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Reviewed by:
  • Encyclopedia of World Environmental History
  • Joachim Radkau
Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, 3 vols. Edited by Shepard Krech III, J. R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant. New York: Routledge, 2004. 1,429 + xlvi pp. $525.48.

In their introduction (p. x) the editors rightly emphasize that since 1970 an "explosion of scholarship" on environmental history has taken place. But until recently, this scholarship has been widely scattered among different regions, nations, and disciplines. What we therefore need today is an implosion that brings together this dispersed knowledge in order to arouse intellectual chain reactions. This encyclopedia, the first of its kind in the world and a bold and admirable undertaking composed during a remarkably short time, is a big step forward in this direction. It is a highly useful handbook not only for environmental historians, but for environmentalists as well. Environmentalists often believe that they think globally, but in reality most do not. Here they have a chance to gain a truly global perspective and to realize that there is not only one environmentalism, but a multitude of environmentalisms in the world (p. 480).

Many articles in the encyclopedia are written in a spirit of solidarity with environmentalism, but without dogmatic commitment to any one specific school of environmentalism, whether movements to preserve the wilderness or programs of sustainable development. The three volumes reflect a plurality of standpoints, as do indeed the editors themselves. Carolyn Merchant, author of The Death of Nature (1980), belongs to the founding mothers of environmental history, while Shepard Krech III, author of The Ecological Indian (1999)—a title not without irony—is prominent among those environmental historians who adopt revisionist positions without, however, any general backlash against environmentalism more generally. [End Page 99]

The encyclopedia, therefore, is a handbook for the second generation of environmentalists and reflects awareness that good historians must proceed critically with the sources and likewise with popular historical imagination. Repeatedly the reader learns that "wilderness" usually is a myth, and that the so-called primeval forests have been shaped by human use for millennia, even in Amazonia and Central Africa, but that this change of nature does not necessarily mean degradation and the destruction of nature. Environmental historians today have learned to be careful with degradation narratives, even if they frequently contain a core of truth. And they should think about the implications of the rise of the new "non-equilibrium ecology" (p. 1:168) for environmental history, which too often is based upon ecological concepts that are long out of date.

The encyclopedia offers an overview of the great controversial topics, such as Garrett Hardin's concept of the "tragedy of the commons," Paul Martin's "Pleistocene overkill," the New Wilderness debate, and others. Some articles are looking back upon changing trends in environmentalism, for instance how the house sparrow advanced from being a pest toward becoming an endangered species (p. 649). J.R. McNeill, one of the editors and author of Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2000), discusses in a masterly and well-balanced way one of the most critical questions of environmentalism: whether population growth in and of itself constitutes a burden, or even harm for the environment. He demonstrates how environmental history is able to make precise distinctions with regard to the effects of population growth on the environment under diverse conditions. Irrigation terraces require dense populations: a decline of population is often followed by decay of the terraces and by an increase in soil erosion. But in spite of this there are numerous cases, both past and present, in which Malthus was right and Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" did its grim work.

The encyclopedia presents a broad range of thematic fields, from ecology to religion. It is fully justified that agriculture, which has been sometimes neglected by environmental historians, takes a prominent place. Manuring, irrigation, terracing, soil conservation, salinization, erosion, and last but not least land rights are all essential to a well-founded environmental history. The invention of nitrogen fertilizer by Fritz Haber marks a turning point in environmental history (p. 631). The three volumes demonstrate that environmental history is currently developing from an originally...


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