Converting a Maritime Southeast Asian Uplands
Photo: Reflection of Batak house at Lake Toba
Crutzen and Stoermer (2000) have defined the Anthropocene or "human epoch" as a new era in which humans are the most dominant force altering geological processes on the planet. Religion has largely been marginalized in the conceptualization and debates surrounding this epoch despite being a formidable influence on the relationship of man to nature. In much of maritime Southeast Asia, environmentalism, in its broadest sense of preserving, restoring and improving the natural world, cannot be historically understood without a sense of how animist religions conditioned the political and social ecology of the region. The transition to the Anthropocene occurred in parallel with a turn towards monotheism in much of Southeast Asia's uplands.
This book inquires into the changes to the habits of mind fostered by a turn from animism to monotheism intertwined with the commercialization of the natural world as commodities. The highlands of North Sumatra in the 19th century, are well-suited for this study as the region's inhabitants experienced not only two waves of mass religious conversion - the first to Islam, early in the nineteenth century and the second to Christianity towards the end of the century - along with shifts in productive ecology that brought the area into the ambit of the state. Weaving through threads of inter-generational micro-histories, we find a history of conversions that is not marked by theological change but an estrangement of religion with the everyday, rendering it impotent as a bulwark against environmental exploitation. The spiritual Anthropocene, then, is as much an epoch of disempowerment as it is about humanity's unprecedented power.
This project has been supported by Henry Luce Macmillan International Dissertation Fellowship, American Historical Association's Benadotte E. Schmitt Grant, Charles Kao Fund Summer Research Grant, Tan Ean Kiam Scholarship from Tan Kah Kee Foundation and a Faculty Start-Up Grant from Nanyang Technological University.