The field of environmental history is littered with interesting studies that simply aren’t approachable for most beginners. Allosso corrects this problem in the first part of his thoughtful and approachable textbook. Beginning with the Ice Age, he walks the reader through the important role that agriculture and the environment played in the development and evolution of the earliest North American societies. Turning next to European expansion, Allosso illustrates how human beings both act and are acted upon by a variety of factors in the environment. Worth note is his vivid description of the important role that biological factors played in the development and evolution of the American colonies. Indeed, he carefully traces how the spread of disease was the critical factor allowing Europeans to establish the American colonies and consolidate their control over abundant resources that drove the famous triangle trade.
Perhaps just as important, this textbook illustrates the central role that the environment played as catalyst to historical events, like the American Revolution. For Allosso, the creation and evolution of the United States of America in inextricably linked to the acquisition of resources and development of land. He reminds us, for example, that one of the driving factors which doomed the Articles of Confederation was a struggle between various states for control of western lands. Ultimately, the author makes a convincing case that when we focus on the most important events, themes, and factors that shaped American history between 1776 and the coming of the Civil War in 1860, we can not understand them without recognizing the complicated relationship between human beings and the environment. The Northwest Ordinance, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Transportation and Commercial Revolutions, sectionalism, the Trail of Tears, and even the whole notion of American exceptionalism simply cannot be understood without recognizing that the environment has shaped politics, economics, and public policy since European settlement. Because of its clear prose, attention to detail, and accessibility to a broad audience of readers, Allosso’s textbook is the standard by which future American environmental history textbooks should be judged.
Chris Fobare, Professor, Utica College Department of History