Todd on Simmons, 'Global Environmental History 10.000 BC to AD 2000'

Ian G. Simmons
Edmund N. Todd

Ian G. Simmons. Global Environmental History 10.000 BC to AD 2000. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. 271 S. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-75810-7.

Reviewed by Edmund N. Todd (Department of History, University of New Haven) Published on H-German (July, 2009) Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

A Geographer's Environmental History

With this volume, I. G. Simmons completes a trilogy investigating environmental changes at three different scales of analysis. The first volume dealt with moorlands in England and Wales, and the second with Great Britain.[1] In dealing with the globe in this, the third volume, Simmons demonstrates that spatial concerns provide a standpoint for considering relations among culture and nature in four different energy regimes over the last ten thousand years. The first two divisions, "gatherer-hunters" and "pre-industrial agriculture," cover the period to 1750. The third period deals with "an industrious world" to 1950, and the fourth discusses developments between 1950 and 2000. He draws on a wide variety of materials, including scientific, historical, and archeological studies, as well as novels and poems. He notes that Web sites provide more current data than he could present in a book. He stresses natural sciences, but notes that "they sit in the type of social framework analysed by the social sciences and the humanities" (p. x). Avowedly not promoting a particular methodology, other than using a wide variety of studies, Simmons does "not think that there is a 'right' way to write environmental histories" (p. x).

Simmons uses literary devices to tie together a wide variety of approaches to the study of humans and environments. He begins and ends with reference to a small organ in the Jakobskirche in Lübeck, whose parts, involving both physical characteristics and human preferences, can be played together in a variety of ways. He asserts that his "abstract themes" concerning interactions between society and nature "crystallize around notions of fragmentation and individualization in society on the one hand, and coalescence and uniformity on the other; they are then examined for their impact on the human environment" (p. xiii). Can abstract themes crystallize around notions and then have impacts? In his first chapter, Simmons identifies a set of "resonances" meant to hold disparate materials together. He assumes that a "material world" exists, but "is too complex and too dynamic for humans to know everything about" (p. 2). We may "frame it culturally, [but it] may present its own limits in its own way" (p. 2). And culture concerns what people think "ought" to be done. He notes that human populations have steadily increased, more so with changes in energy inputs into agriculture and industry.

Simmons notes that energy usage divides periods. In each period, human energy sources and consumption changed significantly, providing a point of no return. Hunter-gatherers needed a big area to search for sustenance produced yearly by energy delivered by the sun. They represented nature in cave paintings and developed tools to aid themselves. In addition, they made a significant environmental impact by setting fires that helped to burn away what they did not want and allow what they did want to grow more plentifully. Bending plants and animals to their own needs produced agriculture and its own set of cultural and environmental impacts. Until the 1700s, however, agriculture continued to rely on energy directly related to the sun and stored in organic systems. After 1750, humans developed new ways of thinking about nature, as well as new kinds of energy systems based on coal and the production of steam. New energy systems allowed a dramatic increase in human populations and human impacts on the environment. Those increases changed so dramatically after 1950 that new relationships developed. Potatoes, meat, and food in general became quite energy-intensive. For instance, "zero-acreage" meat production houses pigs, chickens, and cattle so that they move little, but require energy in the form of "feed concentrates, water supplies, animal transport and veterinary pharmaceuticals" (p. 179). Thus, they are now part petroleum. Of course, in any comparison of energy usage Americans come off as most profligate. In the 1990s, Americans owned 489 autos per 1,000 people and consumed yearly on average 122 kilograms of meat and 65,902 kilograms of oil.

Interested in coalescence and fragmentation for each of the periods investigated, Simmons notes that the post-1950 period has become truly global due to improvements in transportation and communication, as well as the quest by the remaining super power to maintain power, all of which acts to coalesce humans in a return to the limits of nature. Global warming provides an example. At the same time, Simmons finds examples of separation and fragmentation. For instance, miniaturization individualizes so that everyone can listen to his own music when and where he wants, which undermines community.

Science involves learned behavior that is passed on; hence, it fits into the cultural realm, in turn relating humans to nature. It provides a mechanism for establishing how things might work in the future. However, ideas about nature, including science, do not provide an independent standpoint that would tell anyone what they should do. Accomplishing that requires emotional bonds necessary to bind people to courses of action, and, as Simmons notes, "the love of money is emotional, too" (p. 249). Culture binds people together in courses of action that have environmental impacts, which have increased as energy demands expanded. Thus, producing beef and potatoes after 1950 involved large amounts of energy, from petroleum in order to fuel machines to produce fertilizer and pesticides. People and nature can be put together in various ways, so neither Simmons nor any one else can predict the future. The book does not end on a cheery note.

Because Simmons ties together many fields, the book is difficult to evaluate and sometimes difficult to read. However, he cites the relevant literature in my field (science and technology studies) and appears to understand it. To identify distinct cultural patterns and significant environmental impacts that humans developed in each period, Simmons creates complex paragraphs and sets of paragraphs that more often than not work, but require careful reading. For example, in writing about water usage, Simmons notes the human need to drink two liters a day, with city dwellers with a good water supply using between two hundred and four hundred liters a day. He then notes that producing a thousand liters of motor fuel requires between seven thousand and thirty-four thousand liters of water and adds figures for producing steel, worsted cloth, and paperboard. He notes that reuse of that water came about mainly after 1950, when conservation ideals came to the fore. He moves on to hydropower, dams, and irrigation, before noting that a measure of use would be the amount of water that does not flow back into the hydrological cycle downstream. That amount increased from a world total of 226 cubic kilometers in 1800 to 1,080 in 1950, with the area irrigated doubling every thirty years in the 1800s and 1900s. And all that fits into one paragraph. At one point, he approvingly notes one author's "breadth of understanding and felicitous writing" (p. 165). That seems to be his goal, and it is one that he often approaches. As a result, this is a good book for those interested in environmental history.


[1]. I. G. Simmons, The Moorlands of England and Wales: An Environmental History 8000 BC to AD 2000 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), and An Environmental History of Great Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003).

Printable Version:

Citation: Edmund N. Todd. Review of Simmons, Ian G., Global Environmental History 10.000 BC to AD 2000. H-German, H-Net Reviews. July, 2009. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.