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STS and environmental history live to see another day

Joseph Satish V

22 December, 2017

"Now all of you must go and hug a tree each, and tell the tree to continue growing big and strong” commands Mariyaraj, with a gentle smile on his face. We turn towards each other and stare - but soon enough, each of us has found a tree to hug and talk to (picture below). We do this in a small patch of woods called the Bombay Sholas, located in the famous hill station Kodaikanal, tucked away amid the Palani Hills of southern India.

In November 2017, I accompanied an undergraduate class of sixty mathematics students from St. Joseph’s College in Trichy to the Anglade Institute of Natural History (AINH) in Kodaikanal for a program organized as part of SHEPHERD - Science and Humanities for People’s Development. Students from all departments are offered various opportunities to live in nearby villages, work on outreach projects and “pay back to the community”. This trip to Kodaikanal - a component under the SHEPHERD program - offers students a chance to learn and engage with issues related to the environment. This educational trip is a three-day program called Nature conservation and ecological development, designed as a beginner’s course for students. It was first launched in 1984 as a project funded by the Government of India and has seen close to a million people trained until 2016! In addition, there are programs of longer duration catering to the needs and interests of teachers, government officials, village leaders and women.

The program provides a further case for enhancing the dialogue between the fields of environmental history and science and technology studies (STS), something which the edited volume New Natures did convincingly in 2013. As Sara Pritchard asks, can conceptual STS tools help us “gain a richer understanding of how “the environment” is constructed, perceived, contested, and (re)shaped by historical actors?” As a participant in the AINH program, I realized that the trainers J. Mariyaraj and V. Ananth, who were graduate students of botany, were using STS-ish concepts to encourage the trainees to reflect upon how the society has and ought to respond to environmental challenges in the social context of science.  The following may help illustrate my case.


On day one, trainees are introduced to World Conservation Strategy, a 1980 report which went on to influence the global sustainable development agenda of the 1990s. With this introduction to the global need for environmental conservation, trainees are taken to the natural history museum, fernery and orchid gardens housed within the 100-hectare AINH campus to get a feel of the rich biodiversity of the Palani Hills. On the second day, the trainees are taken on long treks to the Bombay Sholas and the Pambar Sholas, both being patches of grasslands (and forests) which are home to several endemic species of fauna and flora. However, the trainers did not restrict themselves merely to themes of environmental conservation but expanded to a broader canvas of issues. For instance, we are shown a local Shola tree which has grown entangled with a eucalyptus tree (picture above), a species introduced by the British to support economic botany of the colonial empire. Further, when we were asked to hug the trees, it was a specific reference to the Chipko movement when native women stood against the might of the State to prevent the felling of trees for commercial purposes in northern India. As we wade through the Pambar Falls, we are introduced to the mercury pollution of the Kodaikanal Lake by Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory (an issue made popular by Sophia Ashraf’s viral rap video). On day three, trainees go through a self-evaluation and are encouraged to prepare an action plan for the future.

The case for the role of social scientists in designing and evaluating climate change policy has been made more than once. In such instances, there has been some discussion as to which social scientists ought to be included in this effort. In the recent past, there have been some interesting conversations between historians of science and STS scholars on how they could/should collaborate and to what ends. I would like to think that environmental history presents an exciting opportunity for historians of science and technology and STS scholars to work together. In the case of forests in India, the historian Ramachandra Guha pointed out, “The history of state forestry is indeed a history of social conflict”. Environmental history is yet another important avenue for STS scholars to explore and work with – considering that forests, the environment and “nature” themselves are constructed socially, a theme so often explored in STS theory.

Interestingly, the Anglade Institute was set up by a Jesuit priest and botanist. So STS is up for grabs to entertain a dialogue with other diverse disciplines such as religious studies too. But that is a topic for another day!

Joseph Satish V (@bravenewscience) is a graduate student in STS studies at the University of Hyderabad, India. He blogs on issues related to the science and society at A Brave New Science

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.