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.
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.
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.
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.
Frank Uekötter is 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 principal investigator of the global history project “The Making of Monoculture” with generous support from a European Research Council Advanced Grant.