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Review October 2023

State intervention and the transformation of nature in Eastern Europe

Review by Doubravka Olšáková
Edited by Stefan Dorondel and Stelu Şerban
ISBN 9780822947172
300 Pages
Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press
Wetlands in Ukraine and Belarus. Source: Flickr/United Nations Development Programme in Europe. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED)

A New Ecological Order: Development and the Transformation of Nature in Eastern Europe, edited by Stefan Dorondel and Stelu Şerban, is an intriguing attempt to understand the economic development and transformation of nature in Eastern Europe. Those who expect this book to engage in an open historical polemic with the important and provocative work of French philosopher Luc Ferry, entitled Nouvelle Ordre Écologique: L’Arbre, L’Homme et l’Animal (1992), based on the first part of the title (A New Ecological Order), will be disappointed. Although the division of the book into larger thematic units might suggest that the book has a certain potential to open a debate with Ferry or to criticize his conclusions, this does not occur.

We would search in vain for Ferry in the book. Sadly, none of the invited authors makes any mention of him in their texts. Yet, there are many similarities between the two publications. In his work, Luc Ferry makes an effort to balance liberal democracy and the preservation of nature while rejecting both the extreme viewpoints of deep ecology and wild capitalism. The book under review disregards ecological thought; because of the economic perspective used, it has a rather anthropocentric understanding of nature, including animals, whereas, in other texts of a similar nature, the inclusion of animals such as goats, oxen, muskoxen, or golden jackals is more of an exception rather than a rule. Yet, practically all the authors prioritize the state’s economic development and interests, and they do so more in the framework of the state’s historical development than in the context of considering the ideologies of the various regimes regarding the transformation of nature.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of this book, as well as the names of those who initiated its creation and their collaborators, indicate that this is a project influenced primarily by European historiography, particularly German and Central European historiography. American historiography has had only a minor impact. Three sections make up the book. Planning Territory is the main topic of the first, Nature, Economics, and Expertise are covered in the second, and Imagining New Nature is the topic of the third. This organization suggests a focus on how nature and people interact from the viewpoint of how humans alter and utilize nature. The authors purposefully emphasize the relationship between nature and the local/state economy, arguing that the states and regions of Central and Eastern Europe were so divergent that, while they did not adopt fully Western economic models, they were substantially inspired by them. The starting point for the interpretation presented here is thus a transfer of expertise and economic gain on a local scale, a concept inspired by Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Agrawal’s model of regional modernities. Thus, the book’s main characters are state planners, experts, and bureaucrats.

Nature thus becomes an impediment to the formation of a national state and becomes the subject of the state bureaucracy.

Although environmental history is transnational, the focus here is on regional issues. Because of the fragmentation of its territory, history, and politics, Central and Eastern Europe is regarded as a “fluid region” in this context. The individual texts are then logically based on the premise that the creation of large or smaller infrastructures is viewed as part of nation-building in the nationally fragmented Eastern Europe, where the regional agenda is problematized by the transnational nature of knowledge, which is implemented within a local context by state representatives, that is, experts, planners, and bureaucrats. Nature thus becomes an impediment to the formation of a national state and becomes the subject of the state bureaucracy. This discourse then implies a particular position and role for knowledge, which is discussed further in individual texts. The authors see knowledge transfer in their context as a regional reflection of the first globalization, which Mark Levinson defines as the rise of industrial capitalism. Globalization is then understood as knowledge transfer from the West to the East, with the authors making little distinction between knowledge transfer and knowledge circulation, which may better describe the various forms of mutuality discussed in many of the texts.

The interaction between the development of new infrastructure and the adoption of novel techniques, on the one hand, and their effects on the state and society, on the other, is the subject of the book’s first section, titled Planning Territory. The first chapter describes how Belgrade changed and how systematization in the sense of measuring, registering, and planning came along with modernity. The second chapter utilizes the example of the southern Macedonian swamp to adequately show the relationship between landscape, knowledge (here mainly agricultural expertise), and the effects of new planning on changes on the landscape and the formation of political demand for the resettlement of the population and refugees. The third chapter discusses Ukrainian wetlands and how they have changed in response to southern Ukraine’s development.

The role of experts is a major topic in the second section of the book. The fourth chapter makes use of instances like medical plant breeding in Transylvania for the global market, while the next analyses the contribution of professionals to the growth of the Lower Danube region in Bulgaria and Romania between 1900 and 1940. Following these two chapters is a study by Jiří Janáč that examines the functioning of hydraulic bureaucracy in Czechoslovakia as a tool of state strategy on how to build and run a national water management system. Large-scale initiatives in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from the 1940s to the present are covered in the seventh chapter.

The book’s final section focuses on experts and state representatives, whose roles include making judgments regarding the utilization of a nation’s or region’s natural resources. As a result, politicians and society at large are, in general, being prepared by the state apparatus, according to the authors, to carry out their vision of nature at the local or state level. The eighth chapter utilizes Turkey’s bureaucracy and Asia Minor as examples of how to optimize the transfer of European knowledge in order to alter nature and build a robust state economy. The legendary Białowieża Forest is examined in detail in the ninth chapter by Eunice Blavascunas, who uses it, as an illustration, to demonstrate how a prehistoric forest came to represent Polish forestry. At the same time, she illustrates how the knowledge and experience of this particular type of forest in East Europe can benefit the transnational exchange of knowledge. In the chapter that follows, the author utilizes the domestication of the muskox in Siberia as an illustration of discussions between the state administration and the local Evenki population as well as a localized case study of political economics. The final chapter examines the biosemiosis-stimulated approach in a study of environmental change using the example of a Bulgarian community in the context of the introduction of a new infrastructure project, including a nonhuman actor, this time a golden jackal.

This quick overview of the texts leads one to the conclusion that the publication is quite disjointed. Nonetheless, there are many commonalities and leitmotifs that all these contributions share. Overall, A New Ecological Order provides credible historical analyses of state intervention in the management of local natural sources aimed at promoting regional modernity in Eastern Europe, whereby this modernity has been formed by connecting the global and the local not only in the second half of the twentieth century but for the past two centuries.

Doubravka Olšáková is a senior researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where she leads the Department of Global Conflicts and their Consequences. Her research is oriented towards the intersection of the history of science and environmental history. She is actively involved in academic life and is a member of various committees and editorial boards. She is a member of the DHST Committee on Science, Technology, and Diplomacy. She published a book entitled Věda jde k lidu! on the dissemination of science in communist Czechoslovakia and the indoctrination of the masses. In 2016 she was the principal editor of the edited volume entitled In the Name of the Great Work. Stalin’s Plan for the Transformation of Nature and its Impact in Eastern Europe (Berghahn Books).