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Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World by Gregory Cushman (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 494-495 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0060

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World. By Gregory Cushman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. 416. $99.

Greg Cushman’s monograph Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World is not quite about guano and not quite about the opening of the Pacific world. Cushman, associate professor of environmental history at the University of Kansas, has composed a book of observations and narratives around the theme of fertilizer extraction in Peru and Oceania and its place in the global food supply. Along the way, the book includes some striking stories and challenging observations, and in the end it draws a compelling conclusion. Yet getting at these insights amid the confusion of facts and anecdotes can test the reader’s patience, as the book wanders far from its initial focus on guano.

While difficult to summarize, the book essentially tells four histories. Beginning with guano use in traditional Peru, it turns to the European discovery of guano, its chemical properties, and its exceptional value as a fertilizer, which Cushman situates in the rise of Victorian “high farming” with its focus on inputs. That narrative then slides into the global guano boom of the late nineteenth century and the contemporaneous rise of nitrate and phosphate mining in South America and the Pacific. Following is a case study of Banaba, one of several small islands of Oceania mined for phosphates in the twentieth century. Then the narrative turns back to Peru, examining its technocratic management of guano production during the early to mid-twentieth century, an effort that often foundered in the face of serious El Niño episodes and falling fish and bird populations. Chapters 7 [End Page 494] and 8 move into a lengthy consideration of various influential authors and reports of the 1940s–60s concerned with problems of global population and food supply. This discussion, it turns out in chapter 9, forms a lengthy prologue to the rise of Peru’s fishmeal industry, once hailed as a solution to the third world’s protein problem, but ultimately a poor trade-off for the guano bird population that it undermined.

In the end, Cushman does make an important and insightful argument: From Victorian times to the late twentieth century, guano collection, nitrate and phosphorus mining, and fishmeal production each represented misused solutions to a misunderstood problem of global food production. Rather than feeding a dangerously growing population as its proponents claimed, this fertilizer extraction fed high-input agriculture geared toward meat and fish production for the wealthy. The poor remained hungry because they were poor, not because there were not enough calories in the world. In the process, these extractive industries often involved dangerous working conditions, the introduction of diseases and invasive species, and heavy environmental damage, especially on Pacific islands.

Making that argument was never going to be simple. Yet Cushman made the task far more complex through what he calls his “following” methodology, one that traces its historical subject through all of its global ecological interactions. In practice, rather than delivering an integrated commodity and environmental history, it leads the narrative into a maze of digressions. The book describes everything from saltpeter manufacture in the Mughal Empire to nuclear testing on Pacific atolls. In a single paragraph, the author moves from sheep culling in Navajo country to Rafael Trujillo’s massacre of Haitians on the Dominican border. At times interesting, but at times tendentious or just confusing, these asides occupy much of the text and make the author’s otherwise compelling subject difficult to follow. The book has the distinction of being the only one this reviewer has ever read that really should have been more full of shit.

Readers of Technology and Culture, particularly those in the field of envirotech, may find the book at turns fascinating and frustrating. Rather than offer a clear and consistent investigation of fertilizers extracted from the Pacific and their place in world food production—which would have made for an excellent history in its own right—Cushman forces his wideranging narrative into sometimes amorphous and unsuitable themes of global environmental history. Nevertheless, sections on the European discovery and analysis of guano, the operations of...