Review of The Environment in World History by Stephen Mosley Routledge

The Environment in World History. Stephen Mosley. New York: Routledge, 2010. 126pp., $29.95. ISBN: 9780415409568

In redesigning a course on modern world history at my university, I took on the rather quixotic idea to structure the class along thematic lines. I framed the course within the frameworks of globalization and its impact on commerce, sexuality, environment, race and ethnicity, and the rise of the nation state. Underlying these themes were recurring questions regarding the onset of modernity and the rise and fall of the west in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Further, I endeavoured to construct a curriculum that would not be wedded to the structure of the traditional textbook, instead having students read smaller works with thematic approaches in the hopes that they would be able to glean the narrative from these readings. Lectures, heuristic primary source exercises, and class discussions served to fill in narrative gaps left by these relatively short readings. Among the books utilized was Stephen Mosley’s The Environment in World History—a work that proved immensely valuable to this pedagogical approach. Moreover, the students found the book readable and informative, and provided great fodder for spirited and informed class discussions. In short, the book did more than enough to supplement the environmental theme of my course, not to mention serve as a great exemplar of the methods and approaches endemic to global history.

The book itself is divided into chapters centred on such environmental concerns as hunting, forestry and civilizations, soils and irrigation, and the relationship between rural and urban areas. Within these chapters Mosley also touches upon other aspects of environmental history, including disease, food production, climate change—both in terms of natural climatic occurrences and those created by humans—technological advancement, and the relationship between environment and political development. Each chapter concludes with at least one case study that adds greater understanding to the major points contained therein. While issue of human-induced global change might arouse suspicion, Mosley deals with the issue as a long-term issue, noting how the negative impact of human efforts to manipulate their surroundings on the environment dates back to the earliest civilizations. Mosley contextualizes the fortunes of classical civilizations in Greece, Rome, and China in terms of their relation to the environment, noting, however, that their environmental impact was local, rather than global in scale. As he transitions into the modern age, Mosely charts the correlation between the harmful impact of industry and modernity and environmental damage, thus adeptly demonstrating that modern concerns are rooted in the development of human civilization. Further, by tracing the development of the city, Mosley notes the recent acceleration in the adverse impact human civilization has had, and is having on the world’s resources, concluding that environmental awareness must supersede the need for material growth.

For reasons unknown, my students seemed most eager to discuss the chapter on soils and irrigation. When asked to explain why, a few students explained that the chapter seemed to make more sense to them—not surprising, given that the university is in a rural part of the state, with many students having been raised in an agricultural setting. Indeed, this might have been the case, but the chapter coincided with a unit of study on the Atlantic World, and I believe the readings helped foster stronger connections, and in turn a better understanding of the material I was teaching in class. In other words, the interrelation between the readings and the in-class lessons clarified and deepened their understanding of the Atlantic World. For example, the discussion of erosion problems that resulted from the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the America—namely, the introduction of the hooved Merino sheep—helped contribute to the widespread population decline amongst the indigenous peoples of the America, in turn facilitating the creation of “neo-Europes”. This example illustrates another value of this work—it works against the reductive nature of textbooks, which can often reduce events such as the European exploration and conquest of the Americas solely in terms of the military-social-religious narrative.

Perhaps the greatest—and most satisfying—impact of the utilization of this book was the manner in which it influenced the students’ final projects. One of my overarching goals was to challenge students to view history from a global perspective, but also to use inquiry as the basis for historical study. As such, I asked students to construct projects based on their own interests, with the hopes that they would incorporate non-traditional sources and approaches. I was pleased to find that many students incorporated environmental themes into their papers, and Mosley’s work appeared in more bibliographies than any other work I assigned.

Reviewed by Kenneth Shonk, Jr., University of Wisconsin – Superior
Edited by Jodi R.B. Eastberg

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 3, Fall 2011. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]