Book review

Helen Kopnina
  • Biological Conservation, December 2014, Elsevier
  • DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.025

Book review ‘The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals’

What is it about?

‘The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals’ by John F. Richards. The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodificationof Animalsis written by John F. Richards, a ‘pioneer in environmen-tal history’ as J.R. McNeill calls him in his introduction to thevolume. This introduction explains how this unique yet not alwayseasily accessible text exploring the environmental and socio-economic dimensions of commercial exploitation of non-humanscame into being, and how it can be seen in the contexts of thehistory of human relationships to the environment and of contem-porary ethics.The World Huntis an unusual volume in that it blends environ-mental history, the dispassionate narrative of facts, with a voicethat is at times full of hurt, as it expresses genuine concern forthe voiceless victims of hunters’ increasingly global pursuits. Thevolume is essentially an extract from the meticulously researchedand finely detailed history of hunting, fishing, and whaling pre-sented in Richards’ exhaustiveThe Unending Frontier.The narrative takes place between the sixteenth and eighteenthcenturies, beginning with descriptions of extractive human activi-ties that are geographically scattered and relatively limited inscale, but progressing on to a ‘hunt’ of truly global proportions,in which the hunted become global refugees from the on-goingwar that is captured by the sub-title’s term ‘commodification’.Linking the ‘hunt’ from the title with ‘commodification’ from thesubtitle is one of the subtlest achievements of this book.While in many accounts animals are seen as either ‘natural’ vic-tims of humans, staple foods that are parts of human livelihoods,or as attributes in the enactment of traditional practices, in whichhunters and hunted form a continuous circle of life, Richards placesthe hunt in a different context. From the fur trade in North Americato the New World fisheries and whaling in the Northern Oceans,over time, the animals are subjected to a kind of ‘new consumer-ism’, meaning, for example in the context of Creek fur traders(from the southeastern United States) that ‘most native manufac-turers fell away and the society depended on imported goods’(p. 37). This ‘new consumerism’, which expands beyond theimmediate necessity of the local tribe and goes beyond livelihoodor traditional practices, starts to take shape into something that,while locally grounded, becomes increasingly intertwined in theweb of exploitation. Be it the Siberian Eskimos (now commonlycalled the Inuit), the English west country merchants, or the Frenchwhalers, each, while involved in different types of activities, seemto have formed a net of perfect entrapment that grew moreelaborate with the passing of time and development of humancivilization.Not all the episodes described in this volume are equally wellresearched (perhaps for lack of specific data), nor are some of thecomparisons between different types of practices and underlyingsocial and economic motivations internally consistent throughoutthe volume. While some sections – like the ones on Russian furtraders in Chapter 2 – remain thickly descriptive and place-boundand take up many pages, the section on early coastal whaling inthe Arctic shifts within a few pages between Spitsbergen’s baysand harbors and the Muscovy company to the Dutch whalinginvestors of the Noordsche Compagnie in Amsterdam. These latterdescriptions are bundled into Chapter 4, on Whales and Walrusesin the Northern Oceans – a chapter as vast as the area it describes.These inconsistencies are possibly due to the fact that the presentvolume is an extract from the larger one, or to the simple fact thatsome records are patchy, especially as earlier historians rarelyfocused on the precise nature and scale, let alone the ecologicalconsequences, of these ‘hunts’.As it stands,The World Huntis not always an easy read. Beforeshe has gotten used to one place and time and one group ofhunters or traders, the reader is suddenly transported elsewhere,believing that this virtual transport is linked by the invisible,consistent line of ‘commodification’, and yet unsure as to wherethe writer will take her next.Sometimes Richards mixes grueling facts and measured details,including statistics on climatic changes in particular regions, withsudden, rare affective expressions and personal judgments, such as‘three centuries of mayhem inflicted by European hunters’ (p. 150),or the ‘collective and individual trauma inflicted by the whalers onthe survivors – highly intelligent, highly sociable animals’ (p. 154).In using these expressions, Richards sets his environmental historyfar apart from mainstream historians, who have referred to tales ofhuman achievement, victory, and the strength of spirit in the faceof cruel nature, on the one hand, and to tons of meat and richharvests, on the other. None of these historians saw the tears inthe grey oceans. But it is precisely this mix of facts and sharpreflections, as well as the author’s bold sweeping historical brush,that paints the canvas of the vast oceans or open steppes thatslowly, across the centuries, take on the color of human greedand animal blood. It is this that makes this volume unique.Helen KopninaThe Hague University of Applied Science, Johanna Westerdijkplein 75,2521 EN, The Hague, The NetherlandsE-mail address:h.kopnina@hhs.nlhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.025Biological Conservation 180 (2014) 22Contents lists available atScienceDirectBiological Conservationjournal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/biocon The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals, John F. Richards. University of California Press (2014). 161 pp. $24.95, £16.95, ISBN: 9780520282537. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266857855_The_World_Hunt_An_Environmental_History_of_the_Commodification_of_Animals_John_F_Richards_University_of_California_Press_2014_161_pp_2495_1695_ISBN_9780520282537 [accessed Jun 12 2018].

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‘The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals’ Book Review by John F. Richards.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Helen Kopnina