Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Alfred W. Crosby. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780521546188
Since its initial publication in 1986 Ecological Imperialism has lost little of its original appeal and complexity regarding biological expansion. According to its author Alfred W. Crosby, European expansion was a matter of biological reasoning, not simply military might. This line of reasoning builds on the intersections between history, geography, and biology and ultimately helped reshape existing scholarly paradigms and perspectives.
Crosby embeds his points regarding the importance of “a biological, [and] an ecological, component” (7) within a chronological and thematic setup. First, he revisits Pangaea and the Neolithic Age, and discusses the role of Norsemen and Crusaders. This setup provides the necessary context and sets the stage for arguing how three archipelagoes in the eastern Atlantic became “the laboratories, the pilot programs, for the new European imperialism” (100). Crosby nicely underlines the significance of winds at this critical conjuncture of European expansion, all while not forgetting about the importance of non-European civilizations.
The rest of the book zooms in on so-called Neo-Europeans, a term used by Crosby to define “the most visible residues of the age when Europe exclusively ruled the waves” (133). The author relies on environmental, ecological, biological, and geographical forces to capture the limitations of Neo-Europeans. Chapter-long discussions of weeds, illnesses, and animals then allow the reader to see such often over-looked historical actors at play within different circumstances and environments. Biogeographies (165) of various plants, the importance of diseases like smallpox, and the role of pigs and cattle are combined with a diversity of other examples and ultimately provide the necessary empirical evidence to sustain Crosby’s overall arguments.
Before explaining his points in more detail, Crosby infuses a case study on New Zealand. According to the author, “the stories of all the continental Neo-Europes are too long and complicated to tell within the limitations of this book” (218). It works and doing so does not only helps our understanding but also makes the scope of the book even more global.
In the final section Crosby outlines his explanations. He notes, “as constituted at present, New Zealand’s biota and society, as well as those of the other Neo-Europes, are largely products of the runway propagation and spread of what I call the portmanteau biota, my collective name for the Europeans and all the organisms they brought” (270). A complex reasoning then includes references to geography, ecology, and several other factors. The author also builds on existing research within epidemiology, for instance, and draws on the theories of scientist Paul S. Martin. A prologue raises additional questions, which by now have resulted in many excellent studies in response to Crosby’s original work and continuing contributions to scholarship.
Given its impact, it is vital for a new generation of teachers and scholars to revisit Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, especially within a classroom setting. Apart from its prominent role when focusing on environmental history, comparisons to the work of anthropologist Jared Diamond seem natural, given their similar focus. At the same time, Crosby’s path-breaking ways to conduct accessible, coherent, and complex interdisciplinary research are useful for methodological discussions in many educational environments. Combining his monograph with specific case studies, such as J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, illustrates how to link to imperialism more directly. This plethora of publications make even a traditional world history survey a possible space to introduce nature as a narrative, or actor, although some might sacrifice Crosby’s complexity for a more simple account, like Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World. Either way, doing so will ultimately infuse forgotten forces into existing storylines and help diversifying existing meta-narratives.
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Edited by Martin Pflug
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