author: Charles C. Mann
average rating: 4.02
book published: 2011
read at: 2013/02/11
date added: 2013/02/12
shelves: non-fiction, history, biography, ebook, economics, environmentalism, sociology, wishlist, read-again
So many fascinating aspects of this book. I think I’ll want to read it again at some point to absorb more of it, since I basically inhaled most of it over the course of two or three days. In short: all about what he refers to as “the Columbian Exchange” and how to led to the “Homogecene,” ie, the modern age when ecosystems blend together and cross over. He ranges back and forth all over the globe, and from the dawn of the exchange (Colon himself!) up through the years to the present. (Most of it seemed to be in the “colonial” period, 16th-18th century.) Different sorts of malaria and malaria-bearing mosquitos; potatoes and sweet potatoes. Chinese migrants to colonial Mexico making replicas of Chinese pottery to sell in Europe. (Kicker to that story: now the Chinese are making copies of that style. Imitations all the way down.) Enormous colonies of Indians and escaped slaves, a few even recognized as mini-states. And traditions of slavery among Indians and Africans, and how those got tangled up in extractive industry.
The most curious bit of history, for me, was the Little Ice Age — which I already knew of, but had assumed it was related to volcanos or sunspots or something. Turns out that while those things were factors, another major factor was reforestation. All throughout the Americas, land had been cleared by fire set by humans — in Central America, for at least two thousand years. But with the beginning of the Columbian Exchange came smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever, and that killed off plenty of people who never saw a European or African. So the fires stopped, and it was like the opposite of the climate change we’re facing now. Then the cold itself (along with flooding and drought) caused social upheaval in Europe and China, which led to more human craziness, etc., etc.
Fascinating stuff, and I feel like I’ve just got the surface of it. Very highly recommended.
[Final bit of trivia: at the end he goes looking for the place where the Spanish first landed in the Philippines. Turns out it’s a village with the same name as one of my very good friends in high school.]