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Professor Greg Cushman's book reviewed in the journal Science

Monday, July 1, 2013

Environmental History

Worlds Built on Avian Excrement

Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World A Global Ecological History by Gregory T. Cushman Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013. 414 pp. $99. ISBN 9781107004139.
The reviewer is at the Department of History, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32305–2200, USA. E-mail: fdavis@fsu.ed

Suppose you decided to write a global environmental history of the Pacific world. Suppose further that after you peeled away the layers of large-scale climate fluctuations, continent-island dynamics, and the displacement of indigenous cultures for imperial enterprise and colonization, you discovered the heart of the matter, in all its slimy, slippery, smelly glory: bird shit. For the faint of heart: guano. In Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, Gregory Cushman pursues this thought experiment with utterly magnificent results.

To be fair, Cushman (a historian at the University of Kansas) acknowledges from the outset that excrement, avian or not, hardly serves as a topic for polite conversation. Disclaimers out of the way, he plunges into his topic arguing for the fundamental role of nitrogenous waste in the development of agricultural systems. Appropriately, the originary story comes from indigenous sources in which a trickster escapes retribution with a disingenuous yet elemental excuse.

Guano covers grand expanses of time and space. The second chapter, for example, opens with Alexander von Humboldt's encounter with guano in Peru. Cushman then argues that after laboratories in Napoleonic Europe established Peruvian guano and nitrates as the two richest sources of nitrogen ever discovered, they fueled the Northern Hemisphere's ambitious demands for plantation crops, meat, sulfuric acid, high explosives, and imperial power. He concludes the chapter with the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), which was triggered by a devastating El Niño event and led to the withdrawal of Peru from the “guano age.” Notwithstanding his focus on major events and ideas, a charming element of family history surfaces here and elsewhere: Cushmans (some related, others not) dot the story like far-flung Pacific islands.

To explain how colonial regions in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and the United States consolidated and sustained their prosperity after exploiting the resources of initial colonization, Cushman offers “neo-ecological imperialism,” thereby refining a concept developed by Alfred Crosby (1). Indigenous peoples on Easter Island, Banaba, Niue, and other Pacific islands participated in the exploitative ecological regime for various reasons, thus securing survival despite suffering the onslaught of microbes in the form of dysentery and other diseases as well as parasitic forms of colonial trade and government.

The 20th century ushered in the era of technocracy in the guano islands as Peru sought to capitalize on their benefits. Collaborating with agro-exporters and capitalists, foreign and local scientists and engineers helped buffer the islands from the exploitation of global capitalism and World War I. During the interwar period, a single company consolidated these efforts and laid the foundation for the scientific conservation of guano-producing birds. Although Peruvian technocrats continued to manage the “most valuable birds in the world,” populations remained vulnerable to the extreme regional climatic shifts in the region, which gave rise to boom and bust years (of birds and guano). For this and other reasons, Cushman argues, Peru could not hope to feed its burgeoning population, at least not solely on the basis of agricultural nutrients from guano.

The book reveals ornithologist William Vogt to be a strong candidate for the most underrated figure in the modern environmental movement. Vogt's Peruvian-funded research on the guano islands and subsequent conservation surveys in Latin America led him to present a Malthusian case in The Road to Survival (2), some 14 years before Rachel Carson's renowned critique of pesticides. He follows the recommendations of Aldo Leopold (a longtime friend) with respect to species management. Moreover, Vogt believed that guano could help address the challenge of feeding a growing world population.

Insofar as ecology, in Cushman's view, has the power to shape culture, geopolitical events such as World War II transformed nature and culture in the Pacific world. During and after the war, Pacific islanders found themselves uprooted without respect to their livelihoods. On the roster of deracinated islanders, Cushman includes Yali, whose query regarding global inequalities motivated Jared Diamond (3). Cushman, contra Diamond, argues that given the opportunity Yali could have offered personal insights into the social inequities that prompted his question.

Guano played a substantial role in the Green Revolution in Mexico, which saw dramatically improved crop yields through the introduction of novel technologies in the form of new wheat cultivars, pesticides, and, especially, fertilizers. Not surprisingly, Cushman suggests that Peru's Blue Revolution, the parallel expansion of marine resources through new inputs, also rested on a foundation of guano. Yet, technocrats made surprising choices in abandoning the guano birds to eliminate competition for Peru's chemical industry. Rather than revealing the need for intervention at the level of the state, as Garret Hardin argued in “The tragedy of the commons” (4), this displayed governmental technocratic overconfidence in their ability to overcome dramatic swings in the ocean's productivity.

Given the book's remarkable breadth and depth, it is tragic that the exigencies of academic publishing have set the price beyond the reach of the casual reader. One can only hope that paperback and e-book editions are forthcoming. That said, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World is a tour de force that deserves a wide audience. Cushman covers an expansive range of topics that flow from its humble source and offers persuasive arguments that challenge many aspects of received wisdom regarding natural versus cultural, indigenous versus colonial, island versus mainland, and local versus global.

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