Want to understand our current mess? Read this

A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics.

Nature and Power: a Global History of the Environment is a book of big ideas an attempt to make broad conclusions about the long-term relationship between humans and our world. Joachim Radkau makes some simple, but hugely telling points – about the fact that only 150 years ago (and for all of previous human history and pre-history) we had an almost totally solar and broadly sustainable economy (really on photosynthesis – wood from trees and horses powered by grain and grass).

He’s a man who really can see the wood for the trees – and dispel simplistic claims about why they might be disappearing. He explains how some past “simple” societies were greatly destructive of their environment, and some complex ones had worked it out pretty well – he sees the nature-human relationship “not only as a gloomy, never-ending process of destruction, but as a suspenseful mixture of destruction and creative processes” (p. 26) “One must not think of ‘nature as a stable organic unit in a state of constant harmony, but that nature changes continuously even without human help”. (p. 20)

It might be a lesson for the environmental movement – it is impossible to think about environmental history in isolation from general history, and particularly political history. Radkau never really explains the title explicitly, but is is pretty well covered in a look at how well traditional knowledge understood soil. He quotes Joannes Colerus in about 1600, who told his readers that the good farmer had to understand “rightly and properly the nature of his land and soil… abstain from forcing his fields to grow and produce one thing or another that was contrary and abhorrent to them”. And he notes how weeds were once a useful indicator of soil nature – “corn poppy indicated soil rich in lime, sorrel was evidence of acidic, chamomile of wet, and chickweed of excellent soil”. But …”quite often it was the political, economic and legal conditions that prevented farmers from making use of their collective, experiential knowledge about cautionry behaviour. The pressure of taxes, high rent dues, uncertain inheritance rights, overpopulation poromoted by a governmental policy of boosting human numbers, outside control exercised in distant metropolises, invading armies, the socially conditioned separation of farming and herding, but also the the incentives of the advancing market economy; all these things together probably contributed far more to unsettling the balance between humans and the environment than lack of knowleldge about soil and fertilization.” (p. 77)

Humans should be wary of apparently revolutionary innovations is another of the “big” conclusions. It is, Radkau says “often the pseudo-success of environmental policy that mask a most calamitious decline of the environment”. He quotes the case of marl, made up of lime and silicic acid, which when added to lime-deficient soilds can produce high yields, but over time this extracts other nutrients, which if not replaced exhausts the soil. “Marl makes rich fathers and poor sons” 18th-century peasants said in Germany and Denmark. (p. 76) And he looks at the arrival of guano from Peru in England around 1840, which was reckoned to be about 30 times more effective than farmyard manure. “Henceforth it no longer seemed so important to agriculture to pay attention to a balance of field and pasture, since a deficit of fertilisers, that is, an inherent lack of sustainability, could now be remedied by guano. This opened the door to the triumphant advance of the water closet, which robbed agriculture of human excrement.” (p 191)

He also questions if autarky ever really existed anywhere. “…it would not not be correct to equate the subsistence economy with individualistic narrow-mindedness and to link it only with the individual farmer; the principle of providing for one’s own need radiated far beyond the house economy and was, right into the modern age, a self-evident principle of the economy of village communities, landed estates, vities, and states. This principle meant that providing the local population with basic foodstuffs and with wood took precedence over export. [How different to our current desperate – and practically impossible – bids by many economies for ‘export-led recoveries’.] But while the self-sufficiency of the single farmstead, without the need to purchase anything from the outside, was an old peasant ideal, the reality was often very different. The kind of subsistence economy that was the rule in historical reality was not isolated and cut off from all higher culture, but contained elements of a local and regional division of labor. In many regions of the world we find old, “natural” trading relations between neighbouring regions with different natural resources: between pasture areas of the uplands and the agriicultural regions in the valleys, between wetland areas rich in marine life and zones of deciduous forests in which pigs were pastured.”(p40)

But we’re back to politics – “the chief weakness of the subsistence economy was and is not ecological but political in nature: since it did not generate the potential for power on the same scale as economies geared towards the production of added value, it easily fell under foreign control, and self-sufficiency was disturbed by taxes and dues.” (p. 39) Smallholding is “an economic way of life that is capable of economic and ecological perfection”.

He’s excellent at illuminating points with comparative history – as on the pairing of English and German attitudes to forests. Radkau notes that Heinrich Cotta (1763-1844), one of the founders of forest science, taught: “Only the state manages for eternity.” But in England the thinking was that “politicians are guided by short-term considerations in their actions, and only the private individual plans for his children and grandchildren. It would seem that the question of who is right has no general answer, only answers that vary according to place and time.” (p.140)

But it is the breadth and detail of the story being told, rather than the grand conclusions that makes this a pleasure read as well as a thought-provoking one. A small selection of the things I learnt:
* Niger improved its population’s food supply when it halted the export of peanuts in 1972 (it was the biggest business in the country)
* The Electress Anna of Saxony (1532-87) was at the centre of a network of women exchanging by lettter botanical-economic information (many members were nuns), which produce 91 folio volumes of surviving letters (He notes that the garden across many cultures was traditionally the women’s realm.)
* The chestnut was once in many places the chief food and the centre of a complex polyculture with grain and sheep and goats. All groves today go back to peasant plantings, and even where it wasn’t central to the food economy, it was a vital reserve in times of trouble – in 1653, when grain crops completely failed in the Alps, people rushed to the chestnut groves.
* Garrett Harding’s the Tragedy of the Comons (which when I studied a very simplistic form of agricultural economics many years ago was treated as gospel) is given very short shrift indeed. Radkau notes emaciated cows remarked by many observers reflected the shortage of fodder stored over the winter, not the pasturage on the commons, adding “one modern plant ecologist fell into raptures studying a common pasture that had been used since the Middle Ages, so great was the diversity of its plant communities.” (p72)
* The plaggen system of Northwestern Europe saw the cutting of grass sod from common land, its enrichment wiith slurry from barns, which was then used on cropland. Similarly, autumn leaf-fall from the forest was raked up and used as fertilser – this removed nutrients, but also protected the soil from raw humus, which could over-acidify it.
* Under the Mongols the Chinese population fell from approximately 123 million to 52 million “this did relieve the already palpable population pressure for several centuries”.
* Romania was long the leading maize-growing country in Europe, and consequently the national disease became pellagra, which damaged the nervous system and drove many sufferers to suicide. It was a major trigger for the peasant uprising of 1907, “the last great peasant rebellion in European history.” (p. 198)
* Peasant rebellions over forest use were particularly a German and French tradition, and these often had women at their head, since collecting firewood and litter raking were their work in many regions. “Beginning in the 18th century, there were repeated cases in some areas of France — the first time apparently in 1765 in the Foret de Chaux near the royal salt works at Salins… The demoiselle revolts became a French type of rebellion that continued into the 19th century, especially since the forest rights of the peasants were in some places in a far worse state than they had been before the Revolution.” (p. 218)
* Radkau attributes Britain’s cavalier attitude to air and water pollution (still much in evidence today) to the fact that, outside London and Manchester, airborne pollutants were quickly swept away by prevailing westerlies, and most rivers dumped waste quickly into the sea.

He offers a new, Jared Diamond-ish take on the environmental factors that allowed Europe to leap ahead in the early modern period. One part of the West’s rise: in the Tang period in China water mills spread much as they did in Europe at the same time, but they were competing for water with irrigation of the fields, and in China the agrarian interests were much stronger than the millers, while in Europe powerful landowners often backed them rather than peasants who wanted to irrigate their meadows. And another was that shortage of timber was a significant handicap for the medieval Islamic world, particularly in naval warfare – Christian powers repeatedly imposed a wood embargo. “There are reports from medieval Arab cities that property managers had to make sure tenants did not take doors with them when they moved out, so precious was wood.” (p. 135) But the biggest factor he identifies (reflecting of course his own interests) is the ecologically neat combination of animal husbandry and agriculture, which meant a high level of nuntrient recycling, and the deep soils encouraged deep ploughing, which requires animals. Elsewhere, nomadic animal herders tended to clash with setlled peasants, and used their animal’s dung mainly as fuel.

This ecological strength, combined with abundant woodlands (which “could place metal smelting onto a growth path that eventually developed pit coal”) and excellent water supplies, and functional government mechanisms “that were able to at least ameliorate the worst industrial damage to the environment, or remove it from sight, were in a position to push an industrialization that didn’t smother itself in short order, but enjoyed a growing popularity.” (p. 194) But he notes this hardly applies elsewhere. “..treacherous is the allure that the ‘European model’ exerts on the rest of the world. As long as one thinks strictly in economic terms, it is possible to look on Europe as an exemplar that can be generalized at will. From an ecological perspective, however, it becomes clear that much of the European path to success was exceptional and becomes a dead end for other regions of the world.”

The environmental view of the industrial revolution this allowed offers a substantially different perspective to the traditional economic one. “What stands at the beginning of industrialization is not the new energy source; the environmental historian should not reinforce the picture of energy history that led people to place false hope in nuclear energy in the 1950s. Even in England, and more so in continental Europe, the early phases of industralization were based largely on wood and on water, on animal and human power – indeed they were often accompanied by efforts to harness these regenerative resources completely. .. E.A. Wrighley has characterized even England of the Industrial Revolution as an ‘advanced organic economy’ – … and has noted that the number of horses in England rose from 1.29 million in 1811 to 3.28 million by 1901.”

And it’s clear that even in Europe, there were real doubts about this dramatic change in the nature of the economy even in the earliest days. As digging coal went from being a part-time surface occupation, to the fulltime hell of pits, there were social and what might be called environmental doubts. Woodcutters “were often seen as cheerful fellows and the best dancers at village feasts; the realm of coal on the other hand was the embodiment of a dark and gloomy world. A memorandum by two foremen from Essen in 1827 warned against a quantum leap in production ‘since everything has its limits’.”

Radkau continues: “Barrington Moore has rightly said that ‘there is no evidence that the mass of the population anywhere has wanted an industrial society, and plenty of evidence that they did not.’ Similarly, Karl Polanyi believes that ’18th-century society unconsciously resisted any attempt at making it a mere appendage of the market.’ This was true for large sections of the upper classes as well as for the common people. Many artisans and merchants would have evidently preferred to maintain their oligopolistic position within a protected market, even if that meant they had no prospect of amassing great riches.” (p. 202) (The references for those Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 1966; The Great Transformation, 1957).

There’s also extensive coverage of China, with Radkau saying foreign analysis of its environmental history has too often ignored north/south differences. In parts of the north the primary crop was sorghum, which prefers dry soils, and was grown in ox-ploughed deep loess soils. In the centre and south it was wet rice on irrigated terraves. In the north, the chief threat was flooding and silting, in the south lack of water and erosion. So Chinese water engineers were traditional heroes, and often had a very good idea of what they were facing: “Chia Jan, a great Han engineer, and a ‘Taoist in hydraulics’ believed that the Yangtze ‘should be given plenty of room to takke whatever course it wanted’. Rivers, he said, were like the mouths of infants – if one tried to stop them up they only yelled louder or else suffocated.” (p.106)

In a week when we’re being reminded (in a terribly important and under-covered story) that “peak-phospate” could be in 2015, as nutrients are still being misused in huge quantities, to disastrous effect, this is a book that policy-makers (and economists) around the world should be reading. Because really, there’s nothing more fundamental to our economy than food, and as this books reminds us, nature gives us no guarantees.

In the epilogue, Radkau offers his thoughts on the ways forward for the environmental movement. They are as nuanced and complex as the rest of the book, but the point that struck me most strongly was the need to combine ecological and “spiritual” motivations “… powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness.” (p. 329)


  • July 25, 2010 - 12:07 am | Permalink

    Great review of what appears to be a valuable but terribly under-promoted book.

  • September 9, 2016 - 2:42 am | Permalink

    I am really pleased to read this weblog posts which contains lots
    of useful facts, thanks for providing such

  • September 9, 2016 - 4:56 pm | Permalink

    As I website owner I conceive the written content here is real fantastic, thank you for your efforts.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *