Book review – The Vortex: An Environmental History of the Modern World

8-minute read
keywords: environmental history, environmental issues, resource extraction

I admit that I was excited when the University of Pittsburgh Press announced this beast. An 811-page environmental history that argues that our current predicament is not a one-way ticket to sudden collapse but rather death by a thousand cuts? I am game, but perhaps I am just strange that way. In The Vortex, professor of environmental humanities Frank Uekötter fully leans into the messy nature of history by imagining it as a vortex with all its twists, turns, and crosscurrents. Eschewing linear narrative in favour of forty judiciously chosen examples of historical events or developments, this is an ambitious, slightly intimidating, but ultimately edifying book. One potential problem though: The Vortex follows just one month after Bloomsbury released their environmental history blockbuster The Earth Transformed. Since this might fly under people’s radar, I decided to read them back to back. This, then, is the second of a two-part review of two brand-new behemoths that discuss the impact that humans and the environment have had on each other.

The Vortex

The Vortex: An Environmental History of the Modern World, written by Frank Uekötter, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in April 2023 (hardback, 811 pages)

Before delving in, we need to spend some time on Uekötter’s vortex metaphor. If only because he spends a 34-page introduction explaining his unconventional approach and returns to it in the conclusion and appendix. The problem he has with much scholarly literature on environmental history is that it tries to offer convenient linear narratives that look increasingly dubious in an age of global problems. Part of the reason that we cannot agree on how to tackle environmental problems is that “priorities are matters of perspectives” (p. 5). Concepts such as the Anthropocene suggest a global consensus that does not exist, while non-Western perspectives and experiences are not sufficiently taken into account. History is instead nonlinear, complex, entangled, and messy, and this is where his metaphor comes in. Our hunger for stuff has mobilised forces and material flows that have created a collective of turbulent streams. The term vortex is used to invoke a sense of dynamism, momentum, an uncoordinated process, and the very real danger of humans underestimating what they are dealing with.

What does this mean in practice? The book consists of forty chapters, each of which revolves around a carefully chosen example, spanning events and developments between 1500 and 1970. His appendix details the criteria he used and mentions some of the ideas that fell by the wayside during writing. Each chapter is further divided into three parts that typically first introduce the example, then discuss the wider context or general process they exemplify, and finally return to the example. Now, books being books, you have to put chapters in *some* sort of order and he has loosely organised them into eight thematic sections, but he encourages readers to jump between chapters and not read the book cover to cover. He even provides you with a list of 21 suggested pathways through the book that tie certain chapters together. Since this is a book about a dynamic process, it “calls for a narrative that allows readers to experience dynamism […] and readers are advised to brace themselves for a bumpy ride” (p. 18). Thus, the chapters end with unresolved dilemmas and unanswered questions. The material here “does not come together at all, and that is precisely the point […] We do not live in a world where things simply add up” (p. 7).

In case it is not yet clear, Uekötter has written an incredibly ambitious book. With so many chapters that aim to cover the full range of environmental challenges and capture the diversity of the world, I can only cherry-pick some notable observations and themes.

“History is […] nonlinear, complex, entangled, and messy, and this is where his metaphor comes in. Our hunger for stuff has mobilised [a vortex of] forces and material flows.”

First off, I have to praise just how much information he has packed into each chapter. Though most are only 10–15 pages long, he thoroughly grounds each topic, usually citing 50–70 sources, but sometimes as much as 120, with the reference list running a cool 131 pages. This allows for a great deal of nuance. Take the challenge of air pollution as exemplified by London smog. The notorious 1952 smog disaster took many lives and Parliament passed the Clean Air Act in 1956. This is often recounted as an example of people learning from disaster, but that dramatic framing ignores the hard work of engineers and anti-smoke activists during preceding decades. This matters not just for accurate historical narratives, but also to those who seek to emulate London’s success: passing a law is not enough by itself. Similarly, despite what the term Industrial Revolution suggests, the notion that this was an abrupt transition is a narrative constructed in retrospect. At the time, “the move toward nonrenewable energy was about sleepwalking into a new age” (p. 246) and played out over decades. Or take the agricultural pesticide DDT, which was also used to combat malaria and yellow fever. Ever since its ban in the 1970s, governments and agencies have been discussing whether to allow limited use in disease control. The whole affair “fittingly illustrates the moral dilemma of bans: once you have defined something as evil, it is difficult to negotiate about appropriate use” (p. 583). Ironically, though DDT is firmly associated with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, she never explicitly called for a ban on it and one biographer has even suggested that she would be in favour of using it to combat disease.

I noticed two recurrent themes worth highlighting. First, in various chapters, Uekötter concludes that we are stuck with certain solutions for want of a better alternative. Thus, nothing has been able to dislodge the vertically integrated corporation that controls commodity chains from source to sale, the exemplar here being United Fruit and its sale of bananas. We are similarly stuck with the model of industrial slaughterhouses that originated in 19th-century Chicago and pioneered the (dis)assembly line decades before Henry Ford did. And Western ideas of land ownership in the form of land titles have been the bane of indigenous people the world over when confronted with European colonisers. (As an aside, he thinks that land reform “has been a dead issue in Britain” (p. 113) ever since Lloyd George’s 1926 Land Programme failed to excite voters, but I would argue e.g. Guy Shrubsole’s recent book Who Owns England? tries to breathe fresh air into the matter.) The above are examples of a trend he calls The Great Narrowing in his conclusion. The vortex has resulted in “an institutional, cultural, and material legacy that imposes limits on our range of responses” (p. 628). For example, despite exhortations, it is really hard to “just stop oil” because fossil fuels are about much more than electricity generation; they also underlie transportation, agriculture, and the fabrication of materials such as plastic, steel, and cement.

“Uekötter concludes that we are stuck with certain solutions for want of a better alternative […] The vortex has resulted in [a] legacy that imposes limits on our range of responses.”

A second theme is what he calls The Great Regulation: the ways in which try to steer and control the vortex. This involves environmental laws and policies that are often compromises and, notably, techno-fixes. We turn to technology and science to provide solutions but questioning the underlying system is beyond the pale. Thus we wrestle with insect pests such as boll weevil attacking cotton, but monocultures persist. We worry about air pollution and oil spills, but our addiction to fossil fuels is not up for debate. We try to improve traffic safety and reduce road deaths but remain firmly wedded to automobility. And so forth.

The thousand-dollar question is whether Uekötter’s ambitious and unconventional approach works. I think the vortex metaphor sticks: as an overview of the many different ways in which resource exploitation hurts our environment, I found the book dizzying in its breadth, though less discombobulating than he fears. There are many fascinating chapters here that touch on topics I had never heard of (the chemurgy movement that promoted using farm products as raw material for industry, pioneering e.g. biofuels) or was only vaguely familiar with (the wonderful history of guano). Some chapters are outright surprising. What do travel guides have to do with environmental history? Leave it to Uekötter to weave a tale of the rise of tourism and its impact. And what is the connection between sea turtles and battery chickens? For that, you need to be familiar with the career of Antony Fisher, the grandfather of factory farming. There are many more lessons to be drawn, and the conclusion helpfully discusses another three great trends to emerge from this work.

So how does this compare to Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed? In short, they are totally different beasts: The Earth Transformed is a global chronological narrative that takes in a vast sweep of time while The Vortex focuses exclusively on the last 500 years in a non-linear fashion. One advantage of Uekötter dividing the book into so many topics is that he, perhaps surprisingly, avoids the “history is one damn thing after another” problem. The Vortex is not for the faint of heart, though, and upon publication had a hefty price tag of £72.50 / US$80. If you are new to the genre, Frankopan’s book might just be the ticket. But for seasoned readers and subject libraries, The Vortex offers a worthwhile, novel, and intellectually rewarding contribution. The publisher has done well to retain Uekötter after he previously edited The Turning Points of Environmental History; this book has all the hallmarks of a magnum opus.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Vortex

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:





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