, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 239–248 | Cite as

Linnaeus’ study of Swedish swidden cultivation: Pioneering ethnographic work on the ‘economy of nature’

  • Michael R. Dove


Carl Linnaeus’ work on the ‘economy of nature’ was a major early development in what became the modern field of ecology. This analysis suggests that a key subject of this work that has been ignored or misunderstood for 250 years is the rural livelihoods, especially swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture, which Linnaeus studied during his expeditions through rural Sweden. Rereading his reports in the light of modern work on swiddens, political ecology, and the history of science affords a new appreciation of Linnaeus’ insights into traditional systems of resource exploitation. The logic of nutrient cycling in swidden agriculture and its utilization of natural dynamics to serve human ends exemplify the principles of the ‘economy of nature’, and gave Linnaeus a philosophical basis for understanding and defending this system of agriculture as well as other rural resource use systems in Sweden. This analysis sheds new light on Linnaeus’ ethnographic work, his view of folk environmental knowledge, and his often derided identification with Sweden’s ethnic peoples.


Linnaeus Economy of nature Swidden agriculture Slash-and-burn agriculture Lapp/Saami Sweden 



The author is grateful to the participants in his Spring 2013 seminar at Yale, “Disaster, Degradation, Dystopia: Social Science Approaches to Environmental Perturbation and Change,” for an insightful discussion of Linnaeus’s work, to his research assistants Julia Fogerite and Sarah Casson for assistance with library research and manuscript preparation, and to four anonymous reviewers for Ambio for their insightful comments.


  1. Agamben, G. 1998. Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Agrawal, A. 1995. Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Development and Change 26: 413–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blunt, W. 2001. Linnaeus: The complete naturalist. London: Frances Lincoln.Google Scholar
  4. Broadbent, N. D. 2013. Lapps and labyrinths: Saami prehistory, colonization, and cultural resilience. Washington, DC: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.Google Scholar
  5. Cairns, Malcolm (ed.). 2007. Voices from the forest: Integrating indigenous knowledge into sustainable upland farming. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.Google Scholar
  6. Conklin, H. C. 1975/1957. Hanunóo agriculture: A report on an integral system of shifting cultivation in the Philippines. (Originally published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome). Northford, CT: Elliot’s Books.Google Scholar
  7. Crutzen, P. 2002. Geology of mankind. Nature 415: 23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dove, M.R. 1983. Theories of swidden agriculture and the political economy of ignorance. Agroforestry Systems 1: 85–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dove, M.R. 2011. The Banana tree at the gate: The history of marginal peoples and global markets in Borneo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Eliasson, P. 2002. Swedish natural history travel in the northern space; From Lapland to the Arctic, 1800–1840. In Narrating the Arctic: A cultural history of Nordic scientific practices, ed. M. Bravo, and S. Sörlin, 125–154. Canton, MA: Science History Publications.Google Scholar
  11. Emanuelsson, M., and U. Segerström. 2002. Medieval slash-and-burn cultivation: Strategic or adapted land use in the Swedish mining district? Environment and History 8: 173–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Faggot, J. 1750. Afhandling om svedjande samt utväg til hushållning med skogar. Kongliga Svenska Vetenskaps Academien Handlingar XI: 138–148.Google Scholar
  14. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  15. Jackson, B.D. 1923. Linnaeus: The story of his life. London: H. F. and G. Witherby.Google Scholar
  16. Kammen, D.M., and M.R. Dove. 1997. The virtues of mundane science. Environment 39(6):10–15,38–41.Google Scholar
  17. Karlsson, H., M. Emanuelsson, and U. Segerström. 2010. The history of a farm–shieling system in the central Swedish forest region. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 19(2): 103–119.Google Scholar
  18. Koerner (née Rausing), L. 1999. Linnaeus: Nature and nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Krook, J. 1765. Tankar om Swedjande och huruwida det tål inskränkning uti norra delen af Tavastland, Savolax och Carelen. Stockholm.Google Scholar
  20. Kunnas, J. 2005. A dense and sickly mist from thousands of bog fires: An attempt to compare the energy consumption in slash-and-burn cultivation and burning cultivation of peatlands in Finland in 1820–1920. Environment and History 11: 431–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lehtonen, H., and P. Huttunen. 1997. History of forest fires in Eastern Finland from the fifteenth century AD—The possible effects of slash-and-burn cultivation. The Holocene 7(2): 223–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lindroth, S. 1983. The two faces of Linnaeus. In Linnaeus: The man and his work, ed. Tore Frängsmyr, 1–62. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  23. Linnaeus, C. 1751. Skånska Resa. På höga Överhetens Befallning förrättad år 1749. Stockholm: Wahström and Widstrand.Google Scholar
  24. Linnaeus, C. 1775a. Benefit of traveling, etc. In Miscellaneous tracts relating to natural history, husbandry, and physick. Trans. B. Stillingfleet, 1–35. London: R. and J. Dodsley, S. Baker, and M. Cooper.Google Scholar
  25. Linnaeus, C. 1775b. The economy of nature. In Miscellaneous tracts relating to natural history, husbandry, and physick. Trans. B. Stillingfleet, 37–129. London: R. and J. Dodsley, S. Baker, and M. Cooper.Google Scholar
  26. Linnaeus, C. 1811. Lachesis Lapponica, or a tour in Lapland, now first published from the original manuscript journal of the celebrated Linnaeus. Trans. & ed. J.E. Smith, vol. I, II. London: White and Cochrane.Google Scholar
  27. Linnaeus, C. 1979. Carl Linnaeus Travels, ed. D. Black. Trans. M. Åsberg & W.T. Stearn (Öland and Gotland journey). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.Google Scholar
  28. Myllyntaus, T., M. Hares, and J. Kunnas. 2002. Sustainability in danger? Slash-and-burn cultivation in nineteenth-century Finland and twentieth-century Southeast Asia. Environmental History 7(2): 267–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Otto, J.S., and N.E. Anderson. 1982. Slash-and-burn cultivation in the highlands South: A problem in comparative agricultural history. Comparative Study of Society and History 24: 131–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Oxford English Dictionary. 1999. CD Rom version. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Padoch, C., and M. Pinedo-Vasquez. 2010. Saving slash-and-burn to save biodiversity. Biotropica 42(5): 550–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Rausing, L. 2003. Underwriting the oeconomy: Linnaeus on nature and mind. History of Political Economy 35(Annual Supplement): 173–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Scott, J.C. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Scott, J.C. 2009. The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Sernander, R. 1926. Hårleman och Linnaei Herbationes Upsalienses. Uppsala: Svenska Linné-sällsk. Årsskr. IX.Google Scholar
  36. Sigaut, F. 1979. Swidden cultivation in Europe: A question for tropical anthropologists. Social Science Information 18(4/5): 679–694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sörlin, S. 2002. Rituals and resources of natural history: The north and the Arctic in Swedish nationalism. In Narrating the Arctic: A cultural history of Nordic scientific practices, ed. Michael Bravo, and Sverker Sörlin, 73–122. Canton, MA: Science History Publications.Google Scholar
  38. Vickers, W.T. 1983. Tropical forest mimicry in swiddens: A reassessment of Geertz’s model with Amazonian data. Human Ecology 11(1): 35–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Weimarck, G. 1968. Ulfshult: Investigations concerning the use of soil and forest in Ulfshult, Parish of Örkened, during the last 250 years. Lund (Sweden): C. W. K. Gleerup.Google Scholar
  40. Wikman, V., and K. Rob. 1970. Lachesis and nemesis: Four chapters on the human condition in the writings of Carl Linnaeus. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.Google Scholar
  41. Worster, D. 1977. Nature’s economy: A history of ecological Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Forestry and Environmental StudiesYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations