Green Orientalism

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 November 1993


In her 1989 book Primate Visions, historian of science Donna Haraway analyzed the “cannibalistic western logic that readily constructs other cultural possibilities as resources for western needs and actions”. This opinion piece shows how environmental activists, ecological economists, development experts and deep green theorists, too, have embraced this “cannibalistic logic” by telling self-serving and one-sided stories about Noble Savages, Eastern religions, “traditional communities” and ordinary householders. This Green Orientalism both arises from and perpetuates power imbalances. It must be constantly challenged by stories told from other points of view.



Human societies ... have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with 'other' cultures.

Edward Said1

Making up exotic stories about other societies has always been an agreeable pastime. From the yarns of ancient Chinese about the unlucky barbarians outside their borders to the fulminations of American politicians about the Evil Empire, such storytelling gives people a happy opportunity to say what they want to hear about themselves. Just as every generation rewrites history to serve its own purposes, so every group inevitably describes other groups to itself in ways which reflect its own categories and concerns.

Such stories need not always oppress. Sometimes those who are being gossiped about can confront the gossips and laugh them into shame or second thoughts. Shared and criticized among equals, the gossip may even spur surprising mutual discoveries and dialogue. Where storytellers enjoy huge power over their characters, however, their tales are likely to become an intimate part of mechanisms of domination, often overshadowing the self-descriptions of the people they are about.

Thus in the colonialist West, accounts of subject peoples' "religious fanaticism", "passivity" or "backwardness", propagated relentlessly by travellers, littérateurs, scholars and diplomats, were pointed to in order to justify the need for the benevolent influence of Western administration. Tales of Rudolph Valentino sheikhs and their harems meanwhile suggested a "licentiousness" which cried out for the guiding hand of white Christian morality -- but also provided an excuse for Western men's sexual adventures in the East. Bathed by a sea of images of a mystical, unchanging, despotic Orient, even reformers and revolutionaries wound up being taken in. Marx, for example, notoriously assumed that only through first being subjected to the destructiveness of British imperialism could "Asia" throw off its chains and undertake the road to socialism, thus enabling humanity to "fulfil its destiny". Some Victorian feminists, meanwhile, used colonialist rhetoric about the oppressive patriarchy of "Oriental lands" to tar their domineering, possessive menfolk with the brush of being "sultan-like" and thus insufficiently "Western".2

Literary critic Edward Said uses the term "Orientalism" to describe such inventions by Westerners of the terms in which a militarily and politically weaker East is to be spoken of. The word may conjure up images of 19th-century Western professors and antiquarians deciphering texts and sifting through dusty artifacts. Yet, as Said pointed out, the phenomenon is restricted neither to Orient-Occident relations nor to the colonial age.

The whole postwar narrative of "development", for example, sets up and enforces, in fine Orientalist style, a dichotomy between hungry, expectant, tradition-shackled Southern peoples and a modern, scientific, democratic North under whose progressive leadership they will gradually be freed for better things. Real-life intrusions into this narrative -- botched development projects, the North's usurpation of resources in the face of widening North-South inequalities, increasing hunger and impoverishment, international graft, strife, authoritarianism and slaughter -- are often attributed not to the Northern-dominated process of development itself but to imperfect implementation of Northern plans, together with Southerners' "corruption", "maladaptive tendency to overbreed", "lack of respect for human life", and comparative sluggishness in lifting themselves from our common, muddy origins and refining themselves into more civilized societies. Ultimately the tone is little different from that of Kurtz, the ivory-plundering hero of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, who, years after writing a high-flown essay explaining how European rule is to bring enlightenment to darkest Africa, scrawls simply at the bottom, "Exterminate all the brutes".

Nor is Orientalism confined to the international arena. Governments and corporations everywhere like to cast local minority groups in the role of people needing their ministrations. Like international agencies, they tend to appropriate what they claim are "local traditions" as tools to push their own aims. The Sumatran firm PT Inti Indorayon Utama, for example, recently argued that Batak women's protests against its local paper pulp scheme were illegitimate since "traditional" Batak land management systems did not allow women any voice over land use.3

Cannibalistic Logic

We Western environmentalists may imagine ourselves immune from such crudities. We are sensitive to the need for self-determination, we tell ourselves. We listen to others and respect them for what they are. Above all, we are aware of the North's problems and its exploitation of the South. Not for us the new, unselfconscious racism of the 1990s, when a Guardian journalist, to take one example, can write matter-of-factly of "the Arab sickness" of "irrationality", "fantasy" and "intellectual failure" and revive the self-congratulatory Orientalist assumption that it was through colonial rule that Asian nations "achieved unity and genuine independence".4

Yet within environmentalism, too, power imbalances constantly create openings for what historian of science Donna Haraway calls the "cannibalistic western logic that readily constructs other cultural possibilities as resources for western needs and actions".5 Like 19th-century feminists and Marxists, many contemporary environmentalists find it hard to avoid Orientalism even when questioning powerful currents in industrial societies.

Greens eager to avoid being dismissed by Northern mainstream institutions, for example, often take it upon themselves to downplay features of potential popular movement allies which may be unfamiliar or disturbing to their élite patrons. Thus when the late Amazonian activist Chico Mendes testified before the US Congress, references to his leftist trade union background were edited out without his consent by his translator in order not to trouble the sensibilities of the American lawmakers. Similarly, environmental economists such as David Pearce typically refuse to listen to groups who point out that their decision-making procedures cannot be captured or advanced through being reformulated in the Western academic narrative of calculating, maximizing individuals and cost-benefit analysis.6

But environmentalists of the more dissident hue sometimes associated with The Ecologist are just as capable of recasting other people's movements and practices to suit their own purposes. Seeking an impressive lineage for their views somewhere outside their own society, some Western greens treat (say) Taoism or Hinduism merely as flavourful ingredients in their own recipe for "sustainability" or "biocentrism". In the eyes of other environmentalists, an Indian movement against the building of a nuclear test range may be transformed from a battle to secure land for high-input agriculture to "a struggle for mother earth". Even the Chipko or tree-hugging movement of the Himalaya can become, in the words of Madras sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, a "Rorschach for environmentalists who see in it everything from subaltern politics to alternative science".7 The much-quoted 19th century "Native American" speech asking "How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?", meanwhile, continues to be attributed to Chief Seattle years after having been revealed to have been penned largely by a screenwriter named Ted Perry for a US film shown in 1972.8

Some greens not only accept unquestioningly the traditional-modern boundary demarcated by development experts, but help patrol it as well. Amazonian Indians and others who dare to step outside their role as "traditional peoples" by wearing T-shirts or using video cameras may be dismissed as "not being true to their culture", using the "wrong tactics", or "not being so ecologically in tune after all". Like development experts, such environmentalists require other societies to be "what the West is not" -- except that what the development experts treat as "underdeveloped aspirants to a Western lifestyle", their environmentalist colleagues are likelier to lump together as "virtuous traditional peoples in harmony with nature". Development Orientalists may sneer at Green Orientalists' "romanticism", and Green Orientalists castigate Development Orientalists' "destruction of traditional ways of life", but both tacitly assume that it is Westerners alone who have the right to decide what a culture is, what is traditional, what is romantic, what is Westernized, what must be saved, and what is politically realistic. The only way subordinate groups can build alliances with such Orientalists is to act out the parts of "environmentalists", "traditional peoples" or "development enthusiasts" to which they have been assigned, then twisting and subverting these roles to their own advantage.

The North Teaches, the South Listens

For Green Orientalists, as for their colonialist forbears, all real knowledge, consciousness and power rest with the North. In environmental matters, as in others, they assume it is up to the North not only to explain, inspire and lead the South, but also to empower it and teach it about itself.

Thus Green Orientalists often seem unable to comprehend the role of Northern activists in the South -- for example, the Swiss activist Bruno Manser, who joined the struggle of Sarawak's Penan against loggers -- except by picturing them as environmentalist T. E. Lawrences or Lord Jims leading the natives to liberation. For them, there is nothing extraordinary in the fact that so many seminars about managing Southern resources are run by Northerners. Presuming to understand the tactics of faraway struggles over land and water better than the participants do themselves, they are fond of offering other countries political instruction through books with titles like The Environmental Potential of Buddhism in Asia. Not least, they canvass support in their own countries with slogans such as: "We can stop rainforest destruction and empower indigenous peoples, if enough of us get involved!" Marx's words echo down the generations: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented".

Narratives of "Nature"

If human beings have their hands full contending with the myriad ways they are represented by others, what about apes, trees, dogs, newts, crops, minerals, molecules, grizzly bears and all the other things and organisms which have been the subject of tales about "nature" or "the environment"?

Green things and many-legged creatures, like everything else, tend to get defined in terms which suit the interests of the definer. Often they are seen simply as the opposite of, or a resource for, something more familiar. Rousseau's "nature", for example, as the "source by which corrupt society reformed and purified itself", took its meaning in part "from that to which it is opposed: divine kings, pre-society, corrupt society, and so forth".9 For élites among Tai peoples of Southeast Asia, the wild forest, filled with spirits, fierce animals, illicit activities and non-Tai peoples, was until recently conceived as the menacing opposite pole to the civilized realm of the royal city or muang, and to be brought within it only through clearance.10 Biology, too, unavoidably defines nature in terms of ideas which happen to be lying around at a particular time in a particular subculture: as Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould remarks, Charles Darwin derived natural selection partly by "wondering how he might transfer the laissez-faire principle of Adam Smith's economics into nature".11 Other societies may prefer to tell stories about animals as younger siblings or reincarnations of humans with dubious moral records, with all the opportunities for condescension that opens up. Still others may have no need for a concept of nature as opposed to culture at all.12

Western Images

The story about "nature" the contemporary West best likes to tell -- and it is one which again accords well with its own interests and recent experience -- is of a matrix or "environment" for scientific and industrial activity. On this scheme nature is often portrayed, like a strip mine site or laboratory animal, as unfeeling raw material waiting to be plundered, tamed, and vivisected by humans who are constrained only by their own Hobbesian "nature" and the "natural laws" binding the raw material. As petri dish or Green Revolution field, nature is viewed as a passive domain in which results can be reproduced under controlled conditions, in much the way that "development" is supposed to replicate the First World in the Third.

This story also portrays nature as raw material for society -- as a "basic" stratum underpinning the refinements of culture. In this guise, "nature" tends to become an audiovisual aid for the illustration of political lessons. Thus museum dioramas and book plates portraying male-led mountain gorilla groups, Primitive Man the Hunter, or lustful, thick-skulled male dinosaurs butting heads for female favours remind us of the "universal truth" that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, while seemingly sober gynecology texts reinforce myths of women's economic unproductivity by treating menstruation as "wastage".13

The flip side of the Western image of nature as industrial raw material, of course, is of nature as non-resource or as access-controlled wilderness preserve patrolled by properly-credentialled park rangers: roughly, the "nature" invented by some US preservationists, field biologists and deep ecologists. Here, too, nature is "what is not industrial" -- with the relatively slight difference that instead of being "that which has not yet been industrially processed" it becomes "that which should not be industrially processed". Just as traditionalists often view selected Southern peoples as a modernity-free cultural reserve to be fenced off and kept pure for future use, many Northern preservationists view nature as an industrial-free and therefore (they assume) human-free reserve whose separateness is, paradoxically, a condition for people's being able to be "one" with it in the proper way. And just as colonial-age Orientalists such as Lawrence prided themselves on being able to speak for the Orient they had invented, Western preservationists, industrialists and economists often nominate themselves as spokespeople for "nature" without fear of contradiction. Thus one US ecologist informs us that it is he and his colleagues, as "representatives of the natural world", who have the mandate and expertise to "determine whether the tropical agroscape is to be populated only by humans ... or whether it will also contain some islands of the ... nature that spawned humans, yet has been vanquished by them".14

Refusing Conversation

Such stories and images of "nature", when elevated through the exercise of power into supposed "universal" and "objective" truths and exempted from commentary by less powerful groups, hold much the same repressive force as colonialist tales about "the Orient" or developers' yarns about the "Third World".

Part of this force is exerted against plants and animals themselves. The latter, of course, are not in the habit of voicing verbal protests to the way they are described, and any attempt by their defenders to speak for them is open once again to charges of Orientalism. All the same, violence is obviously afoot when animals are categorized, as they were by Descartes and his followers, as mechanisms impervious to torture. Nor does it seem extravagant to suggest that in refusing to take into account the particularity of different landscapes and in openly describing nature as an "enemy", industrial agriculture is rejecting the sort of civil, tentative "conversation" with the land and its inhabitants which farmers from places as diverse as Northern Thailand, the Peruvian Andes and Kentucky have attempted to pursue in their different ways -- and which Western ecofeminists have also urged through their insistence on seeing "the world as active subject" with an "independent sense of humour", not as "resource to be mapped and appropriated in bourgeois, Marxist or masculinist projects".15

But it is not only animals and plants that suffer from attempts to universalize the culturally parochial notion that nature is either resource or non-resource. The US idea that "real nature" is not to be touched by human hands, applied in the South, reinforces the view that hundreds of thousands of people living in protected areas are either "encroachers" subject to eviction or, at best, merely part of the wildlife. In countries like India, as Ramachandra Guha observes, this has led to "a direct transfer of resources from the poor to the rich" as large swaths of land come under the control of national and international conservation élites.16 Ironically, environmental destruction is often one result. As Kenny Matampash notes, it was only after national parks and game reserves ate up the best parts of Maasai rangeland in Kenya that significant competition for food between livestock and wildlife began to emerge in the region.17

Green Orientalism vs. Green Alliance

Telling stories about other people and about nature is both unavoidable and productive. But it is also a political act. Being wary of Green Orientalism does not mean trying to give up storytelling, but rather acknowledging this politics and working to make it less oppressive by not insisting on monopoly rights to define others. "Unbiased" or "comprehensive" stories, after all, are to be found neither in science, nor in the voices of "traditional" or oppressed peoples, nor in "thinking like a mountain". Nor is it possible to take the politics out of storytelling by adopting the relativist pretence that every story is just as good as any other. That too would be a political standpoint, although one which it is impossible to take.

At stake in debates over Green Orientalism is not only democracy, but also solidarity. When people defending local land or water for their own subsistence are told by deep ecologists that they have an instrumental attitude toward nature identical with that of Texaco, or by population control enthusiasts that they must see their own lives in terms of the multiplication of bacteria in petri dishes, or by development experts that environmentalism is for those with full bellies and therefore that if they are to follow the script they should "develop" first and worry about trees later, they are bound to resist, and possibilities for alliance are bound to be smothered. When, on the other hand, environmentalists are willing to see Southern farmers or forest dwellers as something more than characters in their own stories, at the same time acknowledging that they themselves are in part characters in criticizable tales told by others, then possibilities for negotiation, inquiry and alliance multiply.

Green Orientalism both arises from and perpetuates power imbalances. In fighting these imbalances, environmentalists can benefit from the lessons of anti-racist, feminist and anti-imperialist popular movements; we can learn to seek unity less by attempting to recruit others as subcontractors to build our own utopias, or by trying to find a monolithic "truth of nature" to impose on the world, and more through solidarity with subordinate groups pursuing, on different terrains, purposes that may be related to our own. That solidarity requires that even our most cherished dichotomies be challenged by the stories other societies tell.


1 Said, E., Orientalism, Vintage, New York, 1979, p.204.

2 Zonana, J., "The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre", Signs, Vol. 18, 1993, pp.592-617. See also Apffel-Marglin, F. and Simon, S. L., "Feminist Orientalism and Development", forthcoming in Development.

3 Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia and Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (eds.), Mistaking Plantations for Indonesia's Tropical Forest, WALHI, Jakarta, 1992, p.50.

4 Woollacott, M. in The Guardian, 4 March 1991.

5 Haraway, D., Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge, London, 1989, p.247.

6 Pearce, D. (ed.), Blueprint 2: Greening the World Economy, Earthscan, London, 1991, p.5; see also The Ecologist, Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan, London, 1993, pp.114-127.

7 "Reinventing Gandhi", IUMDA Newsletter 5, 1992.

8 Kaiser, R., "A Fifth Gospel, Almost: Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception" in Feest, C.F. (ed.), Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays, Rader Verlag, Aachen, 1987, pp.505-26.

9 MacCormack, C. P. "Nature, Culture, and Gender: A Critique" in MacCormack, C. P. and Strathern, M. (eds.), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980, p.20.

10 Stott, P., "Mu'ang and Pa: Elite Views of Nature in a Changing Thailand" in Manas C. and Turton, A. (eds.) Thai Constructions of Knowledge, University of London, London, 1991, pp.142-54. See also Dove, M., "The Dialectical History of 'Jungle' in Pakistan", Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 48, 1992, pp.231-53.

11 Gould, S. J., "Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) The Past" in Gould, S. J. (ed.), The Book of Life, Hutchinson, London, 1993.

12 Haraway, D., op. cit. 5, pp.244-248; Strathern, M., "No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case," in MacCormack, C. P. and Strathern, M., op. cit. 9, pp.174-222.

13 Haraway, D., op. cit.; Martin, E., The Woman in the Body, Beacon Press, Boston, 1987, pp.47-8.

14 Janzen, D., "The Future of Tropical Ecology", Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 17 (1986), pp.305-06.

15 Grillo Fernandez, E., "Knowledge and Assessment in the Modern West and Fostering and Symbiosis in the Andes", draft paper for WIDER Seminar on "Alternatives to the Greening of Economics", Bellagio, Italy, 1993; Berry, W., Standing on Earth, Golgonooza, London, 1991; Haraway, D., Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Free Association Books, London, 1991, p.199.

16 Guha, R., "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique", Environmental Ethics, Vol. 11 (1989), pp.71-83.

17 Matampash, K., "The Maasai of Kenya" in Davis, S.H. (ed.) Indigenous Views of Land and The Environment, World Bank Discussion Paper 188, Washington, 1993, p.37.