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Book Review


Dunlap, Thomas R. Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). 350 pp, $23.99.

     Thomas Dunlap, best known for his 1988 book Saving America's Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990, ventured into the realm of world environmental history in 1999 with Nature and the English Diaspora. It is an attempt to find the commonalities and differences in the environmental histories of the major parts of the English-speaking world, for Dunlap insists that British values on nature and science affected land use and settler ideologies in nineteenth and twentieth century North America, Australia, and New Zealand. His major point is that "nature knowledge," or the ways in which people understand their physical surroundings, is a function of traditional systems of knowledge ("folkbiology"), natural history, and ecology. Furthermore, he argues that settlers utilized each of these frameworks in succession as the body of knowledge increased and as rational, professional scientific inquiry began to be valued above all other methods of understanding in the nineteenth century. 1
     From the earliest days of white settlement in British North America, the resulting "neo-Europes" (Dunlap freely borrows Alfred Crosby's phrase) adopted their own informal folkbiology to explain natural beings and phenomena—a blend of settler intuition and native classification. But they soon embraced the burgeoning field of natural history, the late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century study of nature and natural classification. Victorians had a penchant for order and taxonomy, which they put to use in assigning names, classes, and species of both familiar and unfamiliar plants and animals. Dunlap stresses that this pursuit was appealing because of its social component; settlers claimed dominion over the land and its former inhabitants in part by assigning them names. This, in conjunction with the dramatic alterations to the landscape caused by farming and grazing, led to the early formation of national identities based on visions of a manipulated nature, most notably expressed in Canada and New Zealand. 2
     This is not to say that change proceeded according to a strict plan. Dunlap devotes a good deal of his book to describing how human manipulation of nature went awry, whether it was through the introduction of rabbits in Australia or via attempts at farming the Palliser's Triangle of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The solution for problem animals most often was extermination, as in Western Australia, where through much of the twentieth century "There were bounties on almost anything that walked, flew, swam, or crawled" (p. 51). Similar mentalities spawned predator eradication programs in the US and Canada. But it was when settlers plowed up submarginal lands that subsequently failed, as in the Palliser's Triangle, that Dunlap notes "While everyone would admit…that humans were not gods, few wished to say so." (168) Some did begin to say so, however. Men like John Wesley Powell and George Perkins Marsh, writing in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, were among the first to recognize that humans "were capable of destroying the earth." (89) 3
     Thus, as the nineteenth century unfolded, natural history gave way to a new field—ecology—which became the primary means by which the English-speaking world understood nature. Ecology did more than simply put nature into its appropriate box; it provided a means for explaining the relationships between and among organisms. In short, nature was reduced to a scientific set of formulas that could be discovered, dissected, and explained. And these new ideas were housed and promoted in the new "cathedrals of science"—universities, government agencies, and ecological societies. It is no accident that, for example, the rise of the land-grant university in the United States, the establishment of the British Ecological Society, and the foundation of the Ecological Society of America roughly coincided with the advent of ecology. All were defined by the extent of their scientific expertise, and all used ecological theory to paint a more holistic image of nature. 4
     The dominance of science in the English diaspora continued into the twentieth century, but Dunlap is careful to pinpoint regional distinctions. Americans, he contends, used science to develop a relationship with nature that held humans in direct opposition to a Romantic, awe-inspiring "other," whereas Australians also used a scientifically-based understanding of nature to wander into the bush, "where they found recreation and mateship rather than transcendence" (191). And later in the century Americans were the first ones to embrace a new environmental ethic that was critical of industrialism and habitat destruction, which Dunlap attributes not to any sort of enlightened thinking, but rather to a reaction against industrial activity which covered the American landscape more completely than in other nations. 5
      Dunlap has taken a bold step in analyzing the major elements of the environmental history of the English diaspora. With so many people settling all over the world in just in the last two centuries, the author found it necessary to focus on only the most populated areas on the map, to the exclusion of other important places such as Bermuda and South Africa. But while Dunlap narrates his story well within the confines he delineates, he fails to engage his most crucial demographic—the settlers. For all his emphasis on settler societies, Dunlap instead cites the testimony of countless "experts" to speak for the people who worked behind the plow or who lived among the Aborigenes. As a result, Nature and the English Diaspora constitutes a striking example of "top-down" history. Thus, when he claims that "The transition from natural history to ecology is the single most important change affecting settlers' understanding of the land and their relationship to it in the nineteenth century," the evidence simply is not there. This is a book about middle class values and the institutions they created, and the links to actual agriculturalists are weak. 6
     Still, there is plenty to appreciate in this book. The simple fact that Dunlap has tackled the issue of the dispersion of scientific thought in the English diaspora is in itself impressive and worthy of attention, as is the reconsideration of what it means to be "native"—for plants, wildlife, and humans—in a post-Columbian world. This is material that will challenge even strong college undergraduates, and I believe Nature and the English Diaspora will find its best audience in an upper-division world history course or in a graduate-level seminar in either world or environmental history. The work involved in uncovering Dunlap's ideas and critiquing his analysis can be difficult, but the rewards will be worth it. 7
Andrew P. Duffin
Washington State University

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