Lecture Challenges Traditional Narratives of Environmental Damage

By Rebecca Egli - On February 24, the Environments & Societies Research Initiative hosted the second event of its Winter 2016 Colloquium Series. Diana K. Davis, professor of history at UC Davis, delivered a lecture entitled “Dispossessing the Drylands: Why Environmental Science and Critical Realism Matter for ‘History for a Sustainable Future.’”

In her lecture, Professor Davis—a geographer, doctor of veterinary medicine, and expert on arid lands in the Middle East and North Africa—challenged traditional assessments of the arid environments found in Algeria and the American West.

Davis’s work is part of a broader attempt to demonstrate the extent to which scientific explanations often reflect the agendas of the societies that create them. Her research calls for identifying flaws in environmental narratives and advocating for change through public policy.

Rejecting flawed narratives

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientists viewed drylands as landscapes ruined by environmental mismanagement. In places such as Algeria and the American West, Davis argued, government officials accused indigenous groups of ecological degradation because of misconceptions about arid environments.

Healthy environments, experts believed, should contain trees, grasslands, and wildlife, while landscapes that appeared barren had been laid waste by native peoples due to reckless grazing practices. These entrenched false notions about the ecology of arid environments justified decades of government policies of indigenous dispossession and removal.

Those seeking to “improve” arid landscapes often criticized the practice of nomadic pastoralism. In the West, the federal government sought to replace the practice with sedentary agriculture, forcing many native people to take up Anglo-American style farming in environments better suited to grazing.

Seeking new understandings

Davis emphasized that it is a serious misconception to view deserts as deforested wastelands. Rather, these areas are distinct vegetative communities with their own biodiversity specifically adapted to aridity and drought. 

“Not all landscapes are meant to contain trees,” she explained. “Our old notions of what constitutes a healthy environment don’t hold up in the drylands. We need new understandings. The notion of ‘desertification’ is dying thanks to new research.”

Learn more about Diana K. Davis at her website. Her forthcoming book The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge will be published in April 1016 by The MIT Press as part of its History for a Sustainable Future series.

Learn more about the Colloquium Series and see a schedule of upcoming events at the Environments & Societies website.

The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.