Ecology & Imperialism. (Book Reviews)

By Moore, Jason W. | Monthly Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Ecology & Imperialism. (Book Reviews)


Moore, Jason W., Monthly Review


Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London and New York: Verso, 2001), 470 pages plus photos and maps, cloth $27, paper $20.

What do we mean by that felicitous phrase, "ecological imperialism"? Some fifteen years ago, Alfred W. Crosby published what was destined to become a seminal text of environmental history, Ecological Imperialism. Early European expansion, Crosby argued, was accompanied by the global diffusion of Eurasian plants, diseases, and animals, especially in the New World. Ecological imperialism was about the displacement of indigenous ecologies in favor of biological "neo-Europes." But for all its promise, in other years neither Crosby nor subsequent environmental historians moved beyond the diffusionist and ecologically-reductionist conception of imperialism. The idea of ecological imperialism remained narrowly ecological, abstracted from capitalist social relations.

The appearance of Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts marks a distinct rupture with such toothless renderings of ecological imperialism. Taking as his starting point the El Nino droughts that swept through China, India, Brazil, and much of Africa in the late nineteenth century, Davis argues that the "third world" was created by imperial strategies that deliberately turned drought into famine. The death toll ran to the tens of millions. Davis' great insight is to explain how these socially-engineered famines--likely the world's greatest ecological crisis since 1492--were a decisive wedge in a new global phase of primitive accumulation. "The great Victorian famines were forcing houses and accelerators of the very socio-economic forces that ensured their occurrence in the first place" (p. 15). The outcome was a quantum leap in global inequality, as the imperial refashioning of third world ecologies and societies effected a dramatic extension of capitalist social relations in the periphery, in China and India a bove all.

Late Victorian Holocausts' theoretical architecture is decidedly minimalist. Expressing his admiration for geographer Michael Watts' classic study of subsistence crises in northern Nigeria, Silent Violence, Davis aligns himself with a broadly defined "political ecology" perspective, socalled "because it takes the viewpoint of environmental history and Marxist political economy" (p. 15). But this is as far as he is willing to go. Davis has a story to tell, and to that end enlists several broad orienting concepts. Chief among these is Rosa Luxemburg's conception of imperialism--focusing on the incorporation of extra-European societies into the world capitalist system--and her emphasis on the role of "force as a permanent weapon" in the construction of capitalist markets (pp. 11-12). Markets, Davis tells us in a not-so-subtle reference to contemporary neoliberalism, "are always 'made.' Despite the pervasive ideology that markets function spontaneously...they in fact have inextricable political histories" (p. 11) . It is precisely this political history of the late nineteenth century world market-with its massive ecological toll in human bodies and landscapes alike-that Davis lays bare.

Lace Victorian Holocausts is part narrative history, part "scientific detective story" (p. 213), and part analytical world history. In the first hail, Davis walks us through a narrative history of primitive accumulation and famine in the tropical world that accompanied the two major El Nino (short for El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO) droughts of the late nineteenth century (1876-1878; 1888-1902). This is followed by a remarkable (if at times distracting) history of the search for El Nifio, and the ways that ENSO's interaction with the "world climate system" helps to shape "climates of hunger" (p. 239). Finally, Davis develops an important argument about the "origins of the third world" (p. 279). The late nineteenth century's ENSO droughts were no mere footnote.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Ecology & Imperialism. (Book Reviews)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.