The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

Bibliographical Essay

1. The American Environment and
Native-European Encounters

Environmental history incorporates into history the characteristics of particular environments and the methods people have used to exploit or conserve forests, waters, soils, and animals. In Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Alfred W. Crosby spells out his theory of the “portmanteau biota”: the cooperative, if unconscious assistance that livestock, crops, and microbes provided Europeans as they explored and conquered native populations around the world. Following Crosby's foundational work, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) to expound on the idea that the advance of civilizations was shaped primarily by the plenitude or paucity of domesticable animals and plants that happened to evolve on particular continents. The east-west orientation of Eurasia was superior to the north-south orientation of the Americas in the transmission of domesticates, technologies, and political systems.

Another important work that sets the stage for the transformation of the physical environment is Stephen Pyne's Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). In this work, Pyne treats fire as a cultural phenomenon. The impact and consequences of fires depend not only upon environmental factors but also upon the cultural system in which the fire takes place. How people judge a fire, their understanding of its dynamics, and their ability to control it all de-

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