chapter  4
Towards a truly global environmental history
Pages 20

Although rich in empirical detail, studies in environmental history often strike world-system analysts as theoretically underdeveloped. They generally do not address the fact that landscape changes in core areas have been recursively interconnected with those in peripheral areas. Although several recent books claim to deal with global environmental history (e.g. McNeill 2000; Hughes 2001; Richards 2003; Radkau 2008; Simmons 2008), they are rarely ‘global’ in this sense. They tend to offer a series of national and local case studies, focusing more on the environmental records of individual nations and groups than on the global historical processes and material flows that have generated their problems as well as their options. In terms of Pomeranz’s (2000:25) useful distinction, most of these global narratives treat different regions in terms of ‘comparisons’ rather than ‘connections’. The main theoretical conclusion of much of this work is the recurrent observation that technologies designed to solve one kind of problem will ironically tend to generate even more severe problems of another kind, often for other groups of people. This conclusion should instil a powerful antidote against the pervasive belief in technological solutions, but the underlying message is generally that there is something inevitable and politically innocent about the course of global environmental history. Considering that many of these authors use words such as ‘global’ and ‘world’ in the titles of their books, it is remarkable that so few of them really consider the world as a system, in which environmental transformations in two geographically distant countries or regions may be closely intertwined in terms of causal connections. There is very little recognition of the fact that economic expansion in one area often implies environmental load displacement to other areas. The first part of this chapter critically reviews some recent treatments of human-environmental relations over the long term by historians, archaeologists, and geographers. The second part elaborates a framework

for understanding global environmental history based on a world-system perspective and on a concept of accumulation that acknowledges both the semiotic and the material dimensions of exchange in human societies.