Review of Frank Uekoetter (ed.): 'The Turning Points of Environmental History' (Pittshburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010) by Richard Tucker for H-Environment

Frank Uekoetter, ed. The Turning Points of Environmental History.
Pittsburgh University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. 220 pp. $25.95
(paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-6118-5.

Reviewed by Richard Tucker
Published on H-Environment (May, 2011)
Commissioned by David T. Benac

Thematic Surveys of Global Environmental History

In the past decade several single-author surveys of global environmental history have appeared. _The Turning Points of Environmental History_ stands apart from the others, as it integrates the specializations of nine authors. In the introduction, editor Frank Uekoetter points to key trends in environmental history, to add broad perspectives to the proliferating specialized writings on short time periods and limited spaces. He defines "turning points" as
periods of profound change when several factors came into synchronicity: first in the mid-1800s, but not again until the 1950s, a decade that marked sharp acceleration of global environmental stress.

The challenge of defining "turning points" is provocative, enticing
the contributors to speculate explicitly on the key elements of
environmental change. But if the emphasis is on trends, how do
Uekoetter and the contributing authors interpret the meaning of
"turning points"? Most of the authors prefer not specific dates (in
contrast to political history) but qualitative shifts of technology,
material consumption, institutions, and ideology. The authors'
approach is thematic, in broad-stroked chapters that teachers and
students of environmental history should find highly valuable. An
opening chapter by John McNeill, "The First Hundred Thousand Years,"
lucidly summarizes the major stages of human expansion across the
planet, especially in the 10,000 years since the last Ice Age. The
following chapters are largely restricted to modern times, primarily
in western Europe and North America. "The Nation-State," by Thomas
Lekan, sets a broad context, tracing the rise of modern European
bureaucratic-scientific regimes from the early eighteenth century,
leading to the "high modernism" of the twentieth century's
developmental state. To illustrate the state's significance for the
exploitation of the natural world, he points to the proliferation of
large dams and the domestication of entire river basins in many world
regions, including the Soviet Union and the major population centers
of Asia.

Deborah Fitzgerald's chapter, "Agriculture," traces three profound
changes in agricultural technique and productivity. Preferring to
label these as "revolutions," she points first to early modern
England's increased use of livestock, systematic manuring, root
crops, and enclosure of public lands, with its tropical extension in
the slave plantation system of the Caribbean region. The second
agricultural revolution, the rise of scientific agronomy, appeared in
the mid-nineteenth century. The third, precipitated by World War II,
has centered on revolutionary developments in plant genetics,
embodied in the institutional momentum epitomized by the Green

In a companion essay, "Forest History," Bernd-Stefan Grewe surveys
the major types of change in forest composition, extent and use in
Europe and North America, from sixteenth-century Germany onward.
Grewe argues that most changes in forests have been both gradual and
local, making any continent-wide generalization dubious. Yet two
major transformations have accelerated the reduction of species
diversity across different forest types: the commercialization of
timber production and the rise of forest science.

The theme of reduced vegetation is even more pronounced in Alon Tal's
essay, "Desertification," which surveys processes of dessication
throughout the northern hemisphere, beginning with the 1930s Dust
Bowl in midwestern North America. Tal, a specialist on the
contemporary Middle East, warns that the international community is
only now beginning to take this major dimension of environmental
decline seriously.

Joel Tarr adds "Urban Environmental History," centering on urban
development in the United States, with a brief but useful nod to
environmental studies of European cities in modern times. Tarr
defines four periods in American urbanization, culminating in what he
defines as "the era of spreading and splintering urbanization" since
around 1970. He points to the major environmental legislation of the
years around 1970 as a foundation of efforts to manage urban
pollution and sprawl effectively.

Frank Uekoetter's essay, "The Knowledge Society," probes the recent
acceleration of the science of both resource exploitation and more
effective resource management. Noting that "in some cases expert
knowledge allowed the mitigation of environmental problems that were
themselves the result of scientific knowledge" (p. 134), he points to
increasing efficiency in the use of fossil fuels, pollution controls,
agronomy, and wildlife management as examples. He acknowledges that
many scientific advances, such as genetically modified organisms, are
highly controversial since their long-term outcomes are still

Complementing the scientific trends, the rise of environmental
politics is the focus of Jens Ivo Engels's discussion of "Modern
Environmentalism," presenting an analytical review of the rise of the
environmental movement (largely in West Germany and the United
States). Engels notes three criteria in arguing for 1970 as a sharp
turning point: the condition of the environment, environmental
political movements, and environmental protection.

In "The '1950s Syndrome' and the Transition from a Slow-Going to a
Rapid Loss of Global Sustainability," Christian Pfister synthesizes
the implications of the other essays. Tracing the suddenly increasing
rate of global energy use and accumulation of atmospheric carbon
dioxide in those years, he brings together rapid economic growth,
accelerated population increase, the discovery of massive oilfields
in the Middle East and elsewhere, the resulting low market price of
fossil fuels, the global spread of chemical-intensive agriculture,
the automotive economy, and other uses of petroleum.

Other fundamental dimensions of ecological change are mentioned less
extensively in these essays. Underlying demographic trends and
pressures are noted briefly but with emphasis by Tal, Tarr, and
Pfister. Fitzgerald and Grewe note the environmental consequences of
mass conflict, indicating that the major wars of the twentieth
century have had decisive impacts on environmental conditions. Energy
history and climate history are most clearly addressed by Pfister.
There is considerably less coverage of world regions outside the
United States and Germany. Integrating these regions into a thematic
collection remains to be done. This volume could usefully be paired
with William Beinart and Lotte Hughes's _Environment and Empire_
(2007), a penetrating set of thematic essays on European empires in
Asia and Africa. Yet even these two collections together leave Latin
America neglected.

Citation: Richard Tucker. Review of Uekötter, Frank, ed., _The
Turning Points of Environmental History_. H-Environment, H-Net
Reviews. May, 2011.