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Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History

Author(s):Cushman, Gregory T.
Reviewer(s):Levy, Juliette

Published by EH.Net (August 2014)

Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xvii + 392 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-00413-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Juliette Levy, Department of History, University of California, Riverside.

This is not the first book about guano, nor is it the first commodity study that connects the world around it. This book, however, may be the first book that is both a detailed and intricate history of the Pacific basin (mostly weighed to the Peruvian/Latin America side of it) and a fascinating history of the development of an environmental discourse in it. This is as much an environmental history, as it is the history of environmental thought in the Pacific basin. Cushman traces the discourse, theories and acts of environmentalism, nature, ecology and population through the many phases of guano exploration, use and export. He carries the analysis through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, articulating how environmental issues became tied to local and global politics and economics.

Cushman is an excellent writer, bringing in a variety of perspectives, from scientists, environmental evangelists, politicians, economists and commodity traders, as well as island populations and bird-watchers, going so far as to imagine the perspective of the guano-producing birds themselves. In the hands of a less-talented writer this might have become quite confusing, but instead the personal (and animal) perspectives help anchor and reinforce the tight knit of humankind’s relationship with its environment.

To say this book has far-reaching ambitions is an understatement — it is after all a “global ecological history” and as such, the author had to tie the history of bird excrement to the broader implications of late nineteenth-century export booms, agricultural productivity growth, ecological depredation, political transformations and the weaving of a global economic project around the competitive access to this ecological asset. And by and large, the author succeeds in fulfilling these ambitions. Most of all, here is the rare environmental history that is actually about the environment. And here is a global history that does indeed span more than one country and continent. Cushman’s training as a Latin American historian does not obscure his perspective over the rest of the world and in his treatment of Peru (the erstwhile world leader in guano production) does not ignore the efforts, and the significance of the efforts, of the many other countries that tried to ride the guano trail.

He is also not biased by previous assessments of global history. The global nineteenth century, with its colonial expansions into Africa and neo-colonial trade networks has often been cast as the age of American expansionism and local elite cooptation. Here Cushman reveals how the issue of economic growth and national economic strategy at the time occupied the relatively young Latin American nations.  Peru had a bold environmental plan, devised for national growth, and Chile too joined in territorial expansion as a means of securing international and domestic power. This claim is certainly not new, but it is refreshing (as it were) to see the small guano-covered islands becoming pawns in this game. He also continues the story well into the twentieth century, allowing the reader to trace the origins of the conservation movement in the U.S. and Latin America via the studies of ornithologists and naturalists — all of which leads to a coherent long-view environmental history.

The book is dense, and it is not a straight-forward assessment of the issue. This may have something to do with the author’s articulation of his argument. In his own words, the argument is seven-fold and touches on the following issues: 1) the geographical parameters of the Pacific world; 2) the creation/construction of the Pacific world; 3) the agency of nature on the creation of the Pacific world; 4) connection between the Pacific world and the industrial revolution; 5) cultural influences of the transformations in the Pacific world and industrial revolution; 6) social groups that orchestrated much of the guano world; and 7) the ethical ramifications of the world created by guano.

This 7-fold argument is explored across eight chapters, which each also have their own theme and motivating arguments. Chapter 2 focuses on the importance of bird waste in opening the Pacific world Chapters 3 and 4 focus on what the author calls neo-ecological imperialism — with two case studies of post-colonial exploration for nitrates among newly independent nations of Latin America and Austral Asia. Chapter 5 studies how nitrate exploration contributed to creating environmental governance at the turn of the twentieth century in Peru and neighboring regions. Chapter 6 focuses on Peru in the context of guano, the Pacific world, ecology and economy. Chapter 7 turns to Pacific geopolitics specifically between the two World Wars. Chapter 8 delves into the formation of early twentieth century environmentalism in the context of population concerns and chapter 9 deftly discusses the tensions between development projects and the environmental advisors hired to increase the productivity of agriculture in the mid-twentieth century.

One wishes for a more streamlined narrative, which a more forceful editorial hand might have achieved. But this is a minor quibble in a book that is packed with more insight and detail than one single book usually has. There is enough here for two books at least, so historians, environmentalists, and social scientists will find much to explore and learn in its pages.

It remains that Cushman’s specialty is in the environmental aspect of the story, which overlaps with policy and consumption — and history of course. History is actually the most important actor in this valuable book. In his tracing of the policies of young nations in the nineteenth century, which were trying to position themselves in a global market that grew largely out of its colonial use of their resources, Cushman attaches environmental consequences to the colonial legacy. And it is in this environmental treatment of history that Cushman may be reminding all of us that history is meaningless is we don’t acknowledge, and study, its dependence and relationship to its physical environment.

Juliette Levy is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. Her most recent book, The Making of a Market: Credit, Henequen and Notaries in Yucatán, 1850-1900, was published in 2012 by Penn State Press.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII