Friday, January 4, 2019

Savagery, civilization, and property V: Colonial development and Neo-Malthusian conservationism

In the last post in this series we saw how Enlightenment-era stadial thought was passed on to modern commons theory through the aboriginal property rights debate among twentieth-century ecologists. Today I'll discuss what I believe two more lines of influence. (The full article is here.)

The first was by way of the work of anthropologists and scientists associated with British colonial development efforts under the aegis of colonial administrator Malcolm Hailey. Lord Hailey, after a career in the Indian Civil Service, was tapped to run the African Survey in the 1930s and the Colonial Research Committee in the 1940s, and was an advocate of multidisciplinary social science research, particularly anthropological, in the colonies.

The staff of Hailey’s African Survey seem to have created something of a nexus for stadial thought in the context of colonial development. London School of Economics anthropologist Lucy Mair’s chapter on land made heavy use of the stadial framework for considering “the evolution of the most suitable form of land tenure”:
Lucy Mair
In some areas land custom is changing rapidly under the influence of new conditions, such as the increase of the pressure of population or the spread of a market economy. These changes will eventually involve official intervention . . . ; the need must, for example, be envisaged for the definition and recording of title . . .
There is nothing peculiar to Africa in the general direction which the evolution of land custom is taking; its adjustment in response to economic changes is a natural process which would occur independently of any action taken by the administration. 
In Mair’s analysis, traditional, communal forms of African land tenure needed to progress to more private rights in order to encourage development:
All discussions on the subject agree as to the value of giving security to the occupier of land, and the further advantage of what is generally termed the individualization of tenures. It has been urged on different occasions that the extended system of rights, vested in the family or group, has proved in Africa to be an obstacle to improved agriculture.
Strikingly, Mair also reported on Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, avant la lettre, herdsman and all:
Those who have had to deal with East African conditions have added the . . . argument that there is little incentive to natives to reduce their live-stock in order to prevent the wastage of pasture and consequent erosion, since nothing done by the individual will avail unless his neighbours take corresponding action . . . 
Moreover, in a remarkable anticipation of later legal scholarship that highlighted potential “comedies of the commons” and “tragedies” of its disappearance,  she also warned of the advantages of common property in some situations: “The question of rights over grazing commonages presents its own difficulties; the partition of grazing grounds into small units would be a bar to the adoption of that rotational use of pasture which many hold to be the best preventive of erosion in East African conditions.”

Anthropologist Charles Kingsley Meek’s 1946 Land Law and Custom in the Colonies, a study initiated by Hailey’s committee, opened with an argument that increasing population required rigid rules of land tenure. Lord Hailey himself contributed an introduction to the volume, in which he laid out a stadial framework for understanding changes in land tenure in the context of colonial development, apparently heavily reliant on Mair’s chapter for the African Survey. The transition between “stages of development” — from a pastoral economy to subsistence agriculture and then to market-oriented production — is accompanied, he wrote, by “automatic” changes in the system of land tenure, with a growing conception of individual ownership. “A further stage arrives when, with the growing density of population and increased pressure on the land, holdings acquire a transferable value, and rights in them become more completely commercialized.”

In the normative dimension, Hailey generally approved of this evolution of property rights on efficiency grounds:
In the extensive Colonial areas in which the system of landholding is based on the conception of a collective right in the land, the most conspicuous effect of economic development will . . . appear in the progressive individualization of holdings. That process will have the economic advantage of giving to the holders a greater sense of security and a greater incentive to a more intensive type of cultivation . . . 
But, building on Mair’s insight, Hailey also warned of potentially deleterious effects of private property:
An undue acceleration in the form taken by the development of a system of proprietary tenures may impair the success of major schemes of irrigation, which depends largely on the holding of land in units suitable for irrigated cultivation. The establishment of exclusive rights over pastoral lands may make it difficult to adopt the regime of rotational closures necessary to prevent their deterioration. Measures necessary for soil conservation, such as contour ridging, may be rendered more difficult . . . . Exceptional difficulties are also liable to occur in connection with the rights in certain forestal products, for example palm trees. As experience shows, such rights may be held in a manner which presents grave obstacles to the development of economic methods of processing or marketing.
Another central figure in Hailey’s African Survey was biologist/ecologist E.B. Worthington. Worthington’s long career in science and administration in Britain, Africa, and the Middle East was marked by repeated invocations of stadial thinking, likely introduced to him by Mair, as indicated by the similarity between the latter’s reflections on the effects of population pressure on land use and tenure and his own later ones. (He himself drew connections between evolutionary thinking in anthropology as related to its centrality in the biological sciences.)

Worthington’s earliest statement of the theory came in the opening to his report on his wartime work for the Middle East Supply Centre investigating Middle Eastern science, in a section entitled “Stages of Development”: “In analyzing the problems it is useful to keep in mind the four stages of human development which are associated with an increased pressure of population on the land, namely the modes of life illustrated by hunters, shepherds, cultivators, and industrial workers.”  As population in the region increased, he wrote, the outlet should be “progress towards the industrial stage,” but even then the Maltshusian specter of population increase outstripping production loomed.

Lest one think that these four stages were simply the categories that Worthington happened upon in his study, the above sentence appeared again, nearly verbatim, in the introduction to his influential Science in the Development of Africa. Though Worthington believed, like his Enlightenment predecessors, that transitions between stages were a matter of slow evolution, he thought that Africa would pass through the same stages as Europe but in a much shorter time, and drew familiar connections between population size and civilizational stages.

Hailey’s chairmanship of the British Colonial Research Committee (created to help implement the Colonial Development and Welfare Act), Worthington’s leadership positions in a variety of development projects, and the influence of their oft-cited works with their expositions of stadial theory ensured an audience for stadial thinking in the world of international development. The field of development, also influenced by the evolutionist theories of anthropology surveyed above, in turn was an important influence on the commons thinking of Ostrom and her circle.

The final line of intellectual influence of Enlightenment stadial theory on recent commons theory leads from early nineteenth century economist Thomas Malthus through his followers in the twentieth century conservation movement.

The writings of Malthus on population, clearly a pervasive influence on later scholars dealing with issues of pressure on resources, were suffused with stadial thinking. Although for Malthus, changes in methods of subsistence and increasingly defined property rights drove population growth, not the reverse. Twentieth century eugenicist Alexander Carr-Saunders, whose work was influential on Worthington (among others), devoted considerable attention in his Population Problem (1922) to property institutions in societies of hunters, farmers, and so on.

Stadial theory (it seems by way of Gibbon), neo-Malthusianism, and a somewhat Orientalist outlook came together in Fairfield Osborn’s bestselling Our Plundered Planet (1948), a book known mostly for its warnings against the environmental consequences of overpopulation.  But Osborn had a lot to say, as well, about the property institutions associated with various ways of life. The book was hostile to pastoralists, including American cattlemen, throughout, but with a particularly condemnatory account of the destruction of commons by herders in Spain, blamed on the nomadism of its Moslem conquerors.  Anticipating Hardin’s Tragedy, Osborn wrote of herdsmen who “try to maintain the largest possible number of animals on a limited range, grazing at all times . . . and so destroy the grass and bushes to such an extent that nothing is left but nearly barren ground.”  On the other hand, the private property of European agriculturalists is held up for praise:
Land in many regions of Europe . . . was divided up and held in relatively small tracts for the use and benefit of individual owners and their families. Thus it was protected and cared for.
European peoples early became intelligent tillers of the soil, and were not nomadic but lived for generations in one place. They loved their land and learned to return to it much of the substance they drew from it.
It seems clear that Hardin, at least, was influenced by Carr-Saunders, Osborn, and their circles.

Next in this series - the conclusion.

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