The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. John. F. Richards. xiv + 682 pp. University of California Press, 2003. $75.
As an epoch in human history, the "early modern" is not well appreciated. The period extending from 1500 to 1800 is often thought of as a purely European series of events: the Renaissance, the voyages of Columbus, the founding of North American colonies, the Protestant Reformation and the English Revolution. Yet during this time human beings made astonishing changes to the Earth: From the western African Sahel to Tokugawa Japan, they combined in new kinds of associations, developed policies of national expansion and trade, and invented machines and tools that extended their abilities. People increased their numbers on every continent and endured the Little Ice Age—a climatic event spanning the period roughly from 1300 to 1850, which historians and geologists are only now coming to understand. Most important of all, agrarian people were on the move, migrating into Hunan province, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, beyond the Arctic Circle and into the Brazilian Atlantic forest. The search for fresh soils and hunting grounds to exploit for sustenance and trade, more than any other phenomena, caused remarkable deforestation and the erosion of wildlife populations. The quest for resources under the pressure of a burgeoning population set the stage for the centuries that followed.
Important books, articles and scientific papers published over the past 15 years have revealed these and other aspects of the environmental history of the period. John F. Richards has synthesized much of this information in The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World.
The book presents a composite view of a vast and complicated subject. It consists of a series of case studies, carried out with rigor and purpose, each intended to highlight a different country or region and a certain relevant process. In the section on Eurasia and Africa, Richards is most concerned about borders, settlement, energy use in Britain, and the tension between intensive and extensive economic strategies in China and Japan. In the section on the Americas, he is interested in biological exchange and the destruction that sugar production and introduced species such as cattle brought to environments and indigenous peoples in Brazil and the Antilles. His subject in the final section of the book is "the world hunt"—the search for animals valued as food or for their furs or oils.
The enormous amount of detail that Richards musters from a broad pallet of sources makes an overwhelming point: The early modern period was the most destructive until the era of industrialism, and the processes and institutions established between 1500 and 1800 enabled the rise of industrial capitalism and the continued course of colonialism.
Although this argument functions well enough on the highest level of analysis, it has almost no presence in the book's chapters. Very little links the chapters together into a narrative. They tell stories that are rich and important, and the conclusions at the end of each chapter are a great help, but the lack of transition between stories is disorienting. A book more than 600 pages long with such an ambitious scope may be forgiven for a loose structure. The result is that the chapters can be read in any order.
The book focuses on what drove people on almost every continent to seek out new territory. Richards is concerned with agrarian people—those from societies in which agriculture is the foundation of the economy. The pattern he seeks to understand stands in sharper relief when it is compared with hunting and gathering. Nonplanting people tended not to leave their home grounds or make war for land. This is the conclusion of The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World (2000), by anthropologist Hugh Brody, which readers may find a useful companion to The Unending Frontier. Brody makes the case that the true wanderers and despoilers have been settled humans, whose more intensive relationship with their environment created larger populations and ever-declining soil fertility. Constant migration for economic opportunity may have been characteristic of all societies, and nonagricultural hunters surely moved great distances and colonized vast areas in the distant past, but both Brody and Richards make the point that people from farming cultures had insatiable cravings for territory.
The number of people on Earth doubled during the Early Modern, a trend that worked as cause and consequence of the search for fresh resources—because settled societies support more people, who then demand more land. The Japanese consolidated and intensified their occupancy of the archipelago, the Russian Muscovy Company pursued fur-bearing animals and imperial conquest deep into Siberia, and Europeans married colonization with market thinking to create a fearsome engine of ecological change. The motive behind all of these pursuits may have had more to do with the dominant ecological relationships within these societies (agriculture) than with anything else.
For all of these reasons, our world is the legacy of the Early Modern. As Richards points out in one example, the baseline that ecologists use to evaluate wildlife populations fails to consider the size of those populations eons, rather than decades, ago. Flocks and herds were once much larger, but the only way to understand why is to walk with a talented and determined historian along the brutal frontiers of the Early Modern.—Steven Stoll, History and American Studies, Yale University