new colonies, expropriating communal lands, tapping new sources of plantation and mine labour. As Davis puts it: "What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the 19th century's final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre."

Discounting the view, alive and strong among apologists and stalwarts of the free market, that catastrophe on such a scale was an inadvertent 'birth pang' or no-fault 'friction of transition' of an ultimately benign world capitalism, Davis brings us face to face with the reality of human agency. He reminds us of the naked force by which markets were 'made' and entire peoples conscripted into a London-centred world economy. In line with the precedent established by the Nuremberg judges (in the context of a different but, by implication, comparable mass slaughter), he disallows the defence that servants of empire were only obeying orders. Names need to be named, infamy must be set down for all time.

Here is Lord Lytton, presiding over the glittering extravaganza of the 1876 Delhi Imperial Durbar while countermanding efforts by his Madras Governor to save lives by stockpiling grain. Here is Richard Temple, "the personification of free market economic as a mask for colonial genocide", forcing half a million starving people out of relief work and stipulating a daily ration for male coolies - the notorious 'Temple wage' - which was less even than that later decreed at Buchenwald. Here, in the China of the Boxer Rebellion (essentially a response, Davis argues, to the ENSO-precipitated drought-famine of 1897-98), is Field-Marshall Von Waldersee, directing his exterminating armies to heed the Kaiser's orders and emulate the carnage of Attila.

This is a work of passionate engagement with the past; its dense and meticulous scholarship is suffused with anger, its voice frankly accusatorial. As such, it is certain to draw fire from conventional historiography, with its claims to objectivity and e mphasis on 'balance' as the road to historical truth. That Davis, in pursuit of a totalising perspective on a hugely complex historical experience, may sometimes stray beyond the evidence is suggested by a portrait of pre-colonial Indian society that, wi th its emphasis on patrimonial obligation and small producer entitlements, seems to bypass the whole issue of caste. But this is to miss the point. By retrieving a vast swathe of 'hidden history', re-evaluating it in the light of new scientific knowledge , and placing it within a coherent explanatory framework of direct and immediate relevance to our own times, Davis has produced a book of extraordinary range and force - a lighting up of the past that is also a call to action.