The best books on environmental history, science, and development

Gufu Oba Author Of African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development
By Gufu Oba

Who am I?

Gufu Oba (Professor) has taught Ecology, Pastoralism, and Environmental History at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences for 21 years. He previously worked for UNESCO-MAB on issues of environmental conservation. He has published four books on social and environmental history. His books include Nomads in the shadows of Empires (BRILL, 2013), Climate change adaptations in Africa (Routledge, 2014), Herder Warfare in East Africa: A social and Spatial History (White Horse Press, 2017), and African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for development (Routledge, 2020).


I wrote...

African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

By Gufu Oba,

Book cover of African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

What is my book about?

Using one-and-a-half century’s research literature on peasant agriculture and pastoral rangeland development in East Africa, the book describes myths of environmental changes in terms of soil erosion control, animal husbandry, grazing schemes, large-scale agricultural schemes, social and administrative science research, and vector-disease and pest controls. Drawing on comparative socio-ecological perspectives of African peoples across then colonies and post-independent states, this book refutes the hypothesis that African peoples were responsible for environmental degradation.

The book explores how and why the idea of the African environmental crisis developed and persisted through colonial and post-colonial periods. And why it has been so influential in development discourse. This crisis discourse was dominated by the imposition of imperial scientific knowledge, neglecting indigenous knowledge and experiences.

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Environmental Infrastructure in African History: Examining the Myth of Natural Resource Management in Namibia

By Emmanuel Kreike,

Book cover of Environmental Infrastructure in African History: Examining the Myth of Natural Resource Management in Namibia

Why this book?

Environmental Infrastructure in African History offers a new approach for analyzing and narrating environmental change. Environmental change conventionally is understood as, moving from a state of more nature to a state of less nature and more culture. In this model, non-Western and pre-modern societies live off natural resources, whereas more modern societies rely on artifacts, or nature that is transformed and domesticated through science and technology into culture. Emmanuel Kreike argues that both non-Western and pre-modern societies inhabit a dynamic middle ground between nature and culture. He asserts that humans - in collaboration with plants, animals, and other animate and inanimate forces - create environmental infrastructure that constantly is remade and re-imagined in the face of ongoing processes of change.


The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950

By William Beinart,

Book cover of The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950

Why this book?

The Rise of Conservation in South Africa is an innovative contribution to the growing comparative field of environmental history. Beinart's major theme is the history of conservationist ideas in South Africa. He focuses largely on the livestock farming districts of the semi-arid Karoo and the neighboring Eastern Cape grasslands, conquered and occupied by white settlers before the middle of the nineteenth century. Concerns about environmental degradation reached a crescendo in the early decades of the twentieth century, when a Dust Bowl of kinds was predicted, and formed the basis for far-reaching state intervention aimed at conserving natural resources. Soil erosion, overstocking, and water supplies stood alongside wildlife protection as the central preoccupations of South African conservationists.

The book traces debates about environmental degradation in successive eras of South African history. It offers a reinterpretation of South Africa's economic development, and of aspects of the Cape colonial and South African states. It expands the understanding of English-speaking South Africans and their role both as farmers and as protagonists of conservationist ideas.


Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950

By Helen Tilley,

Book cover of Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950

Why this book?

Africa as a Living Laboratory is a far-reaching study of the thorny relationship between imperialism and the role of scientific expertise—environmental, medical, racial, and anthropological—in the colonization of British Africa. A key source for Helen Tilley’s analysis is the African Research Survey, a project undertaken in the 1930s to explore how modern science was being applied to African problems. This project both embraced and recommended an interdisciplinary approach to research on Africa that, Tilley argues, underscored the heterogeneity of African environments and the interrelations among the problems being studied. While the aim of British colonialists was unquestionably to transform and modernize Africa, their efforts, Tilley contends, were often unexpectedly subverted by scientific concerns with the local and vernacular to the understanding of imperial history, colonial development, and the role science played in both.


Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika, 1850–1950 (Eastern African Studies)

By Helge Kjekshus,

Book cover of Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika, 1850–1950 (Eastern African Studies)

Why this book?

This pioneering book was one of the first to place the history of East Africa within the context of the environment. It has been used continuously for student teaching. The book puts people at the centre of events. It thus serves as a modification to nationalist history with its emphasis on leaders. Helge Kjekshus provides evidence to suggest that the nineteenth century was a period of relative prosperity with well-developed trade. He questions the view that warfare was pervasive and that the slave trade led to depopulation. He points to a balance between man and the environment. Helge Kjeskshus’s book has, for a long time, been the sole reference on environmental history in East Africa, with a focus on Tanganyika. 


Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya, 1890s-1963

By David M. Anderson,

Book cover of Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya, 1890s-1963

Why this book?

In Colonial Kenya, the famines of the mid-1920s led to claims that the crisis in Baringo was brought on by overcrowding and livestock mismanagement. In response to the alarm over erosion, the state embarked on a program for rehabilitation, conservation, and development. Eroding the Commons examines Baringo's efforts to contend with the problems of erosion and describes how they became a point of reference for similar programs in British Africa, especially as rural development began to encompass goals beyond economic growth and toward an accelerated transformation of African society. It provides an excellent focus for the investigation of the broader evolution of colonial ideologies and practices of development.


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