- Agriculture in World History by Mark B. Tauger
Mark Tauger’s contribution to Routledge’s Themes in World History series offers a valuable distillation of one of the most important, albeit frequently overlooked, historical themes: agriculture. Although it is essentially a textbook, and so aimed principally at undergraduates, Agriculture in World History is hardly a dry chronicle of technological innovations and relative efficiencies. On the contrary, Tauger’s book provides a useful frame for students precisely because he also intended it to serve as “a possible overall interpretation for scholars” (p. 2). While this book is unlikely to significantly reshape the larger historiography, the fact that it is both accessible and argument-driven makes it particularly fertile ground to cultivate discussions in world history surveys.
At its heart is Tauger’s contention that in most societies—regardless of region or era—farmers found themselves subjected to the vagaries of both the natural world and political forces beyond their immediate communities, a phenomenon Tauger labels the “dual subordination” of farmers. Focusing on issues like debt, taxation, and servitude along with environmental change and calamity, Tauger traces farmers’ struggles from the world of antiquity into the early twenty-first century, always positing an adversarial relationship between farmers and elites and between farmers and nature that rendered any gains they made temporal. [End Page 177]
As with any work of this sort, scholars with an expertise in the various regions Tauger explores could find reason to nitpick. A 182-page synthesis, Agriculture in World History inevitably glosses over things, losing vital complexities in sweeping generalizations—a factor perhaps made more evident inasmuch as slightly more than 40 percent of the book focuses on the twentieth century. There is, for instance, little analysis of the technological innovations that facilitated agriculture or of the economic pressures that helped shape farmers’ relationship with their urban counterparts. Occasionally, paragraphs end with sentences that hint at larger, unexplored facets of a society’s agriculture (e.g., “Egyptian peasants also grew sugarcane and other crops,” p. 99). And some might object to his definition of “main world civilizations” since the bulk of the work focuses on North America, Europe, China, and the Middle East; it pays only perfunctory attention to sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and then primarily in the context of its colonial experience (p. 2).
For that matter, many scholars (including this reviewer) will undoubtedly find Tauger’s argument a bit overdrawn, too large to work particularly well everywhere and thus more persuasive in some cases than in others. More significantly, Tauger never acknowledges the irony of his “dual subordination.” By setting up nature in an adversarial relationship to farmers, he inadvertently vilifies the natural world, glossing over the fact that agriculture works by subordinating nature. Indeed, his readers shouldn’t find it any more surprising that nature sometimes pushed back against farmers than that farmers did so against elites. Thus, while Tauger ends on a decidedly moral note—“The situation could be quite different if civilizations could . . . treat farmers without exploitation and subordination, in a manner that respects the real dependence of civilization on agriculture”—he never explicitly calls for farmers to practice agriculture with less exploitation and a greater respect for their dependence on the natural world (p. 182).
But to focus on these things would be to miss the value of the book for its intended purpose. Agriculture in World History provides vital background for many of the issues that are sure to remain front and center over the course of the twenty-first century: disparities of power between and within societies related to their degree of urbanity, concerns over feeding a growing population, and mounting environmental issues related to agriculture. Moreover, Tauger’s “farmer’s eye view” of history challenges traditional conceptions of civilization and reintegrates the natural world into narratives of world history as a significant (sometimes decisive) factor (p. 13). Thus, the book’s interpretive framework promises to spark classroom discussion, offering students the [End Page 178] opportunity to connect the agricultural transformations...