Environmentalism in Iran


A review of Remaking Nature in Iran: Environmentalism, Science and the Nation, by Satoshi Abe.

Satoshi Abe’s dissertation Remaking Nature in Iran: Environmentalism, Science and the Nation is a timely contribution to the study of environmental and social movements in the Middle East. In a geography which has witnessed massive rural-to-urban migration over the past fifty years and dealt with the challenges of population growth and industrialization, Abe’s dissertation investigates the discursive historical conditions of Iran in which ecological science has been developed and practiced. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Tehran, Iran, conducted in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Abe explores the cultural dimensions of environmentalism through an examination of its reception by different stakeholders, including environmentalists, researchers, and non-expert citizens, as well as their attitudes toward it. Abe also explores the role Islam plays in how ecological science is viewed, framed, and practiced in contemporary Iran. These ethnographic accounts reflect how discourses of Iranian nationhood are invoked in conversations about nature exemplifying what Iranian environmentalists see as the intrinsic characteristics of Iranians.

In Chapter 1, Abe defines the basic concepts and literature that guide his research which, similar to sociologist Simin Fadaee’s work, argues that Iranian environmentalism is closely related to other social movements within the discourse of the civil sphere rather than appearing for purely ecological reasons as a result of environmental threats (Simin Fadaee, Social Movements in Iran: Environmentalism and Civil Society. London and New York: Routledge, 2012). Abe’s work also aims to understand the broader context of environmental discourses in urban Iran and the projects carried out at local and national levels.

Chapter 2 introduces the ethnographic methodology and the research questions. Through the different phases of his research, Abe explains how primary data collection through qualitative methods has helped to “describe a continuing interplay that uniquely informs environmentalism in Iran” (p. 13) and how the changing political climate in Iran has affected the methods and spaces used for data collection.

In Appendix A, “Genealogies of Science in Iran: Knowledge, Government and the Emergence of the Environment,” Abe explores the “ways in which scientific management plays a key role in the government of the state and involves specific forms of knowledge production of objects” (p. 41). By engaging in an historical account of the reforms and institutions in order to understand the influence of the West, Abe enriches our understanding of the development trajectory of Iran and how environmentalism has developed in relation to science. Abe traces the coverage and definition of “environment” in the development plans from 1946 onwards in order to explore how environment was defined and integrated into policies by the Iranian state and whether there have been continuities after the Islamic revolution. His analysis shows different perceptions of nature through time, from simply a source of revenue to an integral element of the development process for the health of citizens. Abe also argues that the comprehensive perspective of environment, starting particularly with 2000, means that the field of environment has become a concern of ordinary citizens.

In Appendix B, “Conceptions of Nature in Iran: Science, Nationalism and Heteroglossia,” published in The Journal of Anthropological Research in 2013, Abe explores “distinctive manners in which discourses and practices of the environment unfold in Iran” (p. 72). Abe argues that science has been increasingly integrated into the practices of environmentalist discourses and practices to the extent that not only governmental institutions and local NGOs but also non-environmentalist citizens in Iran refer to scientific ecology when addressing nature and environmental issues rather than referencing Islam. Abe argues that many Iranian environmentalists also think about nature in terms of national roots. Thus, for instance, the protection of the Asiatic cheetah becomes much more than just the management of material nature, but about preserving a nature that uniquely represents the Iranian nation.

In Appendix C, “Iranian Environmentalism: Nationhood, Alternative Natures, and the Materiality of Objects,” published in Nature and Culture, Abe explores how different objects provide environmentalists “with points of reference that help to frame their worldviews and practices” (p. 98) and exemplify “the ways in which unique features of Iranian environmentalism are divulged” (p. 99). Abe argues that the contexts, including essential objects, enable Iranian environmentalists to profoundly link conceptions of nature to the Iranian nation in ways that do not contradict scientific ecological discourses of nature. When environmentalists talk passionately about biological and geographical diversity in Iran using the Iranian map, Iranian homeland (vatan) “is viscerally felt, shared, and embraced between what are viewed as comrades” (p. 106). While a poster about beautiful nature invokes particular “social memories of the ancient Iranian nation” among the environmentalists  (p. 108), a photograph of the Asiatic cheetah serves as a medium to express personal intimacy to Iran’s endangered species and helps to symbolize wildlife as if it were alive in the present.

Abe’s dissertation contributes to numerous academic literatures, particularly anthropology, the literature about Iranian development and modernity in the Middle East, and environmental social movements. First, in its exploration of the politics of nature in Iran, Abe demonstrates that differing discourses of nature continually interact to shape urban Iranians’ experience of surging environmentalism in the country: on the one hand, environmentalists increasingly refer to ecological science in their accounts when explaining and legitimizing their work; while, on the other hand, they profoundly link conceptions of nature to the Iranian nation. Abe argues that the modernity of Iran involves a “translation” and Western ecological science has been “discussed, developed and practiced in a distinctive manner in modern Iran” (p. 14).  Second, unlike numerous studies concerning Iran which focus on the disjuncture that transpired between the two major Iranian revolutions, particularly the Constitutional revolution (1906-1911) and the Islamic Revolution (1979), Abe’s dissertation argues that the field of the environment is “a continuation of the project that was temporarily halted during the turmoil of the revolutionary period” (p. 56). Third, Abe contributes to “the studies of ethnography that are attentive to the changing relationships of subjects and objects” (pp. 17-18). His analysis of the ethnographic accounts of Iranian environmentalists demonstrate that objects, such as the Iranian map, environmental posters, or the photographs of wildlife, help to shape Iranian environmentalists conception of the surrounding environment (p.106). The objects become part of “the processes by which Iranian nature is being delineated and practiced,” (p.111) and these dialogic interactions in the field become “key in examining multivocal discourses of nature” (p. 18).

Nurcan Atalan Helicke
Environmental Studies Program
Skidmore College

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork (conducted from April 2009 to March, 2010, and June to August, 2011, in Tehran, Iran)
Historical and current reports prepared by different Iranian offices

Dissertation Information

University of Arizona. 2013. 122 pp. Primary Advisor: Brian Silverstein.


Image: An evening haze hovering over Tehran. Photo by Author.

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