- The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World
The title of John F. Richard's monumental survey is, of course, intended ironically. We now foresee the end of the frontier, for we have consumed enough of the natural world to be able to sense its limits. This book treats the period when most humans did not yet perceive the natural world as having limits, despite the fact that we had already begun to affect world environments, on a grand scale. The Unending Frontier is a survey of the accelerating impact of human societies on environments around the world, since about 1400. This is the great period of western European expansion—but Richards does not limit himself to that theme. He traces the development of several major Asian economies in their own right, examining the environmental effects of their eventual interaction with Europe, but never imagining that it was only Europe that had the power to effect serious impact.
Environmental histories might be divided into two genres. Some treat the environment as a setting for the human drama and emphasize climate change as a context for social and economic evolution. Brian Fagan's The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850 is a good example of this approach. Others are more concerned with the impact of the human drama on the natural world. This is Richard's major emphasis, although he devotes part 1 of his book to situating the emerging modern economies within climate history. The bulk of his survey, though, is directed to describing and trying to explain human modification of the natural world. Part 2, on Eurasia and Africa, treats the successive resettlements of Taiwan, the intensification of land use in China, the surprisingly self-conscious ecological strategies of early modern Japan, and the various knock-on effects of the Dutch colonization of South Africa, as well as more often explored topics of British industrialization and the Russian colonization of Siberia. Part 3, on the Americas, examines ranching and mining in colonial Mexico, sugar and cattle production in Brazil, and the Columbian exchange in the West Indies, with a separate chapter on the impact of the sugar industry. Part 4 examines what Richards terms "the world hunt," including the fur trade in North America, the fur trade in Siberia, the northwest Atlantic cod fishery, and the hunt for whales and walruses. In each chapter, Richards frames environmental history with a concise account of the political history and economic evolution of the region in question. So what The Unending Frontier offers is not simply environmental history but, effectively, a cross--fertilization of environmental with world history.
The major value of Richard's work is that it offers the reader the big picture. This is achieved in a kind of cubist way, through the presentation of a series of case studies. In other words, the book does not actually cover the whole world. The omission of Australia and Oceania are understandable, given that the kind of modern impact under discussion came later there, for the most part. Continental Europe and Africa north of the Transvaal are not discussed, while North America is here only as the scene of the fur trade and a scatter of fishing stations. These omissions probably ref lect Richards's sense of what has already been written and what actually needs a synthesis. In each chapter, he works from the political to the economic to unravel environmental and social consequences. He does not assume that humans are always shortsighted; this is not a book about inevitability, and the case of Tokagawa, Japan, is particularly thought provoking, in this respect. Richards does not sentimentalize native peoples, but he does offer a clear-eyed account of the varying degrees of colonial exploitation, in Siberia for example, versus North America. In many ways, this is a book about colonization, in its many aspects.
There are, necessarily, limitations to such a synoptic overview. Richards came to environmental history from previous research on Mogul...