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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Vortex An Environmental History of the Modern World

By: Frank Uekötter(Author)
811 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
An ambitious and edifying environmental history book that tells how we got to today's planetary predicament using forty detailed and nuanced snapshots.
The Vortex
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  • The Vortex ISBN: 9780822947561 Hardback Jan 2024 In stock
Price: £72.50
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Environmental challenges are defining the twenty-first century. To fully understand ongoing debates about our current crises – climate change, loss of biological diversity, pollution, extinction, resource woes – means revisiting their origins, in all their complexity. With this ambitious, highly original contribution to the environmental history of global modernity, Frank Uekötter considers the many ways humans have had an impact on their physical environment throughout history. Ours is not a one-way trajectory to sudden collapse, he argues, but rather death by a thousand cuts. The many paths we've forged to arrive in our current predicament, from agriculture to industry to infrastructure, must be considered collectively if we are to stay afloat in what Uekötter describes as a vortex: a powerful metaphor for the flow of history, capturing the momentum and the many crosscurrents that swept people and environments along. His book invites us to look at environmental challenges from multiple perspectives, including all the twists and turns that have helped to create the mess we find ourselves in. Uekötter has written a world history for an age where things are falling apart: where we know what lies ahead and are equipped with the right tools – technological and otherwise – and plenty of experience to deal with environmental challenges, but somehow fail to get our affairs in order.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Ambitious and edifying
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 21 Apr 2023 Written for Hardback

    In The Vortex, professor of environmental humanities Frank Uekötter fully leans into the messy nature of history by imagining it as a vortex with all its twists, turns, and crosscurrents. He eschews linear narrative in favour of forty judiciously chosen examples of historical events or developments. An 811-page environmental history that argues that our current predicament is not a one-way ticket to sudden collapse but rather death by a thousand cuts, this is an ambitious, slightly intimidating, but ultimately edifying book.

    Before delving in, we need to spend some time on Uekötter's vortex metaphor. If only because he spends a 34-page introduction explaining his unconventional approach and returns to it in the conclusion and appendix. The problem he has with much scholarly literature on environmental history is that it tries to offer convenient linear narratives that look increasingly dubious in an age of global problems. Part of the reason that we cannot agree on how to tackle environmental problems is that "priorities are matters of perspectives" (p. 5). Concepts such as the Anthropocene suggest a global consensus that does not exist, while non-Western perspectives and experiences are not sufficiently taken into account. History is instead nonlinear, complex, entangled, and messy, and this is where his metaphor comes in. Our hunger for stuff has mobilised forces and material flows that have created a collective of turbulent streams. The term vortex is used to invoke a sense of dynamism, momentum, an uncoordinated process, and the very real danger of humans underestimating what they are dealing with.

    What does this mean in practice? The book consists of forty chapters, each of which revolves around a carefully chosen example, spanning events and developments between 1500 and 1970. His appendix details the criteria he used and mentions some of the ideas that fell by the wayside during writing. Each chapter is further divided into three parts that typically first introduce the example, then discuss the wider context or general process they exemplify, and finally return to the example. Now, books being books, you have to put chapters in *some* sort of order and he has loosely organised them into eight thematic sections, but he encourages readers to jump between chapters and not read the book cover to cover. He even provides you with a list of 21 suggested pathways through the book that tie certain chapters together. Since this is a book about a dynamic process, it "calls for a narrative that allows readers to experience dynamism [...] and readers are advised to brace themselves for a bumpy ride" (p. 18). Thus, the chapters end with unresolved dilemmas and unanswered questions. The material here "does not come together at all, and that is precisely the point [...] We do not live in a world where things simply add up" (p. 7).

    In case it is not yet clear, Uekötter has written an incredibly ambitious book. With so many chapters that aim to cover the full range of environmental challenges and capture the diversity of the world, I can only cherry-pick some notable observations and themes.

    First off, I have to praise just how much information he has packed into each chapter. Though most are only 10–15 pages long, he thoroughly grounds each topic, usually citing 50–70 sources, but sometimes as much as 120, with the reference list running a cool 131 pages. This allows for a great deal of nuance. Take the challenge of air pollution as exemplified by London smog. The notorious 1952 smog disaster took many lives and Parliament passed the Clean Air Act in 1956. This is often recounted as an example of people learning from disaster, but that dramatic framing ignores the hard work of engineers and anti-smoke activists during preceding decades. This matters not just for accurate historical narratives, but also to those who seek to emulate London's success: passing a law is not enough by itself. Or take the agricultural pesticide DDT, which was also used to combat malaria and yellow fever. Ever since its ban in the 1970s, governments and agencies have been discussing whether to allow limited use in disease control. The whole affair "fittingly illustrates the moral dilemma of bans: once you have defined something as evil, it is difficult to negotiate about appropriate use" (p. 583). Ironically, though DDT is firmly associated with Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, she never explicitly called for a ban on it and one biographer has even suggested that she would be in favour of using it to combat disease.

    I noticed two recurrent themes worth highlighting. First, in various chapters, Uekötter concludes that we are stuck with certain solutions for want of a better alternative, such as corporations, slaughterhouses, and Western ideas of land ownership in the form of land titles. These are examples of a trend he calls The Great Narrowing in his conclusion. The vortex has resulted in "an institutional, cultural, and material legacy that imposes limits on our range of responses" (p. 628). A second theme is what he calls The Great Regulation: the ways in which try to steer and control the vortex. This involves environmental laws and policies that are often compromises and, notably, techno-fixes. We turn to technology and science to provide solutions to e.g. insect pests, air pollution, oil spills, and traffic safety, but questioning the underlying systems is beyond the pale.

    Does Uekötter's ambitious and unconventional approach work? I think the vortex metaphor sticks: as an overview of the many different ways in which resource exploitation hurts our environment, I found the book dizzying in its breadth, though less discombobulating than he fears. There are many fascinating chapters here that touch on topics I had never heard of (the chemurgy movement) or was only vaguely familiar with (guano). Some chapters are outright surprising. What do travel guides have to do with environmental history? Leave it to Uekötter to weave a tale of the rise of tourism and its impact. And what is the connection between sea turtles and battery chickens? For that, you need to be familiar with the career of Antony Fisher, the grandfather of factory farming. There are many more lessons to be drawn, and the conclusion helpfully discusses another three great trends to emerge from this work.

    One advantage of Uekötter dividing the book into so many topics is that he, perhaps surprisingly, avoids the "history is one damn thing after another" problem. The Vortex is not for the faint of heart, though, and upon publication had a hefty price tag. For seasoned readers and subject libraries, this book offers a worthwhile, novel, and intellectually rewarding contribution and has all the hallmarks of a magnum opus.
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Frank Uekötter is a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of more than a dozen books on a broad range of environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues. Since October 2021, he is the principal investigator of the global history project “The Making of Monoculture” with generous support from a European Research Council Advanced Grant.

By: Frank Uekötter(Author)
811 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
An ambitious and edifying environmental history book that tells how we got to today's planetary predicament using forty detailed and nuanced snapshots.
Media reviews

"This monograph is an example of how historians might approach global environmental history. The prose, intellectual concepts, and presentation are all brilliant."

"[The Vortex] is a thoroughly researched synthesis that at its best reassesses the field of global environmental history."
H-Net Reviews

"The Vortex is a sprawling mural worthy of Diego Rivera, depicting some forty stories in modern environmental history. Frank Uekötter is provocative at every turn, alive to ambiguities, moral and otherwise, and resistant to the temptation to impose consistency on the divergent, erratic, and unruly paths of different histories. Rejecting grand narratives, he offers a smorgasbord of stories from the centuries between 1500 and 1970 and from every inhabited continent, ranging freely from the cane fields of the Caribbean to the cane toads of Australia. A rich addition to the slender literature on global environmental history."
– J. R. McNeill, Georgetown University

"The Vortex is an extraordinary book. In the ebullient and high-quality editorial field of environmental history, it stands out as unique: there is nothing in the recent literature that approaches its level. This major work procures for the public an intense intellectual experience about the most compelling and difficult issues of our modern predicament. It is not only exhilarating to read; it is, more importantly, deeply rewarding for the mind. The reader comes out enlightened, more educated about profound issues that concern us all and our future."
– Marc Elie, National Center for Scientific Research, France

"The Vortex is a remarkable work of scholarship and an ambitious experiment in writing a new type of history that seeks to transcend the often overconfident claims made by conventional historical narratives. Frank Uekötter provides a stunning array of historical case examples from around the globe, encompassing everything from Peruvian silver mining to breadfruit cultivation to the Nazi autobahn. The depth, breadth, and range is nearly encyclopedic in scope, which perhaps should be the case for all global history, yet in practice is only rarely achieved. The sheer volume of research, information, and analysis is breathtaking."
– Timothy J. LeCain, Montana State University

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