The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World

John Richards has given us an ample and well-conceived world environmental history of the period between 1500 and 1800. As the title suggests, he emphasizes frontiers as an environmental theme of the early modern period, and the choice is apposite, since frontiers are the places where environmental changes were occurring most visibly. Richards does not believe that all those changes were environmentally damaging, although he is quite clear about the ones that were. For him, the story of the early modern world is in some important respects a story of progress, and he concludes with an optimistic look at the possibilities of the contemporary postfrontier world: “Wise and responsible management from local scale to the global scale is the only possible strategy” (p. 622).

In this book, Richards argues that the salient patterns of the world were the expansion of Europeans across much of the rest of the globe and an evolutionary progress in human organization that was characteristic not only of Europe, but also of India and East Asia. In the opening chapter, he uses the Dutch Republic to illustrate the first pattern and Mughal, India, on which he is a recognized authority, for the second. A chapter discussing the state of our knowledge of climatic history follows; the Little Ice Age made its appearance during this time and its possible effects cannot be ignored.

Richards then turns to Eurasia and Africa, elucidating the environmental history of several well-chosen exemplary areas in this period: Taiwan, China, Tokugawa, Japan, the British Isles, Russia, and South Africa. In each case the environmental setting is described, the course of population changes and settlements and the political economy traced, and finally the effects on the landscape noted. The accounts have a crystalline clarity, conveying the essentials of each national or regional history and inviting genuine comparisons.

Four chapters on the Americas follow. One is entitled “The Columbian Exchange,” with credit duly expressed to environmental historian Alfred Crosby. It deals almost entirely with the West Indies, noting their interest as examples of island biogeography. A chapter covering ranching and mining in Colonial Mexico both honors and offers reasonable critiques of A Plague of Sheep by Elinor Melville (Cambridge, 1998). Another chapter on sugar and cattle in coastal Portuguese Brazil recognizes the exemplary work of Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand (California, 1995). The section concludes with a chapter on sugar in the Antilles, highlighting Barbados, Martinique, Haiti, and Jamaica. In this entire section, Richards’ treatment is exemplary; he gives due importance to the geographical setting, the biological factors, the indigenous peoples—whom he portrays neither as helpless victims nor as ecological saints—and the various adaptations of the Europeans and their imported domestic animals, plants, and pathogens.

The last section of the book, entitled “The World Hunt,” gives an extraordinary overview of the way in which Europeans ranged the world in search of organic resources and, treating them as inexhaustible, managed to reduce the incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife at the beginning of the Early Modern Period to a waning remnant at the end. The chapters examine the quest for furs in Eastern North America and in Siberia, the New World cod fishery, and the seaborne hunt for great whales and walruses in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Richards gives descriptions of the major prey species and their ecological relationships. He is willing to describe a codfish for the grateful reader, for example, down to the “distinctive barbel under the lower jaw tip” (p. 548). In each chapter, he notes the economic advantages derived from the hunt and the environmental changes produced by the removal of species. The clashes of rival exploiters from different European nations offer a bit of drama.

Coverage does not extend to the entire world. Even in a book whose narrative occupies 622 pages, it is of course impossible to cover every region in detail. So Richards gives attention to the areas where the action was happening, and that means the frontiers, which are his central theme. He has little to say about older theaters where the development already had occurred, such as the Mediterranean basin and Near East, or the areas beyond the frontiers where the full modern encounter was yet to take place, namely Oceania, Africa north of the area around the Cape, and the Great Plains and Far West of North America.

This substantial volume can stand beside John McNeill’s twentieth century environmental history, Something New Under the Sun (W.W. Norton, 2001), as a complementary work. The two together almost cover the modern world; obviously what we need now is an environmental history of the nineteenth century to bridge the gap between them. Each of these authors notes that the world of the time he describes was unprecedented in terms of worldwide environmental changes caused by human economic activity, and both are right.

Richards’s book is an admirable success and an intellectual adventure. Completely dependable in its scholarship, it undoubtedly will be one of the few that environmental historians place on a shelf within reach for ready consultation. Its prose is clear and serviceable, and would be accessible to college students at any level as well as the general reader interested in history. The University of California Press has done its usual impeccable job with the printing, using a very readable typeface and allowing no typos to creep in. The maps are understandable and accurate for the most part, although those on Siberia do not make it evident that the waters of Lake Baikal eventually reach the Yenisey River, not the Lena. The lack of any photographic illustrations is regrettable, since the period provides a wealth of images in painting and engraving that could have enriched the presentation. The bibliography, considered together with the notes, is excellent. All in all, this work is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time.

J. Donald Hughes is John Evans Professor of History at the University of Denver, and the author of The Environmental History of the World (Routledge, 2002). He received the Distinguished Service Award of the American Society for Environmental History in 2000.