This long-awaited book is the fruit of a conference held in 1998. It brings together several essays by leading environmental historians and, although already dated in some respects, marks a significant addition to the slowly growing literature in world environmental history.
The scope of the book is global or very close to it. Three essays, an Introduction by Pomeranz, a very long-term survey of energy and environment by Burke, and an overview of property regimes by the late John Richards, are genuinely global. Then there are eight regional chapters, dealing with the Middle East (Burke again), China (Pomeranz again), the Rhine river basin (Mark Cioc), southeast Asian river basins (Michael Adas), Africa (William Beinart), India (Mahesh Rangarajan), Latin America (Lise Sedrez), and Russia (Douglas Weiner). The absence of essays on North America, Japan, and the limited scope of the sole essay on Europe (west of Russia) mean that the industrialized world is thinly represented in the book.
The chronological scope is variable. Burke’s first essay explores successive energy regimes from the dawn of the Neolithic, and his second begins the account of water management in the Middle East 3,500 years ago. Pomeranz, Richards, and Rangarajan all deal with the last five or six centuries. Weiner goes back to the origins of Rus a millennium ago. Adas and Beinart treat the last 150 years or so, since the onset of colonial interventions in Southeast Asia and Africa. Sedrez’s chapter is a historiography of Latin American environmental history since the 1980s, concerning works that primarily cover the period since 1492.
Given the broad variety in regions and in chronological durations in each chapter, it must have been a daunting challenge for Burke and Pomeranz to find common themes in the book. In his Introduction, Pomeranz offers a small handful. First, the book sheds light on the role of state formation and state ambitions in environmental history. This theme is front and center in Pomeranz’s own work, but clear also in the chapters by Burke on the Middle East, and those by Cioc, Adas, Weiner, and Rangarajan. State formation and state ambition is in the background in the essays by Beinart and Sedrez, which in any case are more historiographical than anything else. Second, Pomeranz points out that always and everywhere modern environmental history is an outgrowth of that of the deeper past. No one would disagree with this proposition, but it is nonetheless often ignored in practice by historians. Burke, Pomeranz, and Weiner especially make this point for the Middle East, China, and Russia respectively. Third, the book shows the importance of local and regional variety in shaping global environmental history. It is tempting to generalize globally sometimes, and Burke’s energy and environment chapter does so here, but necessary to recognize the limits of the accuracy and utility of any such generalizations. Lastly, the book deals squarely with questions of the salience of modern imperialism for environmental history, an issue present in one form or another in every chapter but Cioc’s. Despite the game effort to find unifying themes in the chapters, I suspect the fate of this book is to be read piece by piece rather than as a whole.
Large-scale regional overviews of the sort offered for China, India, the Middle East, and Russia are most welcome. There is as yet nothing else that I know of that synthesizes environmental history of the Middle East and Russia as Burke’s and Weiner’s chapters do. There are books that do this for China and India. Adas’s chapter is not so much an overview of southeast Asian environmental history than it is a focused study of the expansion of rice cultivation in three riverine plains. The mainly historiographical essay on Africa and Latin America are useful in different ways, although both have appeared in other forms elsewhere.
Indeed much of this book has been seen before. Richards’ essay is a reprint. Cioc’s is a summary and mild revision of a book he published (in 2002) on the environmental history of the Rhine. Rangarajan’s is based on an article he published in 1996. Many of the ideas in the chapters by Adas and Pomeranz they have published in other forums. So readers already versed in the oeuvres of these authors will find much of the book familiar. Students new to the field will find the essays a very useful orientation to issues, literature, and perspectives. They will however have to cope with some passages that assume knowledge few are likely to have. If they don’t know what Braudel meant by capitalism, or what environmental historians mean by declensionist narratives, that is too bad for them because the book is written for people who do.
Any book that takes eleven years between the first presentation of its chapters and its final publication is going to appear dated in some respects. The most obvious one here is in the bibliographies (of works in English). The bibliography on Southeast Asia includes nothing published after 1997, and misses the work of both Peter Boomgaard and Greg Bankoff, probably the two most conspicuous environmental historians of the region writing in English today. The bibliography on property rights contains nothing published after 1996. The one on China has been updated to 2005, but does not include Mark Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants(2004), now probably the single most indispensable work in Chinese environmental history, and one that Pomeranz mentions in the Introduction to this book. Other bibliographies appear to be current as of 1998 but very thinly updated and only to 2001 or 2003. It would have been better to delete the bibliographies altogether if they could not all be brought up to date, or close to it.
For veteran environmental historians, the great value of this book will lie in the (intersecting) sets of essays that deal with the role of “developmentalist” states and with imperialism, as well as the overviews of the Middle East and Russia. For those new to the field, the regional chapters will all prove useful as orientation and invitation to further study, and the global chapters will convince them of the importance of keeping the big picture in mind.