bailey coe hosts talk on political ecology in ancient china

The Bailey College of the Environment was delighted to welcome Brian Lander, assistant professor of history and environment & society, Brown University, for “The Political Ecology of China’s First Empire,” on February 29, 2024. Lander is the author of The King’s Harvest: A Political Ecology of China from the First Farmers to the First Empire. As an environmental historian who studies China, Lander focuses on how human societies came to dominate a number of regions, a process beginning with the domestication of plants and animals and continuing with the growth of states and empires. Lander’s current research follows the ecological history of the Qin Dynasty. 

The talk had an incredible turnout, with every seat in the room filled.  During his talk, Lander presented a new historical perspective with an environmental focus, reminding us that “historians can take humans out of the center of the narrative” by following the evolution of a landscape over several thousand years. 

As the early Chinese Qin civilization grew, there was an expansive and lasting impact made on the surrounding landscape. Lander began his talk by discussing a shift in his research focus from the drier regions of North China to the wetter subtropical regions of South China, particularly the wetlands of the Yangtze River.  He highlighted the environmental history’s contribution of decentering humans from historical narratives and emphasizing the impact of human activities on non-human entities.

The discussion then delved into the ecological transformation of the Yangtze River’s wetlands, emphasizing the significance of historical dikes or levees in managing floods and converting wetlands into farmland. The natural ecosystems were converted to rice paddies and fish farms to accommodate growing populations. Lander explained how the historical construction of dikes along the north bank of the Yangtze River, which acted to diverted flood waters southward, impacted the environmental dynamics of the region. Lander also referenced ancient Chinese documents and historical maps to illustrate the evolution of these environmental changes. The talk then touched on the complexities of polders, areas surrounded completely by levees, and their effects on flood levels. While polders can be helpful to agricultural practices, Lander highlighted social inequalities associated with these land-management practices.

Lander also noted the continuously declining biodiversity of the region. A number of species from the wetlands have either been domesticated or have gone extinct. This part of the talk served as a reminder of the importance of environmental history, as it preserves knowledge of the ecological richness that was once present, and provides a striking contrast to modern-day conditions.