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Published by EH.NET (February 2007)

Alf Hornborg and Carole L. Crumley, editors, The World System and the Earth System: Global Socioenvironmental Change and Sustainability since the Neolithic. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2006. xii + 395 pp. $35 (paperback), ISBN: 1-59874-101-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Jones, Melbourne Business School and University of Exeter.

An editor once told me to take a metaphor about the grinding of tectonic plates out of a piece on environmental history, on the grounds that historians would not understand it. I am therefore not unsympathetic to the aim of the editors of this volume to bring human history together with natural science. They go further, however. They start out by assuming, as do their many contributors (mutatis mutandis), that social processes move in waves or cycles, including some very long ones indeed. The purpose of the volume is to advance to yet another stage, describing the entire course of human history and prehistory in this vein, incorporating the effects of natural phenomena, and looking hard for appearances of synchrony. And as if that were not enough, they want to save the planet.

Three concepts stand out among the considerable number used by one or other contributor. First is the “earth system,” defined as the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles (“often called biogeochemical cycles”) and energy fluxes which provide the conditions necessary for life on the planet. Second is the “world system,” defined as a multi-state system of capitalist countries bounded in space and time, with a division of labor and trade relations that favored a core of one or several nations over a periphery of other nations ? the whole extended to additional relationships according to the taste of individual authors. The breadth of these “systems” permits virtually unconstrained interpretation. It is thus almost a relief that “sustainability” does not seem to be defined, though this leaves it unclear which of the possible meanings is intended.

Of the volume’s three sections, the first presents various takes on grand theory. The second section consists of case studies and summarizing them is a real challenge. Spatially they deal with Northwest Europe, the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa and Amazonia. Chronologically they often reach far back into prehistoric times. Thematically they are even more diverse, dealing for example with urbanization and social institutions in relation to and as affected by ecological and climatic changes.

Oddly, the most promising, or at any rate most familiar, topics from the economic historian’s point of view do not fall in this section. One, on the lessons from population ecology for long-distance synchrony, is placed in the first section. It uses in part data from pre-industrial England and states that the forces explaining an acceleration in population growth around 1800 are “not controversial and have to do with the English Industrial Revolution.” Among other variables introduced to explain population fluctuations is an index of internal warfare, created by merging lists of revolutions, civil wars and major rebellions, and concluding that a probable cause of the fluctuations was interaction between population and instability.

Likewise placed outside the case study section, but instead in the third section on the sustainability of the modern world, is a happily straightforward chapter by Alfred W. Crosby on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, and the chapter that concludes the whole book: this last is by Andre Gunder Frank on the nineteenth-century world system and is hard to comment on fairly since Frank died before he could complete a demonstration of the role of entropy in world system history. Otherwise the third section includes complaints about how humanity is consuming too much and bemoaning the lack of international co-ordination in managing the earth system, without which “our days on this planet are numbered.” Also included are suggestive bar diagrams of the publication of ecological articles, 1945-2005, though seemingly not deflated by the changing numbers of academics or academic journals.

I have the sense of people wrestling with vast interactions, their minds made up about the negative course of human history, and armed with unhelpfully cloudy concepts. Assertions of interactions among the giant processes discussed ? climatic change prominent among them ? are unlikely to persuade economists, whose discipline does not begin to approach the level of abstraction or indeed verbosity typical here. The graphs and diagrams with their unlabelled axes are especially baffling, though I enjoyed the one with arrows saying “all these blobs are societies.” The volume reminds me of the story of a sociologist friend who followed two tutees out of his room, only to hear one saying to the other, “words, words, words!”

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, and Visiting Professor, University of Exeter. He is author of The European Miracle (Cambridge University Press, third edition, 2003) and Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton University Press, 2006).