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Book Review


Daniel R. Headrick, Humans Versus Nature: A Global Environmental History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 624. Index. $39.95 (paper).


     Every few semesters, my world environmental history course reappears in my teaching rotation. It’s a fun course with engaged students. Yet, while American environmental history has been a robust field for decades, global environmental history remains an uneven field with excellent studies scattered alongside large gaps in our knowledge. Piecing together examples into a coherent semester-long narrative for students is challenging. In Humans Versus Nature, Daniel Headrick has produced an excellent synthesis of the latest scholarship on global environmental history. Although a textbook, Headrick has a clear argument about how humans used, exploited, and degraded the environment. The book goes beyond revealing how the environment has been a driving force in history and warns of humanity’s growing destruction of the natural world.

     The book begins as many world history textbooks do, with the first few chapters covering human origins, the emergence of agriculture, and settled communities. They provide excellent overviews of the latest research, including important reminders about how scholarship continually evolves. For example, in Chapter One, Headrick provides wonderfully current dates of the origins of homo sapiens and the migration out of Africa, how genetics has revolutionized the field, and offers a discussion about what makes human distinct from other hominids such as Neanderthals. In Chapter Two, Headrick nicely synthesizes how different areas of the world developed farming while Chapter Three explains how a variety of what he terms civilizations (many world history textbooks use the term city-states), ranging from Mesopotamia and Egypt to China to the Indus River to the Maya in the Americas, overcame environmental challenges. Even in these ancient periods, Headrick argues that people profoundly changed their environment, such as hunting megafauna to extinction and increasing global levels of carbon dioxide through new farm practices and the widespread use of fire.

      In the next two chapters, Headrick covers a vast temporal ground, in large part due to the paucity of scholarship on environmental history from antiquity until the early modern period. Chapter Four includes the deforestation of the ancient Mediterranean World as well as how irrigating rivers led to flooding problems in ancient China before then discussing disease. Chapter Five is almost a hodgepodge of our scattered scholarship of the Medieval era, including farm technology, deforestation, and Chinese river agriculture, but it begins by offering a valuable overview of Islamic agriculture. The chapter concludes with Bubonic plague, discussing the Mongol Empire, climate fluctuations, and an excellent overview of the academic debate over the origins and causes of the plague, which Headrick argues emerged out of Central Asia. Oddly, I found that this obscured the significance of the plague to world history, because it avoided a more complete discussion of the staggering demographic losses and the ways that they compelled societies to transform.

      As the scholarship grows, so, too, does the depth of Headrick’s work. Chapter Six views the Columbian Exchange as an environmental disaster that redefined the Americas by examining not just how disease decimated the population of the New World, but also how Old-World plants and animals, along with hunting and mining, dramatically altered the ecosystem. Chapter Seven investigates how New World crops transformed Eurasia and Africa, but Headrick first provides an essential discussion of the Little Ice Age. Understanding the Little Ice Age and its profound effects has become a vibrant study in environmental history, and Headrick draws upon much of the best scholarship to define the Little Ice Age as a global phenomenon during which a cooling climate decreased food production, stretched resources, and stressed the governing abilities of states from Europe to the Ottoman Empire to the Yuan and Ming dynasties in China.

      In Chapters Eight and Nine, Headrick discusses the emergence of modern imperialism and its effects, summarizing the Industrial Revolution and how its most powerful actors helped to “subdue the Earth.” Increasingly, he focuses on the profound effect imperial agents had on the environment with details of pollution and extinctions prominent. He offers brief examples about how the imperial goods of tea, coffee, rubber, cinchona, and gutta-percha were entwined with the creation of botanical gardens and the exploitation of the natural world leading to massive deforestation

     The final six chapters cover the twentieth century, representing roughly 40% of the book. Here the textbook changes somewhat: the chapters are more focused; the examples more detailed; and those examples often stem from the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Headrick argues in Chapter Ten that the population boom, new forms of energy, and growth in the world economy during the 20th century transformed the world by depleting and polluting the environment in an unparalleled way. He links total war to the emergence of a global ideology that prioritized increasing a nation-state’s economy at any price. Much of the remainder of the textbook follows the consequences. He examines in separate chapters consumerism, particularly the rise of the automobile and industrial agriculture, but curiously ignores the Green Revolution; climate change, with information on its effects but also on the politicization of science; ocean depletion by examining whaling and cod fisheries; extinctions, where he explains the human origins of the current Sixth Extinction; and the emergence of environmentalism and how it became a global movement in response to these environmental crises. These are thorough, compelling chapters that demonstrate the dramatic effect human society has had on the environment, but also the emergence of an awareness of the damage and its dangers. Indeed, these examples act as a call for action and the creation of sustainable policies.

     While Headrick’s work is an excellent textbook, reflecting much of the latest scholarship in the field, it cannot improve what is lacking or absent in the historiography. Our understanding of environmental conditions outside the Western world, and prior to the modern era, remains limited, and needs to be improved. As with any textbook, I often find chapters do not go into enough depth, offering only thumbnail sketches of major ideas, a trait that inhibits some of Headrick’s earlier chapters on what he labels the Classical Age and Medieval Eurasia and Africa. Further, from their format as offering definitive information, textbooks can short circuit classroom debate and discussion. In some ways, Headrick avoids this by having a clear argument about how humans have interacted and exploited nature. Yet this also means that Headrick’s work does not cover every dimension of environmental history. Ideas such as the perception of nature, how people interpreted the environment, and how people thought about nature, are mostly missing. Urban history, a growing field in environmental history, is limited in this work. Although meticulously researched, the book lacks a bibliography.
But a textbook cannot cover every aspect of a field. Those of us who teach world environmental history will find this a nearly essential textbook, yet the work is valuable to anyone teaching world history. It may allow whole new environmental units to be placed easily into an existing course framework. At the very least, practitioners can consult chapters to incorporate specific examples or ideas more fully into their surveys. In the end, Headrick’s work is the best textbook on global environmental history to date.

Thomas Anderson is an Associate Professor at Merrimack College. He specializes in world history, with particular interests in environmental history and the Indian Ocean world as well as the Ottoman Empire. He can be reached at


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