Review: Nature and Power

REVIEW: Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment. Cambridge University Press, 2008. 407 pp., ISBN 9780521616737.


If, as Donald Worster has suggested, ‘environmental history begins in the belly’, Joachim Radkau is among the discipline’s chefs-du-jour.2 Unlike North American food journalist Michael Pollan, Radkau displays no symptoms of ‘the omnivore’s dilemma’. In Nature and Power, the much-anticipated translation of his Natur und Macht: Eine Weltgeschichte der Umwelt (2002), the University of Bielefeld History Professor invites his readers to feast upon a wildly eclectic array of examples and displays his enticing preparations with bold strokes.

The amuse-bouche arrives in the form of such memorable phrases as, ‘The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century’ (6) and ‘the goat was one of the winners of the French Revolution of 1789, at least during the Jacobin phase’ (23-24). These startling formulations are paired with more tame, but equally perceptive, reflections, such as Radkau’s observation: ‘No dike builder or tamer of waters stands at the center of Indian mythology; instead, the god Indra is celebrated as the liberator of the streams’ (171).

Radkau’s ‘appetizers’ include sophisticated meditations on ‘the inner kinship between history and ecology’, which, as he argues, ‘lies in the fact that both disciplines train their practitioners to look beyond today at complex processes that are not discernible in a snapshot’ (27). The author pairs these cogent musings with raucous, but appropriate, juxtapositions. This is a book in which Karl Polanyi, Hesiod, John Wesley Powell, and ‘a Finnish expert’ on Neolithic axes comfortably coexist in fewer than two pages (41-42).

Radkau’s ‘main course’ displays his historical breadth and geographic range. Beginning by delving into the history of prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies and early agricultural peoples, Radkau next moves to a treatment of classical, hydraulically ordered societies, such as those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. He then turns his attention to ‘Colonialism as a Watershed in Environmental History’, and finally works his way towards treatments of the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing, expansive phase of globalization. Radkau’s theoretical schema leans heavily upon Max Weber’s fin-de-siècle treatise, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Just as Weber provocatively theorized that a combination of ‘strict religiosity’ and emerging capitalist impulses had amalgamated to secularize Euro-American society, Radkau argues that a spiritual selflessness might be merged with economically selfish impulses to yield a breakthrough in ecological consciousness. It is through ‘the synergy of these heterogeneous motivations’ that Radkau believes we might achieve ‘a new kind of environmental politics’, which could viably address contemporary ecological crises (329-330).

Despite his globetrotting tendencies, Radkau seems most at home in the German forest. It is in this ecological niche that he pursues his central claim for ‘writing environmental history from the criterion of sustainability’ (xvi). Drawing on his earlier investigations of the eighteenth-century wood crisis in central Europe, Radkau devotes significant portions of his text to German forestry as both a model and a cautionary tale for developing successful modes of resource management.3

Radkau is nearly as comfortable in the realm of historiography. Extended discussions of Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism, detailed engagement with the work of longue durée scholars like Jared Diamond and Fernand Braudel, and meticulous reviews of the theories of Justus von Liebig and Karl Wittfogel will be of immense help to students seeking an overview of key thinkers relevant to global environmental history. In addition, seventy-seven pages of discursive endnotes serve as their own, wide-ranging bibliographic essay on the state of the field, especially its German variant.

Despite these extensive and intensive features, Nature and Power falls short of its grand ambitions on several counts. If – to borrow an apt phrase from Raymond Williams – a ‘keyword’ is missing here, it is surely justice. One of the book’s fundamental contradictions stems from the fact that Radkau so deftly cautions his readers against simple-minded dichotomies (307), yet he uncritically replicates some of the most paralyzing binaries at the heart of neoclassical economics. As the book’s chapters unfold, we find that Radkau has led us into a political cul-de-sac where the only option is an awkward balancing act between the regulatory impulses of the bureaucratic state and the deregulatory tendencies of the unfettered market. This reader wonders where in Radkau’s Manichean worldview one would situate an avowedly anti-statist and anti-corporate eco-social movement, such as the one that emerged during the Bolivian ‘Water War’ of 2000. In this widely publicized environmental insurrection, residents of the city of Cochabamba successfully reclaimed control of their municipal water supply from the grasp of an entrenched ruling elite and the ambit of transnational capital by employing democratic strategies and innovative, non-hierarchical tactics.4 Radkau’s field of vision allows no contemplation of such grassroots approaches to social and environmental justice.

A related critique of the book’s blind spots also seems in order. In Radkau’s 407 pages, women are in short supply. With the exception of a few paragraphs on Rachel Carson and a nod to the tree-hugging Chipko Movement of northern India, readers find only fleeting glimpses of the female half of humanity. We are left to wonder how women such as Lois Gibbs, who led the precedent-setting battle to expose Hooker Chemical’s toxic plume at Love Canal, New York during the 1970s; Wangari Maathai, the organizer of Kenya’s pioneering Greenbelt Movement; Dai Qing, the tireless campaigner against China’s Three Gorges Dam; or the thousands of anonymous women who coordinated the sanitation campaigns of the nineteenth century might fit into Radkau’s ‘global history of the environment’. This criticism is less a suggestion that Radkau should have crammed ‘everything under the sun’ into his analysis; it is more a reminder of how fifty percent of the world’s population can go largely unnoticed, even in such a breathtakingly synoptic work.

Just as some of the book’s approaches are outmoded, its vocabulary also tilts towards anachronism. Calling Jared Diamond and Alfred Crosby ‘ethnologists’ (185) conjures up images that these scholars would certainly find morally repugnant; using the sixteenth-century Spanish term ‘Indios’ as a catchall phrase for the varied indigenous peoples of the Americas is equally unnerving. Additionally, Nature and Power cries out for maps, tables, photographs, or any other visual intervention that would break up the monotony of its reams of ten-point font.

On the other hand, Radkau’s world offers up a surfeit of delicious ‘food for thought’. The author excels when eschewing facile analyses in favour of more nuanced understandings of the past. In keeping with his cautionary tone, Radkau opens Chapter Five with the following conviction:

It would appear that humanity entered into a new era in the eighteenth century in the history not only of ideas but also of the environment…. One definition of what was new at that time has already established itself in environmental history: the shift from a solar to a fossil energy system as the essence of this transformation…. What stands at the beginning of industrialization is not the new energy source; the environmental historian should not reinforce the picture of energy history that led people to place false hope in nuclear energy in the 1950s. Even in England, and more so still in continental Europe, the early phases of industrialization were based largely on wood and on water, on animal and human power – indeed, they were often accompanied by efforts to harness these regenerative resources completely. (195)

By the ‘dessert course’ of the book’s twenty-seven-page Epilogue, the most striking realization for this reader was the author’s authentic concern for the continued development of a field that, in Radkau’s view, offers so much promise as a mode of comprehending past changes and so much possibility as an agent of future political and environmental transformation. Despite its shortcomings, Nature and Power is a meal that few environmental historians can afford to miss.

[1]Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Amherst College.

[2]Donald Worster, as quoted in Nicolaas Mink, “Forum: It Begins in the Belly,” Environmental History 14, no. 2 (2009): 312.

[3]Joachim Radkau, “Wood and Forestry in German History: In Quest of and Environmental Approach,” Environment and History 2, no. 1 (1996): 63-76.

[4]See, for example, Oscar Olivera, in collaboration with Tom Lewis, ¡Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004).