Daniel R. Headrick’s book “Subdue the Earth”

Nun an “environmental history of the Anthropocene”? After two decades of stormy debate, scientific commissions, congresses and professional associations all over the world have still not been able to agree on when the “Anthropocene” began, the epoch of human history that continues to this day. It differs from earlier ages in that for the first time a single species among millions of others, Homo sapiens, is radically and manipulatively intervening in geology, climate and ecosystems all over the planet.

This has led to unprecedented prosperity and comfort in large parts of the world, but also to gigantic and mostly irreparable destruction in many areas of nature. The beginning of this process is still dated differently. Some want to recognize a significant human “footprint” as early as the Neolithic, others only since 1945 with the unleashing of nuclear power and the steep increase in the consumption of fossil energy.

A litany of brutality and stupidity

Daniel R. Headrick is one of the maximalists. The first third of its history of man’s attack on nature ranges from the massacres of spear-armed big game hunters more than 10,000 years ago to the beginning of the European colonization of America. The middle part over the period between 1500 and 1900, which includes the industrial revolution, is slightly shorter. The twentieth century must be dealt with in more detail because it is the first time that environmental awareness (in the original: “environmentalism”), environmental activism and ecologically oriented sciences can be reported.

Daniel R. Headrick:

Daniel R. Headrick: “Subdue the earth”. The environmental history of the Anthropocene.


Image: Wbg / Theiss Verlag

The longer the period from which a representation like this draws its data, the darker its message must be. In the face of an endless litany of brutality and stupidity, of devastation and extermination, forest destruction and soil poisoning, one cannot blame the chronicler of such horrors for his illusion-free human image. Basically “always” Homo sapiens was an unpleasant neighbor of other living beings. The oppression and exploitation of people among one another was often at the expense of nature. Headricks past pessimism extends into the future. After examining various prognoses, the book ends with the resigned expectation that future generations would “look back at our age with envy”.

Population growth plus consumer society

Now, however, the book is not a new eco-jeremiad and is fairly free from the enthusiastic idea that a pre- or post-human nature is in peaceful equilibrium. As an experienced empiricist who has written good books on the history of technology and empires, and as an unsentimental Darwinist, Headrick lets the facts speak, which he has compiled from a wealth of critically viewed literature.

When he has found numbers – mostly those of losses – he uses them, even if they are often only estimates for earlier epochs (this could sometimes have been said more clearly). Scattered throughout the book are information on forest destruction, which often reached climaxes for military reasons and in wars. Where he considers scientific controversy to be open, Headrick presents the various views without deciding between them. For example, it would be environmentally and historically elegant to trace the Mongolian conquests in the early thirteenth century back to a deterioration in the climate. But that remains only one possible cause among several. Four theories also continue to compete to explain the Little Ice Age from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries.


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