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Humans versus Nature: A Global Environmental History

Author(s):Headrick, Daniel R.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric L.

Published by EH.Net (January 2021)

Daniel R. Headrick, Humans versus Nature: A Global Environmental History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. ix + 604 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-19-086472-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric L. Jones, University of Buckingham.


This is an encyclopedic volume, the more impressive because written by a single hand. Almost 500 pages are accompanied by one hundred pages of references. It is so voluminous and wide-ranging that the reviewer may feel ashamed to probe for limitations. For topic after topic, period after period, Daniel Headrick (Emeritus Professor at Roosevelt University) provides at least a page or two of thorough and judicious summary. Within every chronological segment, he characterizes the environmental condition of each of the world’s major regions, and often minor ones too. Proper weight is given to the immense stretches of prehistory, emphasizing not merely humanity’s ancient impress on the environment but its manipulation of habitats too, ever since the discovery was made that fire could be portable.

Headrick is certainly disposed to dwell on the losers among species, populations and societies but does not entirely neglect the winners. Of the latter, perhaps the least expected was the earthworm, which spread across North America from the east coast to which it had been inadvertently carried by European settlers. It is an example — and by improving soils by no means a trivial one — of the depth of the author’s reading in any number of specialist sources.

Throughout history and prehistory, human societies have administered and experienced every type of alteration in the environments housing them. Changes have been both stealthy and abrupt, signaled by the rise and fall of groupings as large as civilizations. Many developments have been responses to environmental opportunity, whenever the prevailing technology made fresh resources accessible. In the long run less benign factors have also been prominent, most of all climatic fluctuations and various diseases, endemic and epidemic, human, animal and plant. Apportioning the effects among these and a host of other influences, such as social conflict, deforestation (which comes to the surface in many of Headrick’s narratives), hunting and poaching, and geophysical shocks, is exceedingly difficult. Combinations of the forces are advanced as having marked most periods and most societies.

Drawing the episodes together over the whole earth and all of recorded time thus unfortunately clarifies less than might be hoped: the past is presented as a kaleidoscope. No hope, then, of isolating a prime mover unless it is the growth and migration of population — which is itself what one would like to have explained. No variable is independent of others. Societies were differently resilient, the author tells us, but that is description, not explanation. Headrick understandably plays up environmental reasons for major events, such as the Fall of Rome, and more generally leans towards the way fluctuating populations were calibrated by fluctuations in the climate. He notes cases where human action itself has probably affected the climate ever since the Neolithic. But he knows far too much to advance a monocausal thesis.

Insofar as any interpretive slant becomes apparent, the book reflects current alarm about environmental degradation and climate change. The latter may well prove a lasting game changer but there is comparatively little recognition of humanity’s satisfactory past accommodations to certain of its habitats. Historically, humanized landscapes in the temperate zones may have reached approximate equilibrium with nature; the recent excessive use of agricultural chemicals might be curbed by governmental regulation; and only global warming seems to toss an unavoidable spanner into the environmental machinery. Headrick’s view is that laissez faire will continue to rule and create an unstable mix between voluntary restraint, business as usual, and some barely understood technological fix for the planet’s problems.

Any conspectus on the gargantuan scale of this book is obliged to rely on the available literature and no one can withhold admiration for Headrick’s endless energy in that regard. An unavoidable weakness follows because the literature, at least work in English, is heavily skewed in favor of those major regions with highly organized polities. On the one hand tracing these examples constitutes a crushing work-load for the scholar; on the other they must minimize, relatively speaking, the experience of lesser regions, societies and periods. North America and Europe, and the western search for tropical products, necessarily figure large. China is increasingly claiming a share. Among early societies, archaeology has tended to concentrate on empires that had a big impact on their setting and left major monuments to be studied or excavated. Constructions of stone have obviously survived best and one can never escape the continual revaluations of Stonehenge, but the intermittently recorded achievements of societies that lacked stone give an inkling of parts of history’s jigsaw that may often be missing: in the south-west of what is now the United States, the Anasazi built their Great Houses with 200,000 logs of up to 320 kilograms apiece, dragging them from mountains 75 kilometers away because they had no draft animals!

Mentioning Stonehenge emphasizes the difficulties faced by any compiler of a general text. New techniques continue to make stunning discoveries at that site and at many others. No one can keep up with all the topics and sub-disciplines involved, which means that relying on the existing literature is slightly insecure. And interpretations can be overturned by the continual advance of knowledge. Ian Miller’s Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020) is persuasive that previous views of unrequited deforestation, that is without replanting, are misleading. It was published since the book under review was written and only serves to show how scholarship’s progress must chip away at any overview. Nevertheless for the foreseeable future Daniel Headrick’s Humans versus Nature will remain the ultimate reference work on global environmental history.


Eric Jones, Senior Fellow at the University of Buckingham, is the author of Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, 2014), Barriers to Growth: English Economic Development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and Landscape History and Rural Society in Southern England: An Economic and Environmental Perspective (in press).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Historical Demography, including Migration
Historical Geography
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative