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  • The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World
  • Karen Oslund (bio)
The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. By John F. Richards. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xiv+682. $75.

The Unending Frontier is an ambitious contribution to the fields of early modern history, world history, and environmental history. John Richards identifies a series of environmental changes occurring as a result of developing state structures in the early modern period—among them, the settlement of frontiers, biological invasions from the Old World to the New, and the search for new energy resources. He traces these changes through an impressive number of case studies, including Tokugawa Japan, colonial Brazil, and the indigenous people of Russian Siberia, as well as the better-known examples of the Spanish in the New World and early modern Britain.

As these examples demonstrate, people all over the early modern world faced similar environmental issues, such as the pressure that expanding states and rising populations placed on the land. Richards describes different strategies by which various states met these challenges. His juxtaposition of chapters on early modern Britain and Tokugawa Japan is particularly effective. While Japan dealt with the crises of late-eighteenth-century famines with severe austerity measures, forest conservation programs, and intensification of fishing and whaling, the Tudor and Stuart rulers sought to expand their resources by draining wetlands and by switching the primary energy source from wood to coal in response to the depletion of the forests. As Richards notes, the British failure to recognize limits to growth was the more usual for early modern states, and the chapters on frontier settlement in Russia, whaling and walrus hunting, and Dutch and Chinese settlement on Taiwan provide other examples of the "windfall mindset in frontier societies" (p. 619) that Richards argues characterizes the early modern world.

This book could have been even more interesting for historians of technology if the comparison between different ideologies of control of nature presented in the chapters on Japan and Britain had been pursued consistently throughout the entire volume, rather than treating the various chapters as self-contained narratives about different early modern societies and their treatment of the environment. As it stands, historians of technology will probably find the final section of the book the most useful. "The World Hunt" discusses the fur hunt in North America and Siberia, whaling and walrus hunting, and cod fishing in the North Atlantic. In the previous three sections, some of the details about technologies of land reclamation or logging tend to be glossed over; here Richards gives more attention to the comparative analysis of different techniques of whaling and fishing. Although [End Page 861] the book is not directly aimed at historians of technology, and does not provide any new analytic approaches to this field, it is a useful synthesis of information about a variety of tools and technologies used in the early modern world.

The major weakness of Richards's book is in fact its analytic content. The Unending Frontier, as Richards explains in the preface, grew out of his teaching of environmental history and world history and reflects his deep commitment to world history as both a pedagogic and scholarly field. The book is an invaluable resource for anyone teaching similar courses, and also useful for classes in early modern European history, Atlantic history, or colonial American history. However, its breadth does not lend itself to close and rigorous argument, even in the chapter on the Mughal Empire, which is Richards's field of expertise. At times repetitious, this lengthy volume would have benefited from more careful editing, especially in the chapter on Russia, which conflates the time line of events and is likely to confuse the general reader. This does not prevent Richards from setting forth interesting insights in individual chapters—showing, for example, that in colonial Mexico and Brazil, Spanish and Portuguese settlement initially reduced pressure on land resources rather than increasing it, although this entailed devastating effects on the native populations.

Readers of The Unending Frontier cannot fail to be persuaded by the amount of evidence presented for Richards's main contention, that during the early...


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