So I have been reading through The Lie of the Land. It’s an edited book with the subtitle “Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment.” The point many of the chapters make is that Western expertise and science have not always given Westerners as privileged an understanding of African environments as we would like to believe. On the Conservation side of things, the central premise that every environment has an optimal and stable state to which it is succeeding has been abandon by all serious scientists for at least 25 years. Without such a state, the question of what exactly ought to be conserved becomes a lot more ambiguous. And yet in the minds of many Westerners the desire to conserve remains instinctual and strong. On the Development front, many colonial-era agricultural development projects in particular are now universally recognized to have sprung from some really shoddy scientific understandings. And yet still many of the same development ideas that were dominant in 1940 are still being tried over and over again in the new millennium.
In the course of our own scientific research on Lake Malawi the single most common question we are asked by Westerners is if the lake is being over-fished. When I tell them “We don’t know” their responses are always either surprise or disbelief. The narrative of African environmental degradation in the Western mind is so strong that even any statements that simply refrain from supporting it are met with deep skepticism. And yet it remains a simple, sad, truth that the accumulated scientific research done on the lake since the turn of the 20th up to the present day trying to ascertain the state of Lake Malawi’s fish populations, in any other scientific field, would not allow any scientist to make firm conclusions without being laughed out of the room by his colleagues. Why are we so willing to believe, why do we in fact seem to want to believe that African environments are in such poor shape?
On the other hand the authors in the book sometimes repeat the mistakes of those they criticize by claiming to know more than their data can possibly support. Without asserting that pre-colonial Africa was always and everywhere ecologically sustainable (another troublesome term) they do often seem to believe that at least human management of African environments under African stewardship was superior to that under colonial rule. When there is clear evidence for this, I have no trouble believing it. But often the data upon which this claim is made is very thin indeed. That is not to say that the opposite is true, but simply that it may be unwise to even make the comparison given the asymmetry of the data about the two periods.
More generally I think we need to get beyond the never-ending gotcha game of pitting everything African against everything Western as if one side must always be better than the other in some way, and more importantly as if these two categories are truly distinct and worth preserving as objects of analysis. Certainly it is human nature to want to categorize, compare, and rank, but we must do so with sophistication, caution, and much introspection.