Understanding the Impact of Colonialism on Human-Nature Relationship in India

Published by Chaitanya Mamidi on

Human Nature Relationship


It is safe to say that European colonization of territories across the world ranging from America to East Asia has had an immense impact on various spheres. Their impact is evident on the social, economic, political, and ecological spheres of colonized societies. Parts of this impact is measurable and quantifiable, but there are parts that can be not. Colonization did not just limit to the control of territories and economies. It was also a project of modernity aiming to control the sociocultural behaviour and the minds of the colonized populations.

Several prominent thinkers in their findings wrote that colonialism was never an outcome of solely brute force. (Foucault xv; Nandy). It requires intellectual, theoretical and discursive control over people. This control was a result of various colonial mechanisms such as education, cartography, bureaucratic regulation and subjectification. And because of the process colonization has left a deep impact on the minds of the colonized. 

Colonialism And Its Negative Impact On The Environment

Guha points out that the relationship between colonialism and ecological degradation is not put into consideration by historians of modern India. Their focus was on the social and political aspects of colonial rule (xiii). As a result consequences like deforestation, habitat loss, disruption of ecosystems, extinction of species, soil degradation came into the limelight. These consequences were the result of socio-political measures. Their impact was noticeable in the way in which the management of natural resources took place.  

There is a wide body of work that explains this in the Indian context. (Guha and Gadgil; Rangarajan; Sivaramakrishnan.) One aspect of this impact of colonialism on the Indian environment that has gained less attention was discourse and ideology. In addition to that, there was a lack of exploration of the perceived relationship between man and nature. Historians have argued that the environmentally destructive effects of colonialism were not just economic. For instance, their roots in ideologically imperialist attitudes towards the environment (39). There is a need to understand how colonialism has influenced the discursive relationship between human society and the natural environment. There are two approaches to this question.

Firstly, to map the evolution of environmental thought in the western world leading up to the imperial environmental discourse. These underlay the ideological basis for colonialism. Secondly, to analyze colonial environmental regulation in India, especially in the field of forestry. Moreover, deconstructing the colonial ideologies of nature and its impact on the local populations’ relationship with their immediate natural environments. 

Environmental Discourse in the West

In understanding the evolution of western environmental discourse, Donald Worster’s work provides comprehensive insights. On similar lines, Worster traces how the discipline of Ecology has evolved. In addition to that the book Nature’s Economy: The Roots of Ecology, puts light on theories about the discipline of ecology. In the first chapter of his book, Worster discusses the two major directions Ecology took in the eighteenth century.

Firstly the arcadian or parson-naturalist tradition, epitomized by Gilbert White. This view advocated for a simple life for humans aiming to restore humans to peaceful coexistence with other natural organisms. The second is the imperial tradition by Carl Linnaeus. His ambition was to establish man’s dominion over nature through the exercise of science, reason and hard work (Worster 2).

The Arcadian Tradition

Picture demonstrating the Arcadian tradition, the first direction ecology took in the eighteenth century.

Observations about Arcadian Tradition By Gilbert White

Gilbert White aimed to investigate nature as a philosopher. As a result of this approach, he took an understanding of the lives and pursuits of non-human organisms and their relations with humans. Consequently, he carefully examined the migratory patterns of birds and the behaviours of insects in his hometown Selborne (Worster 6). Beyond what met his eye, White recognized the complex and diverse array of elements that constituted Selborne’s ecosystem. In the same vein, he emphasized the self-sufficiency and cyclical tendencies of the natural environment.

One point to note here is his strong Christian beliefs that were often a guiding force behind his ecological pursuits. He praises the Creator’s ingenuity in tailoring a natural environment that could sustain itself in a mystical yet logical way and benefit all its constituents (Worster 7-8). But his pious admiration for everything natural did not prevent him from having a utilitarian conception of nature sometimes. In addition to that, he believed that the faculties of nature existed. At least partly, to provide a favourable environment for human survival.

He also notes the case of noxious pests that are a part of nature but need to face elimination for human benefit. In short, he states that providence sometimes requires some human assistance. So that it realizes its true aim, which is to be beneficial to human civilization (Worster 8). Despite the presence of certain utilitarian elements, the arcadian tradition has essentially remained as an innocent pursuit. Above all, it emphasizes gaining knowledge about one’s neighbours, i.e., non-human organisms. It also states that in this pursuit, the naturalist could establish communion with nature (Worster 11).

Industrialization and The Downfall of Arcadian Ecological Tradition

Following the rise of industrialization in Europe, the arcadian ecological tradition took a back seat. In the 1830s, some scientists attempted to revive this tradition by making Selborne a focal point. (Worster 14). Consequently, nature essayists and poets played a major role in this revival movement. For instance, they sought to recover the lost personal relationship of every human with the world around them. Their aim was to restore their relation to God.

In other words, they believed that the cause for alienation is the development of modern science. Conclusions not based on facts were not important because modern science attempts to make conclusions on physical and mechanical terms. Therefore, this pursuit to recover the human-nature relationship led to the rise of vitalism. A view where organisms acted according to a mysterious power that modern science cannot analyze (Worster 16-17). Worster argues that the arcadian tradition has indirectly inspired the holistic approach in the modern ecological study. It has played a role in modern environmental movements opposing technological advancement and advocating natural living. 

The Linnaean Tradition

Demonstration of Christian Pastoralism, the idea that the creator is the shepherd and nature has to be tamed by human activities.

Worster notes that the arcadian tradition is not the only form of a pastoral idyll in western culture. Another form is Christian pastoralism, which works on the idea that the Creator is the shepherd leading humanity towards good. On similar lines, it states that the creator is the saviour of humanity from nature’s dark and hostile forces. This tradition, in opposition to the arcadian one, believes that nature is evil and that humanity needs protection from it. Nature exists mainly to fulfil human needs, and taming nature is the divine right as well as responsibility for humankind. (Worster 26-27)

When faced with threats from a returning arcadian tradition, Christian ecological thought had to mellow down its anti-nature stances. It did not totally abandon its traditional belief that humans must tame nature. As a result, a form of ecological humility was acquired. Subsequently recognizing that humans are only one among a number of species living on this planet. (Worster 28). Modern science lays extreme importance on objectivity and rationality. It requires repressing any emotional feelings that the viewer holds of the subject being studied.

Viewing Nature through Christianity’s Lenses

Christianity denies the presence of a soul of emotions in non-human entities reducing nature to a mechanical contrivance. Worster emphasizes the fact that Christianity has traditionally been a religion that maintained emotional severance between humans and nature, which provided a fertile ground for modern science to develop (28). This could provide scientists with a predictable worldview of nature since it was believed to work according to set principles. This Christian and/yet scientific view of nature as a soulless, mechanical entity is known as the imperial tradition by Worster (29). This is the view of nature that formed the ideological basis for colonialism. 

Adding to Worster’s observations, Carolyn Merchant argues that since the seventeenth century, European colonists have put in massive effort to reinvent the whole planet as the Garden of Eden. They got help from the Christian doctrine of redemption from evil and the advancements in technology leading up to capitalism. The long-term goal of these projects was to convert the earth into a vast cultivated garden that is predictable and favorable for human existence (“Reinventing Eden” 156). Merchant interestingly frames nature in the view of Christian colonizers as Eve. In its original form, nature is virgin, pristine and rife with potential for development. The contemporary state of nature, as compared to fallen Eve, was disorderly, chaotic and required improvement. In order to turn it into mother Eve, its captivity was necessary (“Reinventing Eden” 159). 

Findings by Prominent Philosophers of That Time

Merchant also highlights the most influential English philosophers of that time, including John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Their observation was that the natural state of the world was undesirable and there was a need to restore order. (“Reinventing Eden” 158). In her essay “Scientific Revolution and The Death of Nature”, Merchant notes that demoting the Scientific Revolution to merely a discursive change obscures the power of dominant imperial narratives that have shaped western perceptions towards nature and indigenous populations and provided deceptively scientific justifications for colonization (517).  

The role of Linnaeus in establishing the imperial tradition is his vast body of taxonomic work classifying plant species into intelligible categories (Worster 32). The only form of change Linnaeus recognized in nature is the cyclical form. He believed that every element and organism had its own place in the natural world. By an intricate hierarchical arrangement, each species served itself and others (Worster 34-35). Humans and their ambitions are at the highest stand in this hierarchy in the Linnaean/imperial model of ecology. Although they are subordinate to the divine order, they occupy a special place of dignity and honor on this planet. Worster highlights that imperial ecology strongly echoed the values of English industrialists and colonial agricultural reformers (53). 

A Combined View of Traditions

Both arcadian and imperial traditions of ecology believed that the natural world existed to fulfil human desires, at least to an extent. This is not surprising because, as humans, it’s only natural that we view the world from a human perspective, but one must note that the progression to the imperial tradition provided a strong justification for human exploitation of nature by creating a view that nature is lifeless. This becomes even more important when viewed in the context of colonialism. The next section will examine the ways in which colonial environmental regulation worked in India and attempt to connect it back to what we explored in this section.

Colonialism and Environmental Governance: The Indian Experience

Depiction of tiger killings during the British Rule in India and the harmful ecological impact

After mapping the evolution of environmental discourse in the west leading up to colonialism, it is important to explore some aspects of environmental governance in British India, focusing specifically on forest management and regulations against shifting cultivation.

Forest Management in the Himalayas

In The Unquiet Woods, Ramchandra Guha thoroughly discusses the impacts of colonialism on the ecosystems and communities living in the Himalayas. He emphasizes that in a region like the Himalayas, a study of socio-political change would be flawed unless set in the context of environmental change (6), making it a robust case study to analyze the human-nature relationship. Guha argues that the relationship of hill dwellers with the forests in precolonial times was in control of a variety of social and cultural mechanisms that had virtually created a protective ring around the forests.

One of these mechanisms is denoting certain groves and hilltops as sacred, preventing people from collecting timber in those regions (28-29). Apart from that, they had informal forms of forest management, which included seasonal restrictions on logging and limitations on grazing. Within these limits, the inhabitants of this region exercised various rights of grazing and fuel secured by usage and custom (Guha 31-32). 

Impact of Colonial Forestry Techniques

As the colonial state took an interest in commercially managing forests, the local access to them was reduced (Guha 43). Guha notes that an underlying principle of colonial forestry techniques—division into blocks and fencing forest lands—was that individual use of forest did not represent as much of a threat to colonial forestry as the customary collective use did (55). Forests were traditionally managed in the Himalayas through social and cultural norms that were collectively agreed upon. This posed a major problem to colonial ambitions of exploiting forest resources. Hence, the colonial state preferred to deal with individual households directly instead of village communities (Guha 55). 

Guha notes that this transition from collective to individual use of forest resources marked a fundamental change in the lives of hill-dwellers, effectively breaking the emotional link between humans and the forest (56). This alienation led peasants to perceive the forest that they once revered as their main enemy harboring diseases and wild animals that pose threats to their lives and livelihoods (Guha 58). This can be seen as the practical manifestation of the Linnaean ecological tradition in the colonized worlds. 

The Case against Shifting Cultivation

Shifting cultivation is a practice in which peasants clear a piece of forest land through burning, cultivate crops in it and abandon it after a period of time for another patch. This was common among several tribal and indigenous communities in India during the colonial period. Ravi Rajan notes that colonial officials perceived shifting cultivation as the very reverse of ‘normal’ agriculture (218). The British officials were used to seeing a sedentary form of agriculture back in their home country, and this form of ‘slash and burn’ agriculture seemed strange to them. This agricultural method was believed to be destructive not only to the environment—causing deforestation, air pollution and soil erosion—but also to the economy since it could not be taxed properly. 

Rajan argues that the technical interventions of colonial scientists aiming to effectively manage India’s natural resources were by no means value-neutral since they reflected the biases against indigenous peoples as well as a scientific conservationist ideology based on technocratic control over nature (226). Bhattacharya argues that the project of conservation was imagined as a battle against unreason and ‘pyromania’ of the locals and as the triumph of scientific rationality (372). Pouchepadass argues that in the colonizer’s view, civilized order cannot be a forest with humans living in symbiosis with it, no matter how nuanced and informed this interaction might be, but a domestic order which is predictable and surveyable (2065). 

The Importance of Ideology

Unlike the picture presented by Guha and Rajan, Grove argues that the hypothesis of a purely destructive environmental imperialism, as opposed to a pre-colonial past of environmental egalitarianism, does not hold true (39). Pouchepadass adds that any static conception of the human-nature relationship would be misleading since it is constantly changing as an outcome of a long history of ecological disruptions and adaptations (2059). The physical degradation of forests and other natural resources in India cannot be attributed solely to colonial rule.

This gives rise to the question: if the colonial rule did not cause any exceptional disruption in the human-nature relationship, what is the purpose of the question posed at the beginning of the article? The answer to this is presented by Grove and Pouchepadass themselves. 

Grove’s and Pouchepadass’s Take on the Disruption in the Human-Nature Relationship

The scale and extent of the attack on natural resources carried out during colonial rule were one of a kind owing to the rise of industrial capitalism. Secondly, the colonial state held means of conquest at hand that no pre-colonial power had, making it possible for them to carry out extensive environmental exploitation. As was discussed earlier, the colonial state was also armed with an anthropocentric ideology that relegated nature to an object to be conquered and commoditized.

This ideology could also be noticed in colonial hunting memoirs, in which the hunt is seen as a symbolic re-enactment of human victory over savage nature (Pouchepadass 2060-2061). Pouchepadass also argues that the colonial state started trying to preserve natural environments once they realized that it is more than a provider of resources—a public heritage to be conserved (2064). This highlights the role of the ideology behind colonial environmental management and destruction.

Grove points out that the British government had even pioneered environmental conservation projects in India (40). Most historical accounts explain colonial conservationism as a rationalization for their intense exploitation of natural resources in India or as a way to sustain this exploitation, but Grove argues that these explanations are insufficient. His argument was that the colonial state was faced with threats of famine and social unrest if it did not limit its intensive appropriation of nature (84-85). This was pointed out by colonial officials themselves, especially surgeons and medical officers who were aware of the sensitivity of tropical ecosystems (Grove 40-41). Beyond practical considerations, the colonial state was motivated by a Renaissance-era ideology that conceived nature as an intended and beneficent part of divine purpose (Grove 47).

The Answer

The colonial rule has, in a variety of ways, influenced the perceived relationship between humans and nature in India. It promoted a view of hostility towards nature that led humans to see nature as their enemy. This hostility also caused an emotional separation between humans and nature, an essential feature of scientific rationality. This emotional separation is characteristic of colonial environmental governance, which laid utmost emphasis on scientific methods and the physical preservation of forest lands. It is also reflected in the colonial state’s regulations against shifting cultivation which involved humans living in close proximity with nature. Merchant points out that the concept of a lifeless nature also becomes very important in forging this emotional separation. This is the main impact of colonialism on the discursive relationship between human society and nature.


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