All posts tagged ecology

Book review: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.

This book is about the globalization triggered by Columbus. The book’s jacket describes this set of changes as “the most momentous biological event since the death of the dinosaurs”. But that was probably written by a poorly informed marketing person. The contents of the book promote a more plausible claim that the effects were bigger than most realize.

Some of the ideas that this book reports are surprising, potentially important, but also somewhat speculative. E.g. large-scale reforestation resulting from smallpox killing existing inhabitants apparently contributed to the little ice age by sequestering carbon.

Much of the book is devoted to the spread of non-human species, but there are long sections on slavery, including speculation about how cheap land might have made slavery more important, and how the differences between Algonkian and Mississippian Indian cultures may have affected attitudes toward slavery in northern and southern U.S.

The first quarter of the book seemed well written, but the remainder of the book wanders through anecdotes of unclear importance. If I’m trying to focus on long-term effects of the globalization that Columbus triggered, why should I care about the details of numerous battles?

The book might come closer to living up to the jacket’s hype if it argued that Columbus caused the industrial revolution. But Mann seems confused about what the industrial revolution was – he treats rubber as a necessary component of the industrial revolution, but that happened well after experts say the industrial revolution started.

It wouldn’t be hard to use the ideas in this book to generate speculation that Columbus caused the industrial revolution, e.g. the potato’s ability to feed several times as many people as wheat, as well as cheaper security due the difficulty of stealing potatoes which are left in the ground until needed, made more people available to invent technology, and might have generated wealth and predictability that enabled inventors to focus on more distant rewards. But my guess is that this is only a small part of what caused the industrial revolution.