REVIEW: James Beattie, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 1800-1920. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hants., 2011. xv+320 pp. ISBN 978-0-230-55320-0. £55.00 hardback.

Ian Tyrrell1

James Beattie’s Empire and Environmental Anxiety is an ambitious book. It surveys the changing perceptions of British colonials, mostly (white) settlers, government officials and scientists, but also artists. Encountering colonial environments generated anxious responses among these people that both reflected environmental critiques of colonial impacts and spurred the exertion of imperial control through more efficient manipulation of resources and bureaucratic intervention. Beattie’s work builds upon the thesis of Richard Grove regarding the colonial origins of early conservation but, alongside a declensionist narrative, Beattie finds a developmental narrative of resource use.

Covering the whole of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, but with emphasis upon the later nineteenth, the book draws together material on India, Australia and New Zealand as a region with distinctive interactions and common experiences of imperialism and environment as they shared in a ‘cross-fertilisation of environmental anxieties’ (p 167). Beattie follows the careers of individuals who moved across this Indo-Pacific world as officials, settlers and immigrants, such as Alfred Sharpe, the painter whose watercolours of New Zealand influenced park aesthetics in a trans-Tasman context. Beattie shows the cross-colonial linkages, the networks of influence that spread anxieties about British colonial and settler impacts upon the land’s resources and ecosystems, while at the same time he recognises that local circumstances powerfully influenced the policy responses adopted.

The book identifies environmental anxiety across a range of different topics, showing how colonials worried about unhealthy urban conditions, the aesthetics of environmental change, climate variation, deforestation and its hydrological consequences, and perceived desertification. Thus, for health reasons, Australian eucalyptus species were extensively planted in India to deal with malaria. Beattie shows that healthfulness and environmental aesthetics were closely associated in the mania for planting species such as the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus). Concern among colonial critics and environmental reformers over the loss of forests also revealed fears for the possible effects on climate. Awareness of sand drift influenced attempts at dune control through afforestation, and the aesthetics of a park-like valuation of nature encouraged environmental change, and simultaneously spurred the setting aside of urban and non-urban parks and reserves. In the process of outlining these concerns about deforestation and reforestation, Beattie contests facile distinctions between early nineteenth-century dislike of indigenous plants and later nineteenth-century appreciation. In this and other respects, colonial environmental views were ‘more complex than many scholars believe’ (p 74).

Beattie’s stimulating arguments raise important questions for debate. One is terminology. Though ‘anxiety’ is his favoured formulation, the epithet of ‘alarmism’ is also discussed among settler concerns that exploited ‘highly alarmist language’ (p 212) and ‘hyperbole’ (p 210). Yet alarmism and anxiety have somewhat different connotations. Perhaps they are part of a continuum, but one can be anxious about environmental issues without raising an alarm over imminent collapse. The distinction might be developed.

Another issue is teasing out from the text exactly what the impact of anxiety is. A general point made is that anxieties had a cumulative effect in promoting greater human intervention, with the implication that greater intervention meant more environmental regulation. One might conclude that environmental anxiety, or even alarm, was useful in prodding people and governments into corrective action, but the overall attitude to the use of hyperbolic rhetoric in goading action is not explicit. If anxieties are fanciful, then time and time again the cry of ‘wolf’ will undermine the value of the intervention. This argument could be turned into a critique of environmentalism in that time, and in ours.

Beattie makes a vital point by reminding us that Europeans in these colonies worried over environmental change long ago, and took action. He also suggests that though alarm and anxiety are not new, in our age a stark choice of ‘destruction or conservation’ is present (p 216). This categorisation contrasts with the more reserved discussion of the impacts of anxiety over the long haul, given how varied in content as opposed to language these anxieties have been. The relationship between perception and reality over time needs a more explicit analysis here.

A further question concerns the processes whereby anxiety is articulated and spread. Beattie emphasises the role of professionals and their growing use of environmental discourse to enhance their power. But exactly how does the work of professionals or other groups effect change? In the early twenty-first century, alarm sits alongside what appears to be, among influential people, imperviousness towards the dangers, and a temporarily receding sense of public disquiet. What is the role of politics in articulating and channelling alarm? This question is particularly apt, given that the case studies of Australian and New Zealand on the one hand and India on the other had different governmental structures, as Beattie reminds us, though each shared in the nineteenth century a British colonial affiliation. The role of media in this process of dissemination is hinted at in the discussion of soil erosion and the impact of the later Dust Bowl in the United States. But, for the nineteenth century, one wonders whether the spread of literacy and cheaper newspapers, together with the circulation of print materials across the empire through speedier communications, influenced the level of anxiety in ways that could not have occurred earlier, or would not seem unusual later.

Beattie also documents the important role of religion in the promotion of environmental anxiety and reform, but mainly as a sanction for environmental improvement in the husbanding of resources. The actual role of religion in promoting anxiety is not taken up. It is examined as a way of critiquing an aesthetic of wasteland and neglect (pp 80-81, 187-88) but not in terms of the creation of apocalyptical and declensionist thinking. Were church congregations and news media used to mobilise people for conservation (as happened in the United States)? What, if any, was the role of missionaries in providing comparative data on why and how the experience of some countries stood as warnings to others of a fate to be avoided?

The book raises a tantalising issue about Indo-Pacific conservation (pp 33-34, 163-64): common environmental circumstances seem to have existed through the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, or ENSO and, to some extent, shared patterns of drought and flood can be exhibited. The New Zealand-based surveyor F.S. Peppercorne’s experience drawing solutions to Australian aridity from North India is suggestive of shared perceptions and policies. But were Indo-Pacific regional climatic influences the subject of much wider nineteenth-century discussion, and were observations on flood and drought regularities across the region influential, or was the commonality more one of institutional and personal connections?

Beattie’s work shows wide reading, and admirably emphasises complexity, but perhaps so much so that the nuances prevent us from seeing a clear outline of the impact of anxiety and its relations to imperialism. While the latter is shown to be concerned with colonial development, it also represented settler assertions of power over land and indigenous people. Conservation could be viewed as intrinsically an extension of settler demonstrations of a right to occupation – as marking an effective stake in the land.

There are many important observations in this sound and scholarly study. Its breadth of coverage and integration of the research is admirable, as is its innovative linking of Australia to both New Zealand and India. One testimony to this book’s importance is the many questions it raises for future research.

This work will also add to the growing scholarship on Australian-Asian relations from a new, environmental standpoint.


[1] Ian Tyrrell is an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.