Do humans make environmental history or does it make us? I recently came across a paragraph in Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal which captures the beauty of migration between India and South-East Asia. Here it is,
“Blood and dirt” gave the frontiers of Southeast Asia their dynamism— the human suffering of migrant workers reshaped the land. We tend to think of environmental history as something that happens to us. Environmental history on the largest scale is made by the forces of nature that shape human society: human beings are “biological agents” alongside plants and pathogens, competing for supremacy. Alternatively, we think— anthropocentrically—that environmental history is driven by the state, particularly in its modernist incarnation in a drive to conquer nature and make it productive at any cost. But what would it mean to turn this around, to think of those who crossed the Bay of Bengal as agents of environmental transformation? They crossed the sea to alter the land. Small decisions within families, small acts of coercion—the motive force of debt, or the glitter that adorned the kangany’s promises— accumulated to shift the “metabolic balance” of the Bay of Bengal.