- An Environmental History of Latin America
The scholarship on Latin American environmental history has burgeoned in the past decade. Scholars have both sharpened their examination of the environmental consequences of 1492, first studied by Carl O. Sauer and Alfred Crosby, and moved beyond discussions of the Columbian Exchange to consider issues in the later colonial and national periods in Latin America. Particularly within the past decade, historians have turned their attention to the human impact on the environment and, increasingly, to environmental influence on human activity in the areas south of the U.S. border. This quickening of environmental history led to a rapid expansion of the scholarship on such topics such as disease, deforestation, urbanization, the struggle over water, and conservationism in Central and South America. Moreover, historians have begun to integrate environmental themes into existing courses and develop new ones that focus primarily on the environment. Shawn William Miller has produced a book that both reflects the direction of recent research and could serve as an excellent axis around which to structure courses on the topic. In a sense, then, An Environmental History of Latin America represents the coming of age of an emerging field.
The book opens on the cusp of European contact with a chapter that shows that the Aztecs, Incas, and Tupis of Brazil sought to modify their environment in much the same way that other premodern peoples did. The narrative then moves to a careful and well-rounded discussion of the Columbian exchange of Old and New World biota and the horrific demographic collapse of native peoples it produced. [End Page 595] Miller’s examination of the colonial period also includes discussions of the human and environmental costs imposed by sugar production and the extraction of silver, as well as a series of other commodities that structured economic life during the colonial period. Subsequent chapters discuss the intellectual and epidemiological consequences of neocolonial encounters in the nineteenth-century tropics, the emerging use of extractivism and muscular engineering projects to promote development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and urbanization. It ends on a hopeful yet pragmatic note by discussing the development of—and challenges to—conservation.
In a particularly intriguing epilogue about Cuba’s response to the sudden loss of petroleum imports, Miller tempers the specter that hangs over so many environmental histories of the longue durée: the explicit or implied image of continual environmental decline. He shows that the loss of petrochemicals for fertilizers, manufacturing, and transportation has not spelled the end of Cuban society, but rather prompted a difficult accommodation to a far greener (though less abundant) food supply than much of the rest of the continent takes for granted.
It will hardly come as a surprise that Miller had to make compromises in terms of content. Narrating a half-millennium of history in a region spanning from the deserts of northern Mexico through the neotropics to the Pampas of South America necessarily demands that different regions, topics, and ecosystems play a game of musical chairs. Some topics simply will not find a seat. By and large, Miller’s selection works very well temporally, thematically, and geographically. Even so, it is possible to quibble with some of Miller’s choices. Does the topic of Aztec human sacrifice really deserve its own section, particularly in light of the arguably misleading assertions that sacrifice “had significant environmental consequences” (p. 39) and that humans were “rais[ed] for food” (p. 40)? It is doubtful, particularly since the book gives relatively little attention to the arguably more important topic of Andean adaptations such as the “vertical archipelago” to an unforgiving productive landscape. And does it make sense to dedicate significantly more space to banana monoculture than to the conversion of forestland to cattle ranching in the twentieth century, even though the latter probably has a more enduring environmental impact? In this case, Miller’s choice may say more about the limits to Latin American environmental historiography than about the “objective” significance of one topic...