Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review of 1493 by Charles Mann

We live in a post-Columbian world that is losing its truly local cultures. It is common for people like me, with only a middle-management job, to travel internationally and to see places very different from the community I grew up in. More and more of us are doing this now – in spite of recent economic troubles. At least in the business community we have become a global culture. This is good for business but it is also harming the earth’s ecosystems. Our impact on the planet has been, and continues to be, immense. Charles Mann’s recent book 1493 is an account of some of these impacts.

This is a companion volume to Mann’s book 1491 that took a close look at the New World before Columbus. What strikes me most about these two books is the broader historic perspective they provide of the human impact to earth. Mann makes a convincing argument that it is much greater than we realize.

One of the things we learn about in 1491, for example, is that the huge populations of buffalo and passenger pigeons, that struck early colonists with such amazement, were unusually high because their human predators had previously been reduced by disease. These diseases in turn had come via immigrants from the Old World. The unrecognized reality in America before Columbus, it seems, was a much larger human population than we thought. And the corollary is that the Americas were greatly impacted by the European discovery of the New World.

In 1493 we get to see the reverse of this. We get to see how the entire planet has changed because of post-Columbian globalization. The crux of the issue is apparent in Michael Samway’s important term Homogenocene which Mann introduces to readers. Apparently meant to look like a name for a geological epoch, the homogenocene depicts a modern world with reduced biodiversity and an increasingly global human culture. Mann does a good job of showing us just what this homogenocene looks like.

We are all aware of the popularity of American tobacco in Europe after Columbus, for example. Most of us also have an inkling of the influence that malaria and other insect-borne diseases had on the New World as well. Mann’s treatment of these examples is probing and up-to-date. You were wrong if you thought you knew all there was to know about these, and other, stories from your college geography class of yesteryear. A lot has been learned since then. Did you know, for instance, that even though all American colonies had slaves, those that suffered from malaria had more?

Other examples include the introduction of sweet potatoes and maize into China. It is not unusual to learn that both crops were popular in many places around the world. What comes as a sobering surprise is that they had large ecological effects in China early on even as they fed a growing population. Both crops could be grown in upland areas, unlike rice that was grown almost exclusively in valleys. But along with the cultivation of these uplands came the removal of forests and serious erosion became a problem. These same issues remain a serious problem today. Mann’s treatment of the effects of rubber production is a classic modern example.

The influence of the American potato on the world’s hungry has also been immense. We know this. But the history of the potato and its influence on the agro-industrial complex will be news to many. It will probably also come as a shock to some that these examples of the Columbian Exchange are an important part (perhaps the most important part) of why China is the most populous nation in the world today. Mann’s book helps us realize just how much globalization affects our lives – much more than most of us realized.

There are a few mistakes in the book. Mann seems unaware of the diversity of American worms. And he writes that tuberculosis did not exist in America before Columbus - it did. But his discussion of these issues is of minor importance and hardly a distraction.

In contrast, one of Mann’s strengths is his thoroughness. His footnotes and endnotes (yes, he uses both, and to surprisingly good effect) are full of fascinating tidbits. We learn that Ireland may have known about the New World before Columbus and that the Chinese used scale insects to make a low-quality wax for candles. This is a book that will reward student and scholar alike.

Yet, in spite of a very worthy effort, Mann does not tell us what we really want to know: about what we should do with this predicament that globalization has left us in. I don’t think that this is a political convenience. Mann both annoys and encourages environmental as well as business interests. He is eminently fair and describes the world as he sees it. But are we better armed to face the troubling future? I don’t think so.

Certainly we are better informed, and if this is all that Mann set out to do then he was successful. But this is a shame, nonetheless. If we can’t get a prescription from an objective and credible observer like Mann, than one wonders what real solutions we’ll ever find at all.

Do we continue, as is, with our quarantines? What is the correct role of international trade? Do global values trump other, more regional, belief systems? What does a fair comparison between global and local cultures tell us? Is globalization going to change (or is it even possible) with limited and dwindling per capita resources?

It’s difficult to know. We live in challenging times – when the world in turn lies open before us and intrudes itself upon us. Wise decisions are needed even as they are hard to find. My own suggestion is a simple one: hope for the best but plan for the worst. I mean that local communities should become more sustainable. It’s important that we get over our destructive prejudices and love all of God’s children. And it’s nice to say that we either sink or swim together. But the truth is that the earth is a planet not a boat. How do we save our earth when we neglect our own neighborhoods? We can start improving the world by loving our neighbors and our own human habitats. I think if you read 1493 you’ll agree with me.


Samway’s article Translocating Faunas to Foreign Lands: Here comes the Homogenocene was published (1999) in the Journal of Insect Conservation 3(2):65-66.

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