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Reviewed by:
  • The Environment and World History
  • Niklas Robinson
The Environment and World History. Edited by Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 384 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Edited volumes are measured by the success of meeting the usually ambitious scope they address. In The Environment and World History, the scope and purpose are astonishingly ambitious, and these aspirations are largely achieved. The editors, Edmund Burke and Kenneth Pomeranz, argue that the need to integrate environmental history into world history represents an "urgent intellectual project" (p. xiii), a claim amply supported by the ensuing eleven chapters. Clearly, considering the recurrence of catastrophic storms, famines, water shortages, and an almost constant state of world war over scarce natural resources supports the need to study the human relationship with the natural world in a historical context.

The scope of the volume is sprawling—perhaps for some readers slightly unwieldy—covering the last five hundred years of history in Asia, Africa, Russia, Latin America, and the Rhine River. Seeking to bridge the divide between the early modern world and modern world (the nineteenth century), the authors examine continuities, not the more frequently examined ruptures that come about from that historical transition (p. 4). The rationale for this approach centers on a focus on colonial and postcolonial societies, as opposed to occidental environmental history's focus on capitalism's impact on the natural world [End Page 413] and the conservation movement's attempt to ameliorate its ecological consequences (p. xii). Burke's chapter on energy regimes sets the historical context for the following chapters, with a synoptic examination of human consumption, arguing "humanity's talent for fouling its own nest is not uniquely modern" (p. 33). John Richards's essay, a cursory review of property rights, supports Pomeranz's contextual approach, although many environmental historians may find nothing notably novel about his argument. The remaining chapters are truly global in their regional, thematic, and methodological treatment. Unfortunately, the subdiscipline of environmental history remains largely focused on Occidental history, particularly Western Europe and the United States. Historians whose context is the United States and Europe will likely rail against the omission of any treatment of the United States and the inclusion of only one essay on Europe focused on the Rhine. Conversely, researchers whose focus is not on the north will find this volume a welcome departure from studies on the global "center."

Other historians may criticize this volume as being merely a collection of anecdotal case studies; after all, how is the half millennium of historical change in the Middle East relevant to the Americas or Europe? Burke expertly addresses this stating, "The flayed Middle Eastern environment epitomizes the world as it will be" (p. 110). Therefore, he continues, the Middle East serves as "the proverbial canary in the miner's cage, the middle east provides a warning for the rest of the planet" (p. 110). While the literature on the United States and Western Europe is clearly more developed than environmental histories of the "poorer countries" this volume focuses on, this overlooks a tradition of environmental studies that has existed well before the formalization of environmental history as an accepted subdiscipline.

This tradition is best demonstrated by Lise Sedrez's essay, "Latin American Environmental History: A Shifting Old/New Field." She points to a strong tradition in Latin America of interdisciplinary collaborations among anthropologists, geographers, economists, and historians who include the natural world in their analyses of society, politics, economic development, and change. Sedrez outlines a three-way dialogue among Latin American researchers, North American academics, and specific research agendas and theoretical frameworks formulated in, among other places, Brazil and Mexico (p. 256). For many orthodox environmental historians from the United States and Europe, the study of the environment in the developing world then, does not necessarily conform to their research agendas. Importantly, this essay also elucidates the misconception that environmental history/studies [End Page 414] were formulated in Europe and the United States and "given" to the third world. This suggests a subtle form of neo-imperialism that Ramachandra Guha warned of in "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique."1...


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