Review of City, Country, Empire: Landscapes in Environmental History, edited by Jeffry M. Diefendorf and Kurk Dorsey University of Pittsburgh Press

City, Country, Empire: Landscapes in Environmental History. Jeffry M. Diefendorf and Kurk Dorsey, eds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780822958765

City, Country, Empire: Landscapes in Environmental History is an intriguing collection that grew out of a 2001 conference at the University of New Hampshire. That gathering drew critics interested in the spatial dimensions of environmental history within specific temporal moments of great change, upheaval, and re-structuring. From this meeting, fifteen authors provided essays for the collection under review here. Although the text has been in publication for over seven years, its geographical reach, strong dedication to exploring human networks and societal alliances of power across time and national boundaries, and purposeful examination of the effects of internationalization on aspects of the environment aligns it with recent shifts within historiography that have focused on empire, networks, and large-scale macrohistories, such as examinations of the Atlantic world. Just as those may have immense problematics with scale and reach, so too does this collection. At the end of the day, though, its strengths make it a pivotal contribution to the field of environmental history.

Structurally, the editors have chosen to separate the essays into four distinct sections, conveniently labeled as cities, countries, empires, and country-sides. Although each essay is focused on only one of those aspects, the editors stress that, as a whole, the chapters investigate “the way that human societies […] create concepts of nature.” (2)  While an accurate assessment, nearly all of the contributors push at the role and place of the environment within human societies by delving into the networks of power, alliances of distrust, and the contestations of use that have coursed through communities, cities, nations, empires, and impacted ecologies—such as water ecosystems. While many of the authors note the agency of nature, the collection is neither a celebration of naturalness, nor an elegy to a supposed pristine and natural time far ago in humanity’s past. According to the editors, the authors “demonstrate how human and natural forces collaborate in the creation of cities, the countryside, and empires.” (2)

Within the book, three chapters stand out and demonstrate this book’s important contribution to global environmental history. I plan to focus on these essays for the remainder of this review because they suggest both the promise and the perils of these types of analyses. Given that each of these authors has, since the collection’s publication, written award-winning or lauded monographs on a similar topic to the chapter collected here, what I see as the collection’s far-reaching impact is, in reality, part of the scholarly turn in environmental history to international and global foci.

The first chapter that deserves mention is Nancy Langston’s “Floods and Landscapes in the Inland West.” An environmental historian with a background in zoology, Langston’s chapter receives further elaboration in her book Where Land and Water Meet (University of Washington Press, 2003). As a former president of the American Society for Environmental History, Langston has strong interests in human health and environmental health over time and in various locations.  Of the three authors presented here, her work is probably the most solely US-focused. In the essay in the collection, Langston crafts an important contribution to environmental history by preparing a work that is sensitive to the ways that ranchers, resource managers, and others have structurally engineered, controlled, and manipulated flooding in a wildlife area in southeastern Oregon.  Covering more than one hundred years of history, Langston’s chapter provides a clear overview of changing management tactics over time. Yet this commitment to telling a synchronous story means that specific agents or specific laws are often brushed aside in favor of more sweeping changes or grand characters. This is, of course, one of the challenges of dealing with wide-ranging regions or areas of history in which multiple variables jumble together. Some critics can get lost in the detail or brush aside too much specificity in place of generalizations. Not Langston. Her strength is in finding the right approach to explain the movement of the water over the region and the ways that humans and other species have responded to it and influenced it. Yet even this strength cannot overcome the weight of the information that is subsumed under amorphous titles and roles. My one concern about Langston’s efforts is that the chapter feels uneven, at times, as agency and structure battle in the telling of the story of the human response to flooding in this region.

If Langston’s article suffers from a lack of detail, James McCann’s chapter, “West Africa’s Colonial Fungus: Globalization and Science at the End of Empire, 1949–2000,” is replete with them in a narrative full of names, places, organizations, and colonial entities drawn into the battle against a fungus that ravaged Africa’s maize belt for a brief period in the mid-twentieth century. McCann’s work on agriculture and ecology in Africa is further elaborated in his book Maize and Grace: A History of Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop (2005). A historian with strong interest in development, disease, and agri-ecologies, McCann brings the collection into deeply intriguing territory with this chapter’s concentration on imperial advancements into Africa and the politics of global food production. Although focused on the quick rise and disappearance of the fungus, the essay centers on the global response to the threat, seeing in it the imperial and colonial elements that drove empires to consume the resources within specific regions. As McCann demonstrates, the efforts of organizations, university scientists, colonial centers, and other post-World War II agencies around the world who amassed for this fight suggest the troubling ways in which the politics of food had become a global affair by the mid-twentieth century.

The final chapter that deserves specific mention is J. R. McNeill’s essay “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1650–1900.” Similarly to McCann’s chapter, McNeill’s also highlights the role and importance of politics and locality in environmental history. An examination into the impact of disease and epidemics in the imperial struggles for the Americas, McNeill’s work suggests not only the role and power of illness during battles for control between two warring factions, but also the significance of the tiny species—in this case, mosquitoes—in the process. Out of all three authors, McNeill’s larger work is perhaps the most recently published, appearing in Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640–1914. In keeping with the thrust of this chapter, McNeill is currently working on a book on global environmental history since 1945. In noting the ways that a disease carried by a species of mosquito could dismantle whole imperial armies and disrupt plans for imperial expansion—such as the construction of the Panama Canal—McNeill offers an imperial history that is fueled by concerns and issues of the environment. In fact, it is a history that only makes sense when the environment is placed at the heart of the imperial enterprise. What McNeill provides is a compelling examination of the power of ecological factors within the histories of empire.

As mentioned previously, these three articles not only represent the strengths of the collection, but also signal the place of global history within environmental history. As a research focus, this global environmental history has to contend with issues of scale, agents, relationality, and power. For some critics, these are issues that are best addressed in more intricate micro-histories. But those who teach and those who contend with issues within world history know that these issues can—and are—dealt with in increasing complexity in global histories that consider a wide range of temporalities and geographical locations.

This aspect is probably what makes this collection not only a significant advancement for scholarship in global environmental history, but also an excellent teaching tool. With it, teachers and professors can introduce secondary and higher education students to the richness of world history. Although portions of the book offer far more standard versions of environmental history, these three articles stand out for the reasons stated. While I would teach significant portions of the collection, my students would directly benefit from the essays of McNeill, McCann, and Langston. It is my firm belief that readers of The Middle Ground Journal will also find these essays beneficial and instructive. An essential contribution to the study of world history and environmental concerns.


Reviewed by Karen N. Salt, University of Aberdeen
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]