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Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2000

Think global, act local; or is it think local, act global?


By FIONA WEBSTER
LANDSCAPES AND COMMUNITIES ON THE PACIFIC RIM: From Asia to the Pacific Northwest, edited by Karen K. Gaul and Jackie Hiltz. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000, 254 pp., $24.95 (paper).

Lives are complex, and if this era of globalization has taught us anything, it is that this complexity extends beyond local communities and across regional, national and international boundaries. Advanced communication and transport technologies further underline the way in which the actions of one community affect the conditions of another, whether it be culturally, politically or environmentally. When it comes to the environment, we face problems on a global scale. Understanding and appreciating the various cultural perspectives on the environment are essential to addressing the challenges of this "global world."

The contributors to this collection attempt to understand and describe the complexities of natural processes, or human cultures, and human-environmental interactions. The essays are the outcome of a symposium that was held in Missoula, Montana, in 1995. Participants were invited to consider ways in which various communities on both sides of the Pacific envision their landscape and environmental challenges such as natural-resource development, economic diversification and environmental protection.

Central to the ideas behind the symposium was the notion that globalization means increased possibilities for communication between communities around the world, and that an essential part of successful communication is information-sharing among governments, academics and local community groups.

In this spirit, a community of social scientists, humanists, natural scientists and public servants was brought together to encourage cross-disciplinary studies of environmental and cultural conditions.

Given the broad scope of the symposium from which these articles originate, it is not surprising that they form a motley group.

The first two essays focus on communities in the Pacific Northwest, which, from the perspective of the symposium's location, is the "local" landscape. Both offer a sense of the challenges, negotiations and diverse perspectives in some particularly Western communities and their surrounding landscapes.

In relation to the community of Missoula, Dan Kemmis discusses the relationship between the city we inhabit and the surrounding environment. He promotes the idea of using the city, rather than the nation-state, as a center for addressing social, political and environmental issues. "For too much of our history," he argues, "the business of cities has been perceived as a threat to the maintenance of ecological integrity." He urges that the city be understood as the fundamental engine of economic growth and change.

According to Kemmis, there is an organic relationship between cities and their surroundings -- cities comprise a concentration of humans and human activity and, as a critical mass, their perimeters of influence expand beyond their geographical limits. Kemmis uses the example of Hong Kong to illustrate his point, but it is clear he wants his argument to apply to much smaller cities, and for the focus of national policies to be rethought accordingly.

While Kemmis' essay focuses on how perception of landscape and community affects the formulation of national economic and environmental policy, in the second part of the book the contributors present historical overviews, introducing some definitions and understandings of landscapes across different cultures and times.

For example, Rhoads Murphey's essay on Asian perceptions of and behavior toward the natural environment explores the differences between "Asian" and "Western" approaches to nature.

Murphey argues that "we entertain misperceptions that Asia values and protects the environment, sees it as grander than human affairs, and that the human goal derived from this appreciation of the landscape is to reach a 'harmony between man and nature'."

There is, Murphey says, little support for such assumptions. Indeed, he argues that the Asian record makes clear that, despite the professed values of the literate elite, people have altered or destroyed the Asian environment for longer and on a greater scale than anywhere else in the world, even in the 20th-century West.

The single biggest cause of environmental destruction in Asia has been the comparatively huge populations, which have resulted in significant pressure on land resources and progressive deforestation.

Japan, he notes, has escaped some of this and has protected its forests, but it has done so at the cost of "ravaging" the forests of Southeast Asia. Part of Japan's solution to the problem of pollution has simply been to export it, which has merely shifted the problem offshore.

Not surprisingly, Murphey is extremely negative when it comes to assessing the environmental situations in China, Indonesia and the Philippines. However, his criticisms of Japan focus on the sense in which, even in a country where environmental problems have apparently been addressed, the action that has been taken to solve problems locally has had a negative impact on other landscapes and communities. This emphasizes the argument that national boundaries appear rigid, but nations do not exist in isolation and environmental problems must be addressed on a global scale.

In the third part of the book this idea is further explored in case studies that connect conditions in local communities with larger interactions on a global scale. Each essay addresses several common themes: the ideas of lifestyles bound to landscapes in deeply symbolic ways, of "wild nature" as indivisible from aesthetic and spiritual practices, of ways in which the politics of power help to shape these symbolic and spiritual interactions, and the resultant changing conceptions of environments and interactions with them through particular historical and cultural shifts.

The fourth section turns its focus to theoretical perspectives, exploring more experimental and conceptual approaches to landscapes and communities. The focus is on finding an integrative approach in which "Western" and "Asian" perceptions and practices may be productively combined.

Common to all the articles in this collection is the idea that issues of landscape and community should not be addressed from a single disciplinary perspective. To a certain extent, the shifting levels of analysis rob the book of a strong focus or identifiable outcome. Read chronologically, it takes the reader all the way from a study based on a small city in America to an essay offering an "ecocritical reading" of contemporary environmental writing.

Although there are common themes, the links between essays can seem tenuous. The collection nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to environmental debate and achieves its aim. It offers a sense of the diversity of cultural perspectives on the environment that mark Asia and the Pacific Northwest. Most important, it rightly emphasizes the challenges we face in addressing problems that affect all of us in the region.



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