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College Quarterly
Fall 2010 - Volume 13 Number 4
The Turning Points of Environmental History
Frank Uekötter, ed.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

It was not long ago that the environment was at or near the top of the list of chief North American public concerns. People still fret about it. Massive oil spills cannot help but catch our attention. There is much talk about green energy. Some people, understanding that petroleum is a limited resource, or at least knowing that the price of gas and anything that has to be transported across the seas, over the land or through the air is going up, and is unlikely to go down again.

Still, the noble plea for conservation is largely ignored. Where we once displayed rhetorical enthusiasm for “sustainable development,” we now balance the costs and benefits; and, when jobs are on the line (or are said to be on the line), we retreat into the nostrums of industrial capitalism and beggar the environment. It isn’t our fault, we tell ourselves; it’s the industrializing former “third-world” countries that are to blame—especially India and China. Why, we ask, should we allow a decline in our standard of living when those people refuse to abide by the Kyoto Accords as well. True, we dutifully sort our trash, screw in odd-shaped light bulbs and purchase hybrid automobiles if we can afford them. Yet, the priorities of national governments in the United States and especially in Canada are elsewhere. First, we fix the economy; then, we manage the environment; and we the people follow their lead.

Meanwhile, in the words of the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston, there is a nagging truth that we prefer to repress: “Whenever you hear the phrase ‘sustainable development,’ you can be sure of one thing; it is development that will be sustained.” Until, of course, it can’t be any longer. Saying when the ecological collapse will come is a mug’s game, but knowing that it will come one day is not.

In the interim, the human population of the Earth may be culled by environmental disasters or by wars over what’s left of our natural resources. Less dramatically, we may come up with some clever ideas to buy ourselves some time. Making nuclear fusion work would be nice—and it might just make it unnecessary to build all those noisy windmills, or wait breathlessly for the next nuclear plant meltdown.

Who knows? A combination of measures to control population and to find alternatives to non-renewable resources could just work … for a while.

We do, in any case, have enough time to read a book or two. After all, questions of Arctic melting, desertification and drought, unstable weather patterns and good old-fashioned pollution of air, land and water can be put off until … some future date. And, if we don’t shut down our libraries in the meantime, we could enlighten ourselves about the changes that we will have to make, or that will be made for us in the coming decades and centuries.

Although it is unfashionable to pay attention to history, which the seers of today cheerfully tell us is “irrelevant,” I recommend curling up with a good book about the impending disaster of your choice. As we enter the twenty-first century, we certainly have a number to choose from: authoritarian governments and human rights; economic disparity and the demolition of the middle class; moral and ethical degradation. No matter what morals and ethics you embrace, chances are that you can see debauchery all around you; and, of course, there is the mass illiteracy that is required for the “social media” and the depraved technological culture in all its forms. Yes, there is no doubt about it: the stink of exterminism is in the air (and the land and the water).

What to do? Well, barring any impending rapture, it wouldn’t hurt to get to know what is in store for us, and that demands that we get our bearings, find out whence we came, where we are and what paths lie before us. Absent historical context, we will be unable to imagine what lies ahead and will therefore be unable to slow down, change course or even contemplate a comfortable reversal.

That’s where The Turning Points of Environmental History comes in. I am not usually much for singularities. Heroes and villains are the stuff of fiction—high and low—and while I am quite happy to pay homage to great achievements by extraordinary individuals in the arts, letters, sciences and all domains of human endeavour from the baseball diamond to the subtle brains of mathematicians and poets—though not, I am afraid, to the battlefield. I am convinced, you see, that if Newton hadn’t invented the calculus, someone else would have; in fact someone else did and his name was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. And I am convinced that if Darwin hadn’t figured out the basics of evolution, someone else would have; in fact, someone else did and his name was Alfred Russell Wallace. Well, you get the picture. The white ocean waves are spectacular to look at, but the power of the deep unseen currents are more powerful, and determine what goes on above. So it is that highlighting these or those members of our species and attributing vast historical importance to their individual or collective genius misses the main point of human cultural evolution.

A similar principle applies to those who would identify great historical turning points or transformations: the invention of the alphabet or the printing press, the development of metallurgy or electricity and, of course, the computer revolution puts arbitrary limits on our understanding. They are like cresting waves, but the real sources of change are deeper, mostly anonymous and only rarely seen. That said, marking out historical periods (ancient Rome, the romantic era, the computer age) and punctuating them with transcendent figures (Julius Caesar, Beethoven, Steve Jobs) is terribly convenient. Such “bookends” not only make historical knowledge manageable but give us frames of reference into which can shoe-horn something (or some things) to think about.

So, all I ask is that, when we split up our past into bite-sized chunks, we keep it firmly in mind that we are doing a monstrous disservice to wisdom. Our neat little topics and themes are the almost whimsical result of our imagination. They are contingent on our puny brains’ inability to grasp things whole. We must carve things up so as to make them digestible, but we are distorting and demeaning them in the process. Hamburger is a detached and ground up pieces of beef; the connection to living cattle is undetectable to the untrained eye. Likewise, human evolution is largely imperceptible. We make it small in order to digest it, but it is grander or more dreadful than we can allow ourselves to see.

In this collection of essays by nine specialists, Frank Uekötter has assembled about as much wisdom as we can expect in a volume of this kind. His contributors split things up, but they do their very best to put their specialties in a broader context, to make connections and to display a certain piety. By this I do not mean a fawning regard for humanity, much less for any divine entity imagined to bestow nobility on our fellow creatures; I mean only what the fine American literary critic Kenneth Burke meant when he said in elegant simplicity: “piety is the sense of what goes properly with what.” It is the discernment of what biologist Gregory Bateson called “the pattern which connects.”

The first good thing about the book is that is does not submit to any historical dogma. The future is not embedded in a teleological narrative. There seems to be an opportunity to see the trends leading into the future and to do otherwise.

This “cautious optimism” is based on the idea that, if we can properly analyze what happened before, we can predict and modify what will come after. Helping us to do the former is an approach to history which respects the importance of multidimensional qualitative change. Reducing the driving forces of social evolution to one factor or set of factors not only misrepresents the complexity of the past, but also misdirects any ameliorative action within our control. So, we find a mixture of human components: political economy, social structures, technological infrastructures and symbolic cultures with ideology as a major component.

Taken together, we are able to see the rudimentary foundations of human ecology out of which broad lessons can be drawn. The first lesson concerns the nature of human society prior to what we cheekily call civilization. Depending on what set of physiological and cultural characteristics we decide define modern humanity, it is possible to identify human origins as occurring as little as 100,000 years, or we can push them back a quarter of a million or more.

John McNeill opens the book with what might properly be called a geographical examination human migrations dating back to the first ventures out of Africa and into the past ten millennia when our species managed to colonize the entire globe. Thomas Lekan then shifts to social arrangements, and describes the rise of complex political organization culminating in the modern nation-state. Next, Deborah Fitzgerald outlines the contours of three modern agricultural revolutions, the first involving the intensification of the use of livestock and human (often slave) labour in the eighteenth century, the second bringing scientific management to agronomy in the nineteenth century and the third depending on genetic development in the twentieth.

Drawing clear borders around any of these themes is difficult. Weaving them into a single progressive thread is impossible. And so it carries on: changes in the composition of forests are described and explained; the curse of desertification in once fertile regions in which human activities are at least partly implicated; and, the emergence not just of cities which could be found in ancient societies, but what Livingston ruefully called “the urban-industrial holocaust) are set out in detail and with skill. As if to emphasize the dynamism of modernity, the “information society,” “ecological politics,” and the current condition of environmental degradation seemingly out of control, each take up the same amount of space as was devoted to at least the first 90% of our time on the Earth as recognizably modern human beings.

There are faults of course. The largest share of attention is given to nature and the impact on nature on advanced industrial and postindustrial societies, when it is plain that the global environment not only involves but is also influenced by populations outside the centres of power. Also underplayed are the geopolitical implications of a changing environment. Just as wars have had ferocious consequences for the environment, so the environment and the dwindling supply of resources in the presence of still increasing populations (and increasingly dense concentrations of people) threaten to be among the chief causes of human conflict in the future.

Nonetheless, by identifying and dealing with identifiable themes and allowing them to coexist and interact without being forced into a linear narrative, The Turning Points of Environmental History present a view of evolution that is very like the territory it seeks to map. It is a bit of a jumble. Not all the connections are obvious. It is just a little messy. Yet, the expertise of the authors and the editor’s resistance against the temptation to make a solution to an ecological puzzle on the model of a Rubik’s Cube make this anthology better because of the refusal to impose human categories and artificial time-lines on an almost unfathomably complicated process.

If we can appreciate the complexity and learn at least some of the details, we will be better able to make adjustments in the human project. If much is left out (some reviewers, for example, complain bitterly that vast areas such as Latin America are almost totally neglected), there is enough to show us how they might be brought in. If some topics are ignored, there is enough included to see how we might address related issues. If nothing else, a careful reading of Uekötter and his associates will teach us the modesty that is, again, the first tentative step toward wisdom.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy and globalization in the degree programs of nursing and social work at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca.

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