University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > University of Cambridge, New Zealand Studies Seminar Group > Empire and nature in New Zealand: theologies of nature and natural theologies, 1830-1920 (based on joint research with John Stenhouse)

Empire and nature in New Zealand: theologies of nature and natural theologies, 1830-1920 (based on joint research with John Stenhouse)

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Francis Lucian Reid.

This seminar is organised with The Cabinet of Natural History. All are welcome - feel free to bring your lunch.

Many colonial environmental historians continue to largely take for granted the perspective articulated by historian Lynn White, Jr. whose 1967 article identified Western Christianity, ‘the most anthropocentric of all religions,’ as bearing ‘a huge burden of guilt’ for the modern ecological crisis. By incorporating insights drawn from recent scholarship in the history of science and gender and imperial history, this talk uses the case-study of New Zealand to question the orthodox view that, by the nineteenth century, Judeo-Christian traditions were either pass and irrelevant or intentionally and maliciously destructive in colonial societies. We argue against the former view by showing the significance of religious traditions in shaping attitudes and policies towards land use and the natural world. Secondly, we contend that historians have grossly misunderstood settler Christianity. We maintain that although New Zealand’s settlers certainly used Biblical ideas to justify transforming the landscape, they regarded swamp draining, acclimatisation, agriculture and horticulture as transformative processes that would improve and enhance the natural world, not destroy it. While many later colonists came to regret some of the consequences of their environmental actions and while it is undoubtedly true that their environmental legacy is mixed, settlers did not intend to destroy New Zealand’s environment. Furthermore, rather than viewing forest clearance and cultivation as the polar opposite to appreciation and protection as New Zealand’s environmental historians have done, we argue that they should be viewed as complementary. Biblically-sanctioned notions of human dominion did not grant settlers carte blanche to destroy environments as is amply evidenced in our article. Similarly, the emphasis placed upon making land productive equally justified conservation strategies such as tree planting and forest conservation and land transformations such as swamp draining and sowing seed.

James Beattie’s doctoral thesis explored global connections between health, aesthetics, environment and conservation in nineteenth century New Zealand. His current research considers comparative environmental history in general, and the interaction between science and religious belief in environmental perception.

This talk is part of the University of Cambridge, New Zealand Studies Seminar Group series.

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