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Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene: Perspectives on Asia and Africa

Editor(s):Austin, Gareth
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (March 2018)

Gareth Austin, editor, Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene: Perspectives on Asia and Africa. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. xi + 326 pp. $102.60 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-4742-6749-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.
This wide-ranging collection, edited by Gareth Austin of Cambridge University, discusses the modern history of the environment in parts of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. Among these large regions East Asia fares best and Africa worst — the former has the better sources and the arguments have been extensively debated, whereas for the latter sources are thinner and studies have not reached the same intensity.

Several of the fourteen chapters in the volume, present interesting material and stimulating ideas. There is an intriguing chapter, for instance, on containers in Africa but the problem for early history becomes evident once one realizes that although pottery objects may survive, baskets made of plant material have decayed into an oblivion not offset by much in the way of descriptive literature or realist art. Old environmental features have been erased from memory in other realms too, witness Prasannan Parthasarathi’s valiant effort here to retrieve wooded landscapes in India from the dustbin of history. When products changed, and particularly when the environment changed, is important to the book because it would like to pin down the point at which human exploitation became all embracing, maybe irreversible.

The period within which the contributors operate is defined by a virtual fanfare that puts the stress on recent times. This is done by calling the chosen period the Anthropocene, a term attributed to the Dutch scholar, P. J. Crutzen, but overlooking the periodization of another Dutchman, Joop Goudsblom, and his introduction of the Anthroposphere. The label “Anthropocene” denotes the comprehensive sway of the human impact which, since it varied from region to region, eludes a single global start. The point is recognized by certain of the authors, which goes to show how tricky it is to generalize about so many contributions. Some candidly admit there was no precolonial Eden and discuss early forest clearance in India and Southeast Asia as propelled by quite low population growth under conditions of weak farming methods. Others hint at blaming Western Imperialism for the ills of the world.

The topics with which the chapters deal vary markedly, extravagantly it might almost be said, from farming in Africa to forestry in India to South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear power. Plainly, it is out of the question to review each chapter separately nor is it easy to identify a single theme advanced by every one of the authors. That said, an underlying assumption seems to be that humanity stepped up an assault on nature during what is called here the “Great Acceleration” since 1945, 1950 or 1954 (it is unclear which) and is now stripping the cupboard bare.

The text features somewhat peevish dismissals of other work. History, economics and economic history are condemned for side-lining the environment, with environmental history returning the favor by ignoring economics and even economic history. The accusations are correct as far as they go. The syllabuses of history and economics departments do leave out environmental matters in favor, respectively, of political maneuvers and a priori theories. For generations what is scandalously true of teaching has not, however, been true of research work. An assertion that geography has been purged from the history of natural disasters is more than doubtful. What is happening is that the absolute and the relative are being confused: in relative terms the environment may be invisible to the bulk of historians and economists but in absolute terms there has long been plenty of work on the subject, scattered references to contributions before 1990 or 2000 even appearing in chapter bibliographies in this book. But the book is produced by scholars generally forgetful of their twentieth-century predecessors, given to citing others of like mind, favoring a downbeat view of human influences on the environment, ignoring those who might take a positive view — and despite strictures about lapses by other historians, seldom aiming their own work squarely at economists.

The term “environment” as it is used in these pages is rather abstract; what is treated subsumes natural history and ecology but scarcely mentions them. Reasonably enough the focus is on natural resources, but conceives them as fixed rather than as functions of technology and the market, and always as if they are threatened. They are said not to be substitutable and technological developments not to be capable of outrunning the process of denudation. This second-guesses what may be discovered in a world with more scientific researchers than in all of history put together. Is the view not too dire, given that water, say, is often imported in the form of food and desalination can create potable water where little is present? Trade and transportation can magnify the flow of available resources. Oddly enough, nothing much is said about the extent to which East Asia detaches itself from its own base, casting its “ecological shadow” by scrounging resources from distant parts of the globe,.

But the limits of technological fixes — where they would cost too much in terms of energy and emissions — are illustrated by Kenneth Pomeranz’s exemplary chapter on China. His is the essay that most clearly establishes an independent analytical role for natural resources and most persuasively, indeed chillingly, hints at the environmental train wreck that may be awaiting one of the world’s largest economies. He is responding to another piece on East Asia, by Kaoru Sugihara, who describes the labor intensive path of growth in rice-growing areas. Pomeranz thinks this cannot apply to northern China and that China as a whole is too big to import enough food. Vast and politically significant as China is, its dry north is nevertheless only one region. Should an environmental crunch come there it would be massive but still leave the remainder of the world some chance of finding solutions to slightly more tractable resource shortages. This is a rewarding and good-tempered disagreement between two of the Titans of Asian studies.

Sugihara is one of those who envisages history as responses to factor endowments but when the frame is widened by Corey Ross similar environments can be seen to have responded differently, in this case to the possibility of founding a rubber industry. The issue relates to decisions about the proper approach to economic history: does one ground on institutions, culture, markets, technology, demography, the environment, or what? If the choice is made in favor of a single base, rather than some complicated and perhaps indeterminate combination, the subject will simply assume the indicated shape. In parts at least this book makes a fair case for treating the environment as fundamental but only if one accepts the proposition that economic development must erode the conditions making it possible.
Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, 2014), Small Earthquake in Wiltshire: Seventeenth-century Conflict and Its Resolution (Hobnob Press, 2017), and Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII