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Book Review


Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz (eds), The Environment and World History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. Pp.xvi + 361. $24.95 (paper)


Figure 1


     Do we really need another book on environmental history? Over the past thirty years, the environment history bookshelf has become heavy with works by the likes of David Christian, Alfred Crosby, Mike Davis, Jared Diamond, Brian M. Fagan, Ramachandra Guha, J. S. McNeill, Anthony Penna, Clive Ponting, I.G. Simmons and Vaclav Smil?1 Why add to the list?

     A brief acquaintance with world history texts and course curricula suggest one reason: despite these works, environmental history remains marginalized, appearing under subheadings like "The Columbian Exchange," "River Valleys and the Rise of Civilization," or "Poor Harvests Lead to Revolution." Then it disappears again. There is something almost operatic here: "The Environment" is the clash of cymbals introducing an aria of doom and destruction. Once it's done, we leave the theater and go back to the usual dramas of political and social change. Kenneth Pomeranz gets it exactly right: "most world history has continued to include the environment haphazardly and to foreground it only when it cannot be avoided—as in the conquest of the Americas—rather than to integrate it consistently into world-history narratives" (3).

     Kenneth Pomeranz and Edmund Burke intend the articles in Environment and World History as a corrective and a challenge. To understand what they had in mind as they edited this volume, it's worth noting that the book appears in the California World History Library, a series Burke and Pomeranz edit with Patricia Seed for the University of California Press. The series aspires to "to enlarge the conversation among scholars and teachers pursuing world history of different kinds and in different institutional settings by publishing scholarly works informed by a world history perspective as well as books for classroom use."2

     The series has indeed "enlarged the conversation." Its titles include volumes examining history at vast scales of space and time, of which David Christian's Maps of Time is perhaps the most ambitious. Yet Burke, Pomeranz and Seed have also published case studies focused on more narrowly conceived eras and locales. Sebastian Conrad's reconsideration of postwar German and Japanese historiography and Ilham Khursi-Makdisi's study of socialist and anarchist activism in the pre-World War I Middle East make explicit connections between the particular and the general.

     Like the entire series, The Environment and World History has selected work representative of environmental history at a regional as well as a global scale.  Taken together, these articles indeed "enlarge the conversation among scholars and teachers" about the relationship between the human and natural worlds.


     Pomeranz and Burke frontload the collection with three wide-lens perspectives. Pomeranz's introductory "World History and Environmental History" can serve particularly well as a reference when reframing a world history curriculum to incorporate a greater environmental emphasis. The collection here will, he promises, point towards a narrative based around a "developmentalist project" dating back at least three centuries and characterized by "commitments to state-building, sedentariation, and intensifying… exploitation of resources."  The phrase "developmentalist project" is reminiscent of an older term—"modernization"—but the term does not seem out of place here. Since the 1950s, disputes over that word's meanings have never been far from the center of world history practice. To argue that any debate over modernization requires a careful look at environmental history seems completely sensible (7).

     Edmund Burke's "The Big Story: Human History, Energy Regimes, and the Environment" makes the argument for putting this "developmentalist project" at the center of world history narratives. Recapitulating themes most recently developed by Vaclav Smil and David Christian, Burke constructs a world history narrative around extraction of energy from the environment. In this telling, the transition to fossil fuels constitutes a more decisive break in human history than any since the adoption of agriculture. Is the 19th–20th-century fossil fuel revolution actually a materialist's Axial Age? One could debate that proposition, and doing so would certainly enliven a classroom. Which candidate for "Biggest Shift in Human History" deserves the prize? The philosophic and religious universalism of the Classical Age? The 16th–18th-century creation of Atlantic and Pacific worlds? The dawn of the fossil fuel era?

     Burke and Pomeranz dedicate Environment and World History to the late John Richards, whose essay "Toward a Global System of Property Rights in Land," is the third of the "big history" trio. If "energy regimes" are central to Burke's narrative, "property regimes" are central to Richards':

Over the past six centuries, every human society has moved toward a similar regime of rights in landed property. Bewilderingly complex, particularized, local systems of property rights in land have been altered, transformed, or replaced by simplified, more uniform sets of rules in a remarkably similar fashion across all world regions.  Paradoxically, however, these converging property rules have helped to establish more precise, exact, nuanced, and complex rights over individual parcels of land. This trend reflects the intensifying manipulation and use of smaller and smaller units of land, within land markets of increasing transparency and efficiency (55).

     Richards here works the same vineyard as anthropologist James Scott, arguing that as states have grown in power over the last several centuries, they have imposed rules requiring more uniform property ownership, usage and valuation to render each individual parcel and person "visible" to the state's administrative apparatus. In Scott's version, this process has culminated with 20th-century "high modernism"–the uniformity of urban and rural space dictated by the state most notoriously under Stalin but echoed everywhere from Nyerere's Tanzania to Le Corbusier's drawing board.3 

     Less drawn than Scott to the extreme cases (not every state is Stalinist), Richards is free to ask how privatized property regimes have configured urban space, defined national identity and structured social relationships worldwide. The idea of a "property regime" stands at the intersection of the natural and the built environments, between culture and economics, and amid a welter of social structures and social theories. It demonstrates the power of environmental history to illuminate world history as a whole. 

     Of the first three essays, Richards' is the most difficult to translate into classroom practice. While the enclosure movement has long been a staple of western civilizations courses, I doubt that most students understand its causes and consequences as deeply as Richards (or Scott) would want. One possible method: carefully selecting current events for debate. Disputes over real property run like a bright thread through the news. The U.S. debate over eminent domain (particularly Kelo v. New London) or the Brazilian contest between ranchers and the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or Landless Workers Movement) can lay the groundwork for historical discussions.


     From global frameworks, Environment and World History turns to two sets of case studies, devoting the first of these to water. Long before anyone coined the phrase "environmental history," the "river valley" was a classroom mainstay. For decades, textbooks have contended that differences between ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures arose because the Nile flooded a narrow valley with predictable regularity while Tigris-Euphrates flooded a broad plain catastrophically. Turning to China, the history texts of previous decades would then invoke Karl Wittfogel's "hydraulic thesis" and its argument that the need for large-scale irrigation empowers certain states to grow despotic. Pomeranz allows that while Wittfogel's thesis contains a "kernel of truth" it has largely been discredited (89, 121).

     Introduced in world history textbooks as a grand explanatory machine that propelled the rise of civilizations, the river valley inexplicably vanishes from those same textbooks just as soon as the "ancient world" morphs into the classical. Evidently, civilizations are born thirsty, outgrowing their need for water as they mature. The weaning-of-civilizations narrative gets a comeuppance here thanks to essays on the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile over the last 3500 years (Burke), the Yellow and Yangtze over the past five centuries (Pomeranz), the 18th–20th-century Rhine (Marc Cioc) and the "colonial rice frontiers" of the Southeast Asia's Irawaddy, Chao Phraya, and Mekong rivers since the mid-18th century (Michael Adas).

     Burke ("The Transformation of the Middle Eastern Environment, 1500 B.C.E to 2000 C.E.") does not concern himself strictly with natural rivers, but broadly with water management techniques. He contends that, "most histories of the modern Middle East regard the environment as a source of backwardness, which only the application of modern science and technology can overcome." The arc of Middle East history is thus reduced to a very ancient apogee followed by a long and uninterrupted decline.  Such imaginings, Burke writes, are "modernist fables" (81). 

     Burke's version of events is quite a bit more complicated. In sum, complex urban societies emerged in the Middle East because they developed sophisticated adaptations to flooding and drought. Over time, siltation, salinization and shifting river courses lessened the success of these adaptations. Then, beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries, an "Islamic green revolution" (Burke borrows the term from Andrew Watson) restored and expanded Middle Eastern productivity. At the core of this revolution, under the Abbassid Caliphate, was a vast Islamic cultural territory open to exchange of new crops and such hydraulic technologies as the windmill and the underground canal (Iran's qanat). Yet applying this "hydraulic toolkit" to entire regions required a secure state and large workforces. Plague, warfare and declining tax revenues exposed the vulnerabilities of these systems. 

     Though the "gunpowder empires" of the 16th–18th centuries remained formidable, these empires operated at the limits of their environmental endowments. So too did states in Europe and East Asia. However, European states were able to supplement their own endowments with those of the New World and, gradually, to insert themselves into Indian Ocean commerce. The Ottoman and Safavid/Qajar empires could not pursue this strategy. And while China pursued "intensive colonization of a resource-rich … interior," the Middle East as a whole was "the legatee of ancient empires that had exploited the same resource base for millennia, with diminishing returns" (93). It is difficult now to imagine the Middle East as resource poor, but the 18th–19th-century fossil fuels revolution excluded the Middle East: there was no coal to be had in either the Ottoman or Qajar territories. 

     It is against this background that the Ottoman Empire, Khedival Egypt, Qajari Persia and their 20th-century successor states sought to westernize their economies rapidly, a process Philip Curtin called "defensive modernization."4  Whatever their successes and failures, these projects resulted in a "flayed environment." Far from representing a failed past, Burke concludes, the Middle East presages the world's future (110).

     Kenneth Pomeranz ("The Transformation of China's Environment, 1500–2000") is less pessimistic about prospects for China than Burke is for the future of the Middle East.  The story of China's recent economic growth is well known, and Pomeranz finds its "environmental implications mixed." Like Mahesh Rangajaran's essay on South Asia later in the volume, Pomeranz does not consider massive urbanization and industrialization an environmental disaster. Even at a sixth of U.S. per capita income (a figure admittedly in dispute), China has, for example, brought life expectancy to "levels close to those in the West." Given China's calamitous century-and-a-half from late Qing through the disasters associated with Mao, the current regime's commitment to development over environment is, at least, understandable (151).

     Pomeranz stresses continuity, not calamity. Expanding on themes developed in The Great Divergence, he argues that even contemporary policies are "shaped in part by a late imperial political economy"5 whose characteristics included:

(1)  a preference for keeping large numbers of people in the countryside, and for encouraging rural industry… (2) notions of statecraft in which the central government actively props up… economically and ecologically vulnerable [regions], while intervening less in the economies of richer areas (except to tax them); and (3) a set of material conditions powerfully shaped by these notions that has given environmental protection a rather different significance in China than in liberal traditions (119).

     In practice, this meant that the Chinese state intervened frequently to control land use (particularly through tax policy), identifying the state's security with "supporting access for all to some resources considered central to subsistence and… [promoting] specific kinds of production felt to be socially and culturally uplifting... This undertaking required stable family life… in a world of independent farming households" (122).

     To achieve that aim, the Chinese state invested heavily in transportation, flood control (particularly in the Yellow River) and irrigation projects (particularly in north China). The productive lower Yangzi River, linked by the Grand Canal to north China, relieved that region from the costs of provisioning Beijing while contributing to the state's coffers. Maintaining the infrastructure necessary to keep the system functioning was not cheap. Though much of this work was handled locally, often by farmers themselves, the state managed most costly and complex projects." By 1821," Pomeranz writes, "the maintenance of the Grand Canal and the Yellow River consumed between 10 and 20 percent of government spending" (125).

     However, in Pomeranz's telling, the country's deepest problems reflected (to use a term Pomeranz avoids) market distortions. The most productive regions—particularly the lower Yangzi—could not make the transition to commercial and perhaps industrial production because the state raked in some of the region's surplus in taxes while promoting less efficient competitors elsewhere in the country.

     The 19th century exposed China's vulnerability. War and rebellion diluted the country's tax base, undermining its infrastructure of levees, dikes and canals. Meanwhile, successive Chinese governments were forced to redirect their spending to meet European and Japanese threats. While British imperialism seriously wounded the Qing, policies that had long worked well weakened the state before the British arrived. 

     This is, largely, a story about how the Chinese state (at both the imperial and local levels) structured its legal, tax, commercial and defense policies around assumptions about land use. In this context, Pomeranz argues, the state did seek to protect the landscape, perhaps more than any of its peers. For the Qing, the most natural landscape was one of small family plots. The two poles of Western environmental thought—a war against nature (a theme in Mark Cioc's essay on the Rhine) versus natural preservation—made little sense if "nature" consisted of small family plots. 

     Pomeranz's essay is the book's longest, and easily deserves a review of its own.  That said, it would daunt and probably confuse students new to world history. One strategy for bringing it into the classroom: divide the last half of the chapter among three to four student groups. Those groups could then present their summaries sequentially or integrate them in a "jigsaw" assignment. It would be hard to find a better introduction to the environmental context for China's 19th–20th century history.6

     While Pomeranz and Burke reveal environmental continuities in Middle Eastern and Chinese histories, Mark Cioc ("The Rhine as a World River") sees the Rhine's history as one marked by abrupt and sweeping change. In Cioc's account, the contemporary Rhine bears little resemblance to the river of two centuries ago: "used simultaneously for transportation, industrial production, urban sanitation and energy production," the Rhine is now "one of the most biologically degraded streams in the world" (166). What happened? Essentially, by the early 19th century, states along the Rhine had come to believe that the river's geography interfered intolerably with the needs of commerce and (a bit later) industry. Drawing from a rigidly rationalist and economically expedient approach to riverine engineering rooted in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, governments straightened and dredged the river, lined its channels with concrete, simplified its delta, drew its water for factories along its banks, and poured effluent back in. So much for Wagner's Rhinemaidens!

     Like the rest of the collection, "The Rhine" has a story to tell about state-building and property. In a Puckish riff on Wittfogel's hydraulic thesis, Cioc writes that while we may have consigned "oriental despotism" to the trash bin, the Rhine reveals "something akin to an 'occidental despotism'" (184). The governments that remade the Rhine awarded themselves and their corporate legatees enormous power to reconfigure the valley at the expense of towns and rural communities along its course. They did not do so entirely alone: Cioc tells here the story of the Commission for Rhine Navigation, founded in 1815, the "oldest continuous interstate institution in Europe" and a precursor to mid-20th century European projects (168).

     The Rhine quickly became a model for the assassination of rivers throughout the world. Those who have lived in Los Angeles—where the major "river" is largely a concrete-lined sluice whose waters flow from the Tillman water treatment plant's discharge pipes—will have little trouble connecting the dots between the Rhine's history and that of their own home. Many students will likewise be able to find in local landscapes some evidence of projects influenced by the Rhine's transformation. 

     A river's concrete embankment is unmistakable evidence of human will, the consequence of urban and industrial planning. We tend to see rural landscapes with a very different sensibility. I recently came across a website promoting travel to Bali. The caption: "Nature Walk – Discover Beautiful Rice Paddy Fields." Beautiful? Yes. Natural? Well…

     Before the 19th century, Michael Adas writes (in "Continuity and Transformation: Colonial Rice Frontiers"), Southeast Asia's great river deltas were "sparsely populated, frequently flooded [regions] covered with mangrove swamps and monsoon rain forests" (192). By the early 20th century, they had become rice granaries feeding urbanized populations well beyond the region. This episode in Southeast Asian history (actually, any episode in Southeast Asian history) gets little play from world history texts and course outlines. Yet it both underwrote Asia's urban expansion and drew its peoples deeply into the global economy. Adas invites global comparisons of this expanding "colonial rice frontier" to plains of the US and Canada, Argentine pampas, and the flatlands of the Ukraine.  

     Colonial governments congratulated themselves for the rapid and dramatic remaking of Southeast Asia's lower river basins, much as they congratulated themselves for domesticating the Rhine. Yet, Adas finds, the stories were quite different. To be sure, European investors and colonial authorities played a significant role in adapting the landscapes of the Mekong and Irawaddy to rice cultivation. Along the Chao Phraya, however, the Siamese state (also consolidating its power) encouraged the same development. However, the state did not act alone: peasants migrating into these rice frontiers from the interior river valleys cleared land, built and maintained irrigation works, and developed complex communities which were opaque to the administrative gaze. 

     Unlike Cioc—but very much like Pomeranz—Adas does not consider the wholesale remaking of these regions an altogether bad thing. Intensive wet rice cultivation was "in many ways… the most optimal form of large-scale economic development then available" and "by far one of the most productive modes of generating a staple food… [and] far less disruptive of existing ecological systems than many other processes of agricultural expansion and frontier settlement" (201).

     Yet, as Adas adds, it was not without its problematic consequences. Of these, one has particular political and social consequences: cultivators become very vulnerable when they become dependent on the world price for a single commodity. No wonder that "rice monoculture… has been a major contributor to the socioeconomic and political crisis that have recurred in all these delta regions from the late 1920s onward." Here is an invitation to consider the ways that comparable rural transformations have shaped political and social histories (203).


     "Landscapes, Conquests, Communities, and the Politics of Knowledge" is the somewhat ungainly title chosen for the collection's third set of essays by regional specialists on Africa (Peter Beinart), India (Mahesh Rangajaran), Latin America (Lisa Sedrez), and Russia (Douglas Weiner). Obviously, these contributions each focus on a familiar regional construct of the sort Martin Lewis and his colleagues criticized in Myth of Continents.7 Though using the old regions as units of world history analysis can mislead, it is a simple fact that most historians specialize in a particular region, not in world history. As Pomeranz comments, the findings of area studies specialists "remain essential points of departure" for developing a global environmental history. A title like "Area Studies and Global Environmental History" needs no apology (4).

     That said, roping these regions together does evoke Immanuel Wallerstein's "modern world system" in which, by the mid-19th century, a Euro-American capitalist core had coerced or subsumed the rest of the world into relationships characterized as "semi-peripheral" (i.e., Latin America and Russia) or "peripheral" (India and sub-Saharan Africa). Readers expecting these essays to contain a grand narrative of environmental decline—ranging from rationalized property regimes to intensively engineered landscapes to uncontrolled urbanization, biodiversity loss, and the degradation of air, water and soil as the ruinous consequence of globalized capital—will be disappointed. The authors in question offer nothing so simple.

     Writing on South Asia, Mahesh Rangarajan takes particular exception to an "East/West dichotomy… that sheds no light on colonial rule or its impact." For one thing, the Mughal Empire and its predecessors in India manipulated the landscape as far as their power would allow. The Mughal Empire was thus one of many "states dependent on land-based revenues [that] had long tried to extend their reach into forest and hill areas."  Like other states, the Mughal Empire "bore down heavily on the nomadic tribes of the hilly and deltaic regions," remaking landscapes in the process (232). Further, "no student of South Asia's environmental record can possibly ignore the fissures and cracks in the colonial state." If environmental history were reduced to melodrama (something Rangarajan avoids), then British colonial administrators might occasionally be cast as environmental heroes (242).

     That said, "there were profound differences between the Raj and its predecessors." Change came "in two phases: first with the policing, disarming, and sedentarization of itinerant peoples, and then with the sequestering of forest and the expansion of canal irrigation" (246). On the whole, wildlife certainly suffered in a region increasingly characterized by "a village-centered peasant economy and new commercialization of forest lands." By 1900, the Raj had sequestered a fifth of British India into government forest–"a huge shift in property relations" (237). Yet colonialism's distinct features grew out of "specific victories and calamities, of historically evolving processes, not out of a morality play that opposed East and West, science and local knowledge, the modern and the traditional" (234, 245).

     What made the British Empire so much more transformative than its predecessors? If British colonial impact was greater, it is because Britain's global network drew on "sources of power outside the region. It was thus more insulated from the pressures within the subcontinent than previous regimes" (237). As a result, it did not have to continue the "fluid and flexible" relationships between the Mughal Empire and local actors.

     Rangarajan's analytical cool should not be mistaken for colonial apologetics. No qualifications, he writes, "can disguise the reality of the severe impact of colonial policy in the decisive decades of the nineteenth century." British policies led directly to the "marginalization of "peasants, keepers and breeders of livestock, fisher folk, and artisans." These consequences "facilitated the rise of market- and state-oriented patterns of production, which were and are more ecologically disharmonious than the systems they supplanted" (238, 240). Yet, after 1947, few other independence leaders wanted the small-scale village economies that Mohandas Gandhi idealized. Rangarajan tells us that Bhimrao Ambedkar, hero of a movement to grant dalit (untouchables) full rights under the Indian constitution, supported the Damodar Valley Authority, a TVA-style project intended to provide hydroelectricity to Indian factories. Ambedkar hoped that "waged work in modern industry" would liberate "those born into a menial caste" from their rural poverty (244).

     Like Rangajaran, William Beinart (Africa) and Lisa Sedrez (Latin America) are both at pains to demonstrate that recent environmental history has moved some distance beyond inherited conquest-and-decline narratives. To make that clear, Beinart titles his contribution "Beyond the Colonial Paradigm" while Sedrez subtitles hers "A Shifting Old/New Field." These are, in effect, reviews of recent literature in the field. Students new to world history are unlikely to find them useful. They are more valuable for advanced students, particularly those who need a bibliographic overview before launching into specific sources. 

     While neither Beinart nor Sedrez offer a central argument, their essays are rich in comparisons that might be integrated into a world history curriculum. Both, for instance, stress the importance of frontiers. Since the emergence of the "new Western history" movement in the United States, much has been made of reframing the frontier as a region of interaction rather than the edge of conflict. There are, Beinart and Sedrez find, plenty of opportunities to do so in African and Latin American histories. William Beinart, for example, asks that we "understand that Africans, and especially Bantu-speaking black Africans, were migrants and colonizers in the continent." With them came "techniques, livestock and crops" developed in west and central Africa and then tested against and adapted to new environments. Sedrez (who uses the term "encounters" rather than "frontiers") highlights research on relationships between the "dominant society and other traditional but nonindigenous groups such as quilombos (runaway slaves), fishing communities, and rubber tappers" (265). Like Rangajaran, Sedrez and Beinart stay well away from the overt moral outrage that once seethed in earlier environmental histories and which seethes still in Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts.

     Douglas Weiner ("The Predatory Tribute-Taking State: A Framework for Understanding Russian Environmental History") shows no such reluctance. There is no doubt about where he stands:

The core of this argument is simple. At least since the Mongol-Tatar invasion of the thirteenth century, and particularly with the rise and expansion of the Muscovite state, and later, the Russian Empire and the USSR, a succession of militarized, predatory tribute-taking regimes have dominated the Eurasian land mass…  Unbounded by the rule of law (although constrained somewhat by custom), these regimes saw the population and the land over which they ruled as a trove of resources to be mined for the rulers' purposes.  At times, those purposes have sounded noble: defense of the one true faith, the ingathering of the dispersed Russian ethnos, the creation of a just, classless society, or the engineering of a transition to a "liberal, democratic, free-market society."  Nevertheless, high-minded purposes have not overshadowed the rulers' cold understandings of the prerequisites of maintaining power… Russia's rulers have spared neither people nor land (276–277).

     Weiner's bite is as sharp as his bark. His essay recapitulates the whole of Russian history, cataloguing eight centuries of exploitative and destructive policies. His tone recalls a very different genre of academic work: the anti-dictatorship manifesto, reminiscent of Ghanaian economist George Ayittey's denunciations of African "vampire states." 8 Like Ayittey, it is love that motivates Weiner's jeremiad. His last several pages, which enumerate and then reject reasons for environmental hope in post-Soviet Russia, read like the account of a failed affair (well, an affair whose betrayed lover is tenured faculty): "The nihilistic costing calculus of the predatory tribute-taking state is still in place… a second Chernobyl simply waiting to happen" (304–307).

     Alone of the four essays in this section, Weiner's could be fed whole to most students. But the others should not be ignored. A reading of all four suggests cross-regional comparisons—some of which are mentioned below—that can remake world history curriculum.


     In his introductory remarks, Pomeranz laments the absence of a narrative common to environmental and world historians. Obviously, no common narrative is going to emerge from a collection of eleven essays from nine historians, though there are clearly common threads tying together two, three or more of these essays. Apart from the "developmentalist project," these might, for instance, include the idea of the "frontier": Adas's rice frontier, Beinart's frontier of Bantu migration, and Pomeranz's Chinese territorial periphery. Another common theme, perhaps, is the tension between local knowledge of the environment (what James Scott calls metis) and the technocratic-scientific expertise offered (or imposed) by state and corporate planners. Though these days our sympathies with corporate and state have both worn thin, it may be well to recall, as Pomeranz points out regarding China, that the local knowledge cherished by local officials and elites sometimes works to the detriment of broader environmental goals.

     At the same time, one could wish that three other topics had each gotten an essay of its own. One such topic: how environmental issues impact gender. Though Beinart, Pomeranz, Rangarajan, and Sedrz mention this in passing, the collection's emphasis on modernization and state building often bypasses social history. This lacuna is hardly unique to The Environment and World History. Writing of the United States, Elizabeth Blum recently observed that,"the historiography of women's involvement in the environment suffers from numerous gaps." Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman found a similar bifurcation in Latin America between studies that would tie that region more closely to global political and economic narratives and those that would—usually through localized scholarship—unpack issues of gender.9

     A second issue is the relationship of environmental degradation to contemporary global poverty. It is Mike Davis's contention that global environmental degradation all but engineered for the sake of imperial agendas was central to the "making of the third world." It has become a commonplace belief that desertification immiserated millions in the Sahel, a view generally questioned by more conservative writers who blame poverty on dysfunctional and overweening states. What is the relationship between environmental cause and effect? While it is possible to glean bits and pieces from these essays, a focused assessment would be valuable. 

     Surprisingly, there is little said here about environmental politics. Some teachers (though probably few students) will have heard of India's peasant-based Chipko movement, Brazil's assassinated activist Chico Mendes, or Tanzania's Nobel Prize winning Wangari Maathal. Illumination of their work and that of their predecessors would be welcome. So too would a sense for the ways "the environment" motivated political activism in the decades before "environment" entered the common vocabulary. Weiner and Pomeranz do ask whether environmental movements in Russia and China will gain more power going forward (the answer's "no" for Weiner's Russia and "maybe" in Pomeranz's China). Still, the roots of global environmental movements remain obscure. 

     No anthology can do it all, and this one is much better than most. As world history instructors plan their courses over the coming years, they would be well off turning to the good counsel Kenneth Pomeranz, Edmund Burke and their colleagues offer in The Environment and World History.

Tom Laichas teaches at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California. He is the author, for the National Center for History in the Schools, of "Infinite Patience, Indomitable Will: Ralph Bunche and his Struggle for Peace and Justice" and writes regularly on world history education for World History Connected and other publications. He can be reached at



1 A fine collective bibliography at the end of The Environment and World History catalogs over 300 of the most significant essays and books in the field. Of the writers mentioned above, see David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (University of California Press 2005); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th anniversary edition (Praeger, 2003) and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 9001900, 2nd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2004); Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso, 2002); Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail (Penguin, 2005); Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 13001850 (Basic Books, 2001) as well as Floods Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations, revised edition (Basic Books, 2009) and The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Basic Books, 2008); Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History (Longman, 2009); J. S. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Norton, 2001) and Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 16201914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Anthony Penna, Nature's Bounty: Historical and Modern Environmental Perspectives (M.E. Sharpe, 2009) and The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, revised edition (Penguin, 2007); I.G. Simmons, Changing the Face of the Earth: Culture, Environment, History, 2nd edition (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996) and Global Environmental History (University of Chicago Press, 2008); Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History (Westview Press, 1994). 

2 University of California Press, "California World History Library," <> retrieved 26 April, 2011.

3 James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

4 For a very good classroom-ready account of "defensive modernization" in Porfirio Diaz's Mexico, Menelik II's Ethiopia, Sun Yat-sen's China and Kemal Mustapha's Turkey, see Cyrus Veeser, Great Leaps Forward: Modernizers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009). 

5 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001) and Pomeranz, "China's Environment," EWH, 153.

6 The four sections are: "Limits of Growth-and of Late Imperial Statecraft" (128–136); "The People's Republic: (How) Did it the Revolution Matter?" (136–142), "Hydropower and China's Far West" (142–147) and "China and the Global Environment at the Millennium: Do the Differences Still Matter?" (147–153)

7 Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigan, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

8 While George Ayittey is a prolific author, an entertaining quick fix can be had via his TED talk, "Cheetahs vs. Hippos," June 2007 (posted July 2007),

9 Elizabeth D. Blum "Linking American Women's History and Environmental History: A Preliminary Historiography" accessed May 6, 2011,; Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman, "It's a Man's World? World History Meets the History of Masculinity, in Latin American Studies, For Instance" Journal of World History 21:1 (March 2010), 75–96.



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