Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 144-146
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The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World
Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. By Richard P. Tucker (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000) 551 pp. $45.00
It is commonplace now for environmentalists to complain that Americans do not know the origins of everyday consumer goods. Readers of Tucker's remarkable book will discover not only the origins of products such as coffee, bananas, and tires, but they will also learn some of the costs of producing those items and the deep history of the United States' exploitation of the natural resources of the tropics. Tucker's subject is one that diplomatic historians have not even considered, and his work is far more international than that of most environmental historians.
Tucker lays out an exhaustive trail of evidence that the United States created an "ecological empire" throughout the tropics, similar to the informal empire that diplomatic historians recognize, to feed an enormous appetite for consumer goods (xii). He divides the book into three sections, "Croplands," "Pasturelands," and "Forests" and further divides the first section into chapters on sugar, fruit, coffee, and rubber. Each chapter has smaller sections for different regions. Along the way, the narrative moves from Cuba to Malaysia to Liberia and a host of countries in between. Tucker shows how U.S. businessmen, as well as, to a lesser extent, scientists and government officials, extracted resources [End Page 144] from the tropics. Such familiar figures as Harvey Firestone, Gifford Pinchot, and Sanford Dole play key roles in his story, but so do such lesser-known figures as George Ahern, who tried to bring U.S. forestry practices to the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, and Claus Spreckels, who was a Hawaiian sugar baron without rival.
Tucker focuses his account of events on the period from 1898 to the 1960s, but he demonstrates in each section that the United States was acting within a broader Western context of a search for resources. In the last century, the United States gradually dominated that context, especially after 1945, as Americans set the targets for increasingly higher standards of living. American consumers redefined luxuries into necessities, driving on rubber tires to buy hamburgers with beef from the tropics, washed down with a soda with sugar from the tropics, followed by a banana split and a cup of instant coffee. The full costs of all of these purchases were invisible to most citizens, who did not know that their collective craving for sugar and coffee was driving corporations to plant more land in monoculture, which forced poor citizens onto marginal agricultural land, which led to further environmental degradation of tropical ecosystems and worsened economic inequality in tropical nations.
The story is most clear in the first two chapters, which cover the sugar industry. Diplomatic historians have long noted that sugar was crucial for bringing Cuba and Hawaii into the U.S. orbit, but Tucker tells a more complete story. He begins by explaining how entrepreneurs planted sugarcane around the world hundreds of years ago and then experimented with refining the cane juice into pure white sugar. As the United States grew more powerful in the 1800s, American capital, technical expertise, markets, and tariffs came to dominate the sugar industry. Expansion of the sugar plantations meant more monoculture, which meant more disease; it also meant displacement of other farmers, usually onto marginal land that was good only for temporary, slash-and-burn agriculture. In short, sugarcane had been a widespread crop long before the United States even existed, but the expansion of the u.s. market led to a wide range of unimagined environmental degradation of the tropics.
This book is an ambitious and successful attempt at international environmental history. Ambition, though, can cause minor problems. Diplomatic historians, for instance, may well find Tucker's summations of u.s. foreign relations—which are critical for explaining how the United States found itself in a...