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. …