The demise of Richard H Grove, environmental historian and polymath extraordinaire at Lewes, Cambridge, this June, leaves a void. A pioneer in global environmental history, he made a major contribution to studying the roots of modern environmental concern and linking it to the colonial era and to early scientific debates.
Professor Grove had taken up a position in the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, in 2006 a few months prior to a serious automobile accident. Though it impaired his work and mobility, he was a fighter to the last. Prior to this, he had held appointments at Cambridge and Yale universities. He founded the Centre for World Environmental History in Sussex in 2002.
Grove’s early career showed a rare ability to cross the boundaries of disciplines. Born in July 1956 and son of the eminent geographers, Alfred T and Jean Grove, his work spanned several disciplines and continents.
He got a BA in geography from Hartford College, Oxford and then a Masters in Conservation Biology from University College, London. His doctoral degree awarded in 1988 at Cambridge traced the story of early ecological concern back in time and literally across the oceans and seas.
In a nutshell, rapid changes in the ecologies of islands such as St Vincent in the Caribbean and St Helena and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean followed on the heels of colonial rule. Surgeon botanists in the East India Company and its Dutch equivalent were among the first to trace changes in hydrology due to loss of forest cover. In western and southern India, the early botanists warned of famine and unrest, prompting early steps for forest protection.
His book, ‘Green Imperialism’, based on his doctoral thesis, is a citation classic. A great raconteur, he was happy to share the story of how the thesis got past his examiners though it was twice the word length. The secret was his extra-long foot-notes — he used archives in over a dozen countries.
Grove blazed the trail for a new kind of history of ideas that spanned continents. Most crucially, he placed India, Africa and the Caribbean at the centre of global environmental change. The absence of strong local landed interests, as was the case within Europe, made regulation of forests, land and water easier. Over time, his work paid careful attention to local resistance and conflicts.
His work on El Nino and long-term relationships of climate change and economic and social events published in 1998 was ahead of its time. Global warming, he showed, had been studied and known in Victorian times, though early warning signals were brushed aside and ignored.
But he raised a larger question about empire and ecology that has much relevance to our troubled times. Was power capable of being moderated by knowledge? Could enlightened self-interest control untrammelled greed? The past, for him, did not give easy solutions. But the history of the colonial world, and India even more so, held many clues.
In particular, he saw the emergence of early scientists in the Company as harbingers of a new autonomous actor who could try and check the use and abuse of nature. Why and how serious ideas about achieving harmony with nature could become a “Trojan horse” to punish the poor was a recurrent theme of his later work.
The titles of his coedited works are impressive enough but a closer look shows how he served as a connecting link across generations, disciplines and regional studies specialists. ‘Conservation in Africa’, 1987, was followed by a volume on Zimbabwe and in 1998, by ‘Nature and the Orient’, which brought together South and South East Asia.
No assessment of his contribution is complete without his remarkable ability to mentor younger scholars. A generosity of intellect and person was his hallmark. In 1996, he founded the journal, ‘Environment and History’. It was my privilege to work closely with him on this venture for five years.
A reverence for power was not his preferred trait. His plainspeak, while courageous, also meant he had few powerful mentors. A senior scholar once privately remarked how the university as institution had been created so that minds such as Grove’s could thrive. What he left unsaid matters. If only they had done so — and would do so — to their fullest. Are narrow departmental bounds and celebration of conformity not worth a second look?
Grove’s was an intellect that broke such barriers. His work will now find new audiences on a planet where all are now more conscious of the fragility of life.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 1, 2020 under the title “Nature’s Historian”. The writer teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University
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