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How We Burned Through a Whole Hemisphere in Just 500 Years

Photograph Source: Petr Štefek – CC BY 2.0

Donald Worster, a pioneer of the field of environmental history, held the Hall Distinguished Professorship Chair in American History at the University of Kansas from 1989 to 2012. He is currently a Professor of World History at Renmin University of China. His books have examined the politics and economics of water in the American West, the life of John Muir, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and a range of other subjects.

In Worster’s most recent book, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (Oxford University Press, he shows how the great windfall of land, resources, and ecological bounty that greeted Europeans when they arrived in the New World five centuries ago dramatically altered the history not only of the Americas but of the entire Earth. He argues convincingly that to the Europeans, the Western Hemisphere was, in practical terms, a “Second Earth.” (Of course, the hemisphere’s inhabitants at the time of Columbus regarded it as their Only Earth, and they would lose it.)

Worster argues that U.S.-style capitalism and industrialism were made possible by the Second Earth’s natural abundance and that over the past two centuries, they have deeply depleted the hemisphere’s landscapes and ecosystems. America, Worster writes, is going to have to shift from a culture of abundance to a culture of limits. He covers much other ground as well in the book, in rich detail. I recently asked him about some of that in a May 18 conversation via Internet; he was in Beijing at the time, and I was in Kansas.


Stan Cox: You begin the story 500 years ago as Europe begins exploiting the abundance provided by the Second Earth. You cite the scholar William Prescott Webb, who argued, in your words, that Europe “was jolted out of deep historic ruts of poverty and inequality by the unexpected discovery of faraway resources” from the Americas. That’s at odds with the well-worn story of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, isn’t it?

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