Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand


  • Robert A. Lambert

T.R. Dunlap (1999). Pp. xv + 330. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0-521-65700-8. Price £12.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-521-65173-5. £35 (hardback).

Thomas Dunlap, Professor of History at Virginia Tech (1988–91) and since 1991 at Texas A & M University, has a strong pedigree in global environmental history. Two previous books, Dunlap (1981) DDT: Scientists, Citizens and Public Policy and Dunlap (1988) Saving America's Wildlife, were well received and this latest book is a welcome addition to the popular CUP series ‘Studies in Environment and History’.

At its most basic reading, this volume offers a tour of the history of ideas about nature as part of culture in the British settler colonies of USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is a broad investigation of the different ways in which the Anglo settlers of these lands came to understand and shape the new environments they found.

The meat of the book necessarily dwells on the changes the settlers brought to the newly colonized lands, but importantly points to a deeper hidden story—the way in which the new lands shaped the settler mindset. Dunlap divides the narrative into four broad sections, which he then subdivides into smaller comparative sections (repeated each time). The opening section tells how, in the era of conquest, the settlers battled to make the land familiar by using natural history as a weapon alongside a local folk biology, as they sought to define, label and neatly parcel all that they encountered. The conquest of Nature was to the fore, and they hurriedly turned ancient ecosystems into fields and pastures. Vertebrate introductions and the rise of fashionable recreational sport hunting had far reaching biological and social consequences. As Dunlap concludes, “There is little from this period that speaks of adaption, for that meant failure to impose our will on nature” (p. 69). Readers will surely enjoy the author's imagined geographical tour of now-vanished landscapes (pp. 9–12), as a fine piece of prose that reveals how we construct Nature in the modern era from our inherited generational and national understandings of our own past environments. Indeed, this generational aspect of change over time is an important part of Dunlap's view of changing attitudes to Nature, as is the tension he describes in the twentieth century, “between understanding and appreciation, the science of nature and the love of it” (p. 163). As the first settlers tried to make the new lands like home, so later descendants of those settlers sought to create a new identity and bond with their country by rejecting the landscapes and nature of home. This became the search for a ‘National Nature’ post 1880; an appreciation for all that was native.

This book is also about the changing role and value of science, especially the shift from popular amateur natural history to an ecological perspective by the 1940s, as a way of understanding visible nature. Ecology was slowly taken up by forest and game managers, hunters and politicians in many areas of Anglo settlement, presenting a new larger view of the world to the public; an interpretation that spoke of communities, trophic levels, food chains, and processes and relationships in natural systems. Post 1920, as national identities became better established and the years of conquest slipped into settler history, so firsthand experience and science told the people to begin to seek an accommodation with the land and its flora and fauna. Serious account had to be taken of the limits forced on society by Nature, yet the inter-war years were, as Dunlap reveals, full of “great plans and great disasters” (p. 189). Australians dreamed of making the desert bloom by tapping underground reservoirs of water in the Outback; Canadians sought to farm reindeer and musk oxen on the Arctic tundra; and the Dust Bowl and Australian droughts of the 1930s brought ecology into public debate.

In the final Section Thomas Dunlap turns to address the rise of modern environmentalism, and how the concepts of ecology continued to spread to scientists and the public, reshaping policy and practice. From 1970 onwards, he argues that a, “union of scientific knowledge and popular interest has begun to radically alter our ideas about the land and to change our treatment of it” (p. 245). With this new knowledge comes a new type of dialogue with the land, shaped by the teachings of ecology, natural limits and settler history. It is the tale of how people sought to save not species but environments, and thus re-examined their relationships with Nature. The present citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are currently left, “seeking a place in lands now littered with the wrecks of earlier generations' hopes and dreams” (p. 316). The wisest will learn the lessons of the past, and listen to the land as they plan for the future.

An impressive amount of primary research has gone into this global study. In Canada, Dunlap used the records of the Canadian Wildlife Service. In Australia, he consulted the archives of the RAOU, Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation, a selection of natural history society papers, and the papers of noted naturalists and conservationists. In New Zealand, he examined the wildlife files of the Department of Internal Affairs, and environmental and conservation groups' papers. At home in the USA, the author studied the records of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Park Service, along with naturalists' papers. Dunlap also made use of oral history interviews in each country bringing valuable personal recollections to environmental events.

There are a few niggling mistakes. A wrong acronym for the British Association for the Advancement of Science is used, and the famous painting ‘Monarch of the Glen’ is attributed to Edward, not Edwin Landseer. However, these do not detract from the overall impression that this is a very scholarly and readable book that will be joyously received by undergraduate students in the developing arena of taught environmental history. This point should be reinforced. This is an academic book to promote debate and encourage further research in a growing subject, an accessible account for the general reader, and a textbook for students who crave an overview of the key issues. If Dunlap is guilty of anything it is an oversimplification of these key issues, but this is to be expected when he has chosen such a broad geographical and subject range. This is comparative environmental history on a grand scale, and at its best.