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Book Review of Ecological Imperialism, April 2005, <http://www.hilwerda.com/ecologicalimperialism.htm>
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Book Review of Ecological
In his book, Ecological
Imperialism: The Biological
Expansion of Europe, 900-1900,
investigates the roots of European domination over the western world.
He calls the places where early Europeans settled "Neo-Europes"
with special emphasis on North and
. In his prologue he ponders whether
Europeans dominated their environment and other cultures because of their
technology, or whether the consistent “success of European imperialism has a
biological, [and] an ecological, component” (7).
’s thesis is that Europeans were
successful imperialists because wherever they went their agriculture
and animals thrived; and the indigenous populations and local ecosystems
collapsed under their biological advance.
begins at the beginning, discussing the one big continent, Pangaea, supposed to
have existed in pre-history and the slow development of life forms other than
reptilian, in particular Homo sapiens.
The break up of Pangaea (this hypothetical super-continent) caused the
“the decentralization of the process of evolution,” that is, when the land
cracked apart flora and fauna were spilt between the newly created continents.
That continental split is the reason similar species are found in Europe
brings the reader up to the end of the Ice Age.
Ten thousand years ago humans were exploring the islands of the Eastern
. Once on these islands humans
plants, piled up mounds of garbage, spread disease, and hunted animals into
extinction. Normally the despoilment
of indigenous flora and fauna occurs over tens of thousands of years.
In locations where humans arrived with mature hunting skills a sudden
extinction of local plant and animal life occurred.
These sudden prehistoric, or
Pleistocene, overkills were the
first concentrated impact humans had on virgin ecosystems.
The virgin ecosystem of
was the destination of Portuguese settlers during the 1400s.
was completely uninhabited and filled with untouched flora and fauna.
One Portuguese ship captain brought a mother rabbit and her babies to the
island. The rabbits loved Porto
Santo and thrived in the island environment.
So much so that soon the settlers were blasting away at the rabbits in an
attempt to exterminate the entire local rabbit population.
It seems the rabbits could not determine the difference between the crops
meant for human consumption and the crops meant for bunny consumption.
The rabbits won in this instance and for a time the settlers moved
elsewhere, “defeated by their own ecological ignorance” (75).
The experience of Spanish invaders in the Canaries showed them that no
matter where they went, even if they could not out-fight their opponents,
Europeans could dominate their enemies anyway.
“In all these [new] places, the newcomers would conquer the human
populations and Europeanize entire ecosystems.” The
Spanish learned from their experiences in the Canaries that their livestock and
crops would succeed in these new environments; they also learned they could
easily defeat the local natives without traditional warfare.
The various “plagues” and “sleeping sicknesses,” which the
Spanish called peste and modorra, killed off and weakened
natives who had no natural immunity to ailments common to the Spanish.
In essence, sore throats and colds were the winning weapons of the
conquerors; it was the flu that subjugated the Canaries (92-95).
unfortunate natives of the
, the Guanches, did not survive their meeting with the Spanish sailors.
These previously isolated people died rapidly from dysentery, pneumonia,
and venereal disease. According to
“few experiences are as dangerous to a people's survival as the passage from
isolation to membership in the worldwide community that included European
sailors, soldiers, and settlers" (99).
When the Spanish conquered the Canaries the Guanches lost their land and
therefore their livelihood. Some
Guanches joined the Spanish army and went to fight in the
; the Spanish sold others into slavery. The
majority of Guanches however died of disease and the entire population became
Unlike the Guanches of the Canaries, the Maoris of New Zealand did
survive despite great odds. When
invaded by Europeans the Maoris assumed they would become extinct.
European rats annihilated the Maori rat, an animal that was a food staple
for the natives. The Maori fly might
have help ward off the incursion of sheep that quickly destroyed the local
flora, but invading European houseflies wiped out the local flies.
Clover took over where ferns had been, and the Maori waited for their own
extinction. The Maori population hit
bottom in 1890 but then began a mysterious recovery and 280,000 people claim to
be Maori by 1981 (266-268).
In the 1500s Europeans arrived in the Americas with horses, technology
(weapons), domesticated plants (crops), farm animals, germs, insects, diseases,
weeds, and varmints. The garbage
piled up by farmers encouraged varmint populations (mainly mice and rats) which
spread disease and attacked human food supplies (29-30).
devoted an entire chapter to the spread of weeds around the world.
Weeds are not specific plants. “Weed”
is a general term applied to a plant that spreads rapidly and encroaches on
other plants. The study of where
specific weeds appeared and when, aids in tracking population movements.
The weeds brought by Europeans were actually another unintentional
imperial victory. Weeds repaired
damaged top soils and provided feed for livestock. “
and oats were once weeds” (149). “Weeds
are the Red Cross of the plant world; they deal with ecological emergencies” (169). “Weeds
thrive on radical change, not stability. That, in the abstract, is the reason
for the triumph of European weeds in the Neo-Europes…” (170). Weeds were resilient and thrived
in soils laid bare by European plows, and damaged by drastically altered
European populations exploded in the
. What distinguished these Neo-Europes
were the large food surpluses they generated.
Neo-Europes led the world in food production “relative to the amount
locally consumed” (4). Other
cultures actually produced more food per capita and per hectare, but the Neo-Europes
exported more food than any other society. Especially
successful exports from Neo-Europes were wheat, soybeans, pig products, and
beef. Europeans consistently chose
to settle in temperate climates where their animals and crops thrived.
This was prudent and logical, it would have made no sense for Europeans
to settle in torrid climates where their livestock would have suffered, and
their favorite crops could not be grown.
The wind also aided European imperialists.
When faced with strong winds the Portuguese marinheiros, true sailors, did not turn around and go home or sit
sail-less in the water until the winds changed.
Marinheiros would “sail
around the wind.” Sailors would
tack close enough to the contrary wind to keep moving and then find a wind that
they could use to continue their course. The
Portuguese who perfected this “crabwise slide” called it the
do mar, literally “going back to the sea”.
This understanding of winds allowed marinheiros
to sail out on trade winds and back home on the westerlies (116-119).
Smallpox was the
big killer of the Aztecs and the Incas in
; the Huron and Iroquois in
; and the Amerindians of the
claims the victories of the Conquistadors over the Amerindians were “in large
part the triumphs of the virus of smallpox” (200). Besides
smallpox Europeans brought dysentery and influenza; those epidemics killed
almost the whole indigenous population of
. In effect, the domination over ecology and culture by European invaders was
more of a biological accident, than a well-executed military takeover.
soil epidemics spread through populations who had no prior contact with European
diseases. These populations had no
immunity to protect them. Virgin
soil epidemics had many dramatic consequences.
First, the epidemics effectively committed genocide, killing entire
populations of native people around the world.
Second, certain diseases (measles, influenza, tuberculosis) effected
people fifteen to forty years of age more than others.
These young adults were responsible for most of the labor involved in
supplying food, procreation, raising children, and defending the society.
The third and fourth effects of virgin soil epidemics were cultural
optimism on the part of the conquerors, and cultural fatalism on the part of the
conquered. When Europeans arrived
and slew their rivals without raising a sword they believed that God must be on
their side and this belief affirmed the rightness of their imperialistic
actions. When the indigenous people
died by the hoard from mysterious ailments they developed a fatalistic view of
their own destiny and supposed the white man’s Gods were the more powerful.
Ecological Imperialism is
interesting, occasionally humorous, and easy to read.
accomplishes his goal of writing a big book.
This author presents a convincing and encompassing explanation for the
incredible success of European imperialists.
The book leaves the reader with more questions.
How aggressively imperialistic were the original conquerors if all they
had to do was show up and their opponents fell to the wayside?
argues convincingly that Europeans were
triumphant because the places they chose to conquer had ecosystems and
indigenous populations that surrendered to the biology of the invaders.
Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The
Biological Expansion of
Paul S. “Prehistoric Overkill”.
HISTORY OF CHINESE IMMIGRATION INTO
A FRONTIER CULTURE IN THE AMERICAN WEST
© 2005 by www.hilwerda.com