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Book Review


Hughes, J. Donald. An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life (Routledge, 2001). 264 pp, illustrations, bibliographic essay, index, $37.95 paper.

     J. Donald Hughes understands that history entails more than the study of political and economic systems and the exchange of ideas over time.  As a renowned environmental historian, he has written extensively about nature's role in the unfolding of human events.   But since the field's inception in the early 1970s, most environmental histories have focused on regional or national issues, both in the US and Europe.  In An Environmental History of the World, Hughes demonstrates how natural forces and resources have shaped societies on a global scale—how people and the environment share a reciprocal relationship, giving and taking, but often in unequal amounts.  The use and subsequent abuse of landscapes often crosses arbitrary political and cultural boundaries and even continents and oceans, making the study of the environment the perfect vehicle for elucidating global topics.  This compact volume takes its examples from well before recorded history through the end of the twentieth century, from well-known locales and obscure places alike, to tell us that the natural world and humans imprint one another in significant ways.  It is an ambitious task, but one that is ultimately rewarding for scholar and student alike. 1
     Hughes makes no attempt to interpret all, or even most, of the human-environmental interactions that have transpired since people began walking upright. Instead of striving for a comprehensive tome, his nine chapters, chronologically oriented, begin with a brief analysis of an historical epoch, e.g., ancient cultures in Sumeria and Asia, classical Greece and Rome, and the Industrial Revolution.  The introductions are then followed by three case studies that magnify the preceding text.  With so few examples for each chapter there is a good deal of historical material missing, but Hughes is not interested in writing a comprehensive account; his introductory pages outline his thesis and subsequent evidence proves his case.  It is a simple, effective formula and a definite improvement on Clive Ponting's more thorough, yet far more ponderous A Green History of the World (1991).  Hughes deftly weaves together personal anecdotes and historical data from select places and times with broader theories about the repercussions of land and resource use to craft an insightful narrative.  It is at once weighty and readable. 2
     The scope and depth of Hughes's knowledge is impressive.  He is as conversant with the nuances of ecological theory and the ideological origins of environmental ethics as he is with the Clinton Administration's 1993 Timber Summit.  The reader learns about the African Serengeti, the place where homo sapiens first emerged, and about London's infamous Great Stink of 1858, a nasty combination of untreated sewage and unusually low tides on the Thames that resulted in a week-long adjournment of Parliament.  More familiar subjects are also covered, such as the importation of people, domestic animals and plants, weeds, and pathogens from Europe to North and South America in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The themes here are borrowed heavily from Alfred Crosby's and Elinor Melville's works, but Hughes manages to give these events a certain freshness by focusing on 16th century Tenochtitlán as his exclusive example.  These are disparate places and times, to be sure, but the connective tissue for all these stories is strong: they are "an account of changes in human societies as they relate to changes in the natural environment" (p. 4).  In this sense, Hughes is decidedly anthropocentric, in contrast to the claims made by critics that environmental historians care little about humans and are academic misanthropes.  Such criticism cannot be made about An Environmental History of the World.  Humans, and their relationship with the organic and inorganic world, take center stage. 3
     Another of this book's strengths is its emphasis on non-Western environmental history.  The title is indeed appropriate—it is a world history of the environment and its people.  In fact, Hughes provides far more case studies from non-Western areas than Western, including topics such as irrigation in Bali, the Aswan dam in Egypt, the Galápagos Islands, and environmental change in pre-contact Tahiti, Hawai'i, and New Zealand, among others.  He is particularly interested in how the more remote places on the map have been raided for their natural resources, only to have the indigenous inhabitants be forced to pick up the pieces when environmental damage or disaster resulted.  And readers in and out of the United States may also appreciate Hughes's use of metric measurements, a rare decision for an American historian.  4
     This thoroughly-researched global study would be best suited for undergraduate and graduate university students.  Because of the complexity of its concepts and the depth of its writing, the book is simply too advanced for most high school students.  But as a text in a world civilizations, humanities, or world environmental history course, An Environmental History of the World would exceed a professor's expectations.  If the course calls for the study of the environment over a broad sweep of time, Hughes would be a wise choice. 5
Andrew Duffin
Washington State University

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