Gregory Cushman – Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World

23 October, 2021 - examPrep

1 Introduction

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His subordinates owed him labor and allegiance as kin . In reciprocity , it was his sacred duty to please the ancestors , to keep their living children fed , and to protect them from the hazards of flood , drought , earthquake , famine , pestilence , and invasion so that they could multiply as a people . Relationships of this sort provided a basis for social power among peoples in many parts of the world before the disruptions of the modern age . 3 By the end of this book , readers will have learned how new configurations of ethnic difference separating races , nations , and species caused some of the worst social and environmental catastrophes in history , including the demise of Peru’s guano birds .

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The history of guano deserves our attention , at the very least , for its significance to ancient Andean societies . However , the main purpose of this book is to demonstrate that guano , guano islands , and guano birds have been profoundly important to other peoples as well . This includes the ecological , cultural , and geopolitical history of the modern world – our world . This realization first requires us to abandon our intense prejudice toward excrement and recognize its basic importance to all living things .

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Much of humanity’s growing prosperity , power , and destructiveness as a species in recent times can be credited to our expanding capacity to produce nitrogen and phosphorus compounds . This book demonstrates that these practices came into being in direct response to the opening of huge new natural supplies of these substances in the Pacific World during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries .

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Human intervention in the cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus represents one of the central manifestations of human domination of the earth’s ecosystems in recent times .

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How did excrement change from an object of veneration in some quarters into something to be thrown away ? How did nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers change from treasured commodities into something used so wastefully that they are fundamentally changing the environment of the entire earth ? How did humans become cognizant of these spectacular ecological changes and the dangers they pose ? The answer to these three questions hinges on the place that guano came to occupy in the modern world .

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This global history explores the ecological , geopolitical , and cultural significance of guano , guano islands , and guano – producing birds since 1800 , and guano’s ensuing influence on the commodification of nitrates , phosphates , coconuts , and fishmeal . It is an ecological history in the sense that it examines the relationships among humans , other organisms , and the physical environment and explicitly applies theoretical insights from ecology , climatology , and other environmental sciences .

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This book has a seven – fold argument . Its first argument explores the geographical parameters of the Pacific World .

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The second argument explains how the modern Pacific World first came into being .

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The book’s third argument highlights the agency of nature in the creation of the Pacific World .

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The fourth argument links the Pacific World to the Industrial Revolution .

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The fifth argument examines the cultural influence of these transformations .

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The book’s sixth argument identifies the social group that orchestrated much of these proceedings . Beginning with Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the coast of Peru in 1802 , the history of guano and the Pacific World has been intimately tied to the rise of professional scientists , engineers , physicians , economists , and other experts to positions of political authority .

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The seventh argument evaluates the ethical ramifications of these actions .

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Chapters 3 and 4 focus on a phenomenon I call neo – ecological imperialism . Alfred Crosby’s path – breaking work identified some important characteristics of the initial , conquest stage of ecological imperialism . However , it has difficulty explaining how settled regions of Australia , New Zealand , Chile , and the United States consolidated and sustained their prosperity and status as neo – Europes after exhausting the windfall of frontier colonialism . This typically required a second stage of ecological imperialism involving the massive importation of soil nutrients and other natural resources from overseas empires in the Pacific Basin .

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The golden age of developmentalism that followed World War II was neither an “ age of ecological innocence , ” nor a dark age preceding the environmental movement . 42 Ecological thinking drove many of the signature movements of the postwar era – most notably the Green Revolution in agriculture and Blue Revolution in pelagic fishing and aquaculture – as besieged governments struggled to keep up with the demands of their rapidly growing populations and navigate Cold War tensions .

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Chapter 9 examines the far – reaching influence of Malthusian ideas on development projects in Mexico , Peru , and other Third World countries . Mexico aborted its tentative attempt to establish a guano industry of its own , modeled after Peru , to devote itself to the industrial production of chemical fertilizers and promotion of input – intensive agricultural practices . In these ways , Mexico was a model country for the Green Revolution . Peru , meanwhile , was the model country for the Blue Revolution , at first as a producer of canned fish for the wartime cause , then as the world’s largest producer of fishmeal – most of it destined for chicken and hog farms in the industrial North .

2 The Guano Age

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Peruvian guano proved so powerful and profitable as a fertilizer that it inspired a global rush to locate other similar resources and substitutes – including the vast nitrate deposits of southern Peru . These concentrated fertilizers from the far ends of the earth played a critical role in popularizing input – intensive agricultural practices , and in synergy with coal and increased use of animal power , in replacing the ecological old regime that constrained humanity’s domination of the earth with the consumption – oriented regime of the industrial age .

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The founding fathers of postcolonial Peru did not see things this way , however . To them , this incredible geographic advantage provided a means to engineer a modern nation .

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Then nature intervened in a manner so far – reaching that it propelled agricultural systems into crisis all over the world .

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The lords of the guano age had hoped that the globalization of the fertilizer trade would help liberate humanity from the vagaries of nature and increase the world’s food security , but the combined tragedies of the 1870s suggest that they actually made the world dangerously vulner – able to ecological and economic disruptions . Industrial capitalism and the new imperialism did not accomplish this on their own : this was the death rattle of the world’s ecological old regime .

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Alexander von Humboldt and his followers had high hopes for this revolutionary age , which opened Pacific South America to the world like never before . Peruvian guano and nitrates fascinated chemists and agricultural improvers of the nineteenth century , who in turn revealed the significance of nitrogen to life and its ability to power technologies of death . Guano and nitrates enabled Peru to make a name for itself as an independent nation and propelled the Industrial Revolution forward to a new phase . Nitrate – derived explosives even endowed the Nobel Prizes . How many things have played such a transformative role in history ?

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In other ways , however , the guano age truly deserves its reputation as an “ age of shit . ” Rather than improving the world’s food supply during an era of profound environmental instability , Peruvian guano mainly served northern consumers of meat and sugar . Rather than inaugurating an epoch of peace and prosperity , guano and nitrates inspired wars and fueled the growth of inequalities between classes and nations . Although guano and sewage disposal helped improve the soil and urban environments , nitrate mining deeply scarred the most ancient arid landscape on earth . Most significantly , Peruvian guano opened the gateway to modern farming’s addiction to inputs . This does not even begin to consider the relationship between guano and imperialism in the Central Pacific , the subject of the next two chapters .

3 Neo-Ecological Imperialism

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To a major extent , neo – European societies in the United States , Australia , New Zealand , Peru , and Chile propelled the conquests described in the next two chapters , not the Great Powers of Europe . These postcolonial nations turned imperial powers did so , in large part , to remedy the depopulation and degradation of lands conquered during earlier phases of ecological imperialism . They sometimes did so without formally colonizing the overseas territories and peoples they were exploiting , a phenomenon known variously as neocolonialism , informal imperialism , or even the “ American form of colonialism . ”

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Neo – ecological imperialism has many similarities with its conquest form and sometimes worked in concert with it . Disease – causing microbes and other portmanteau biota often prospered in the disturbed environments created by neo – ecological imperialism .

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries , God , glory , gold , and guano motivated outsiders to seek to dominate the indigenous environments and societies of the Central Pacific . This chapter examines two case studies , both intimately tied to the expansion of the guano industry , in which the forces of neo – ecological imperialism subordinated some of the earth’s most isolated territories and peoples to improve the lives of neo – European societies elsewhere .

10 Conclusion

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President Richard Nixon responded by empowering a former FAO technocrat , agricultural economist Earl Butz , to discourage fishmeal use by livestock raisers while encouraging “ fencerow to fencerow ” planting of maize and soybeans to make up for the feed shortfall . Butz became notorious for his advice to family farmers “ to get big or get out . ”

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This book about the place of guano and the Pacific World in modern history started from the premise that humans have willfully ignored the history of our relationship with excrement and often failed to recognize that our relationship with the ocean and atmosphere does not function by the same rules that govern terrestrial existence . This book set out to follow these entities and the people who cared about them wherever they went – even when they moved far beyond the geographic borders and disciplinary boundaries that traditionally constrain our understanding of the past . In the process , it endeavored to uncover the existence of historical forces acting on a scale invisible to histories developed under more traditional constraints , and to demonstrate the relevance of remote territories , obscure peoples , and little – known organisms to some of the most important trends of the modern age . In the end , it has revealed some basic lessons about our moral relationship to the natural world and the rest of the human species that may be unexpected , or even unwelcome .

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These perspectives force us to qualify our understanding of some large – scale forces of world history . ( 1 ) Modern societies have tended to treat environmental degradation as a cumulative process that gnaws away at the ability of soils , forests , and animal populations to rebound from abuse ; that gradually poisons our air , water , and bodies . However , small environmental alterations and tiny exposures to harm can also have abrupt consequences and large downstream effects . Environment and society are susceptible to “ tipping points ” and “ the butterfly effect , ” with results that are difficult to foresee . ( 2 ) Ecological imperialism , unlike the way it has been portrayed by Alfred Crosby and Jared Diamond , required concerted colonialism and conscious exploitation of distant peoples and environments to create neo – European societies and modern inequalities . Nature did not predetermine these outcomes . Yali understood this well . ( 3 ) The development of new ways to manipulate the soil’s fertility and increase food production were just as important – if not more so – than improvements in health and hygiene in bringing an end to the “ biological old regime ” that once limited human numbers . In some ways , the guano age gave birth to the age of soap and water . ( 4 ) The conquest and colonization of the Pacific Ocean was far more central to the development of industrial capitalism , geopolitical conflict , and international law than historians typically recognize , from whaling to the Law of the Sea . To an extent comparable to African slavery in the early modern Atlantic World , the extraction of guano , phosphates , and fish brought together a Pacific World that spanned the world’s largest ocean basin . ( 5 ) Both indigenous and postcolonial societies exercised significant agency in creating the ecological order of the modern world . Even the Rapanui had reasons for voyaging to guano age Peru . We can gain great insight about how to survive in limited environments by the tribulations and resilience of peoples who learned to prosper on tiny Pacific islands . ( 6 ) Above all , this book demonstrates that large – scale perspectives are possible without overreliance on theoretical abstractions that write the agency of individuals out of history .

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From an ecological point of view , we should expect the abrupt opening of the world’s largest environmental realm to have gigantic consequences . This book has not argued that ecological factors were the main driving force behind all these events , merely that they were essential contributors to a conjuncture of causes responsible for these great transformations .

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The most disturbing finding of this book was the discovery that consciousness of nature’s limitations has often provided authoritarians and experts with a pretext for increasing their power . In the drive to feed and protect their own people , all too often , they used their authority to attack , displace , and destroy entire species and ethnicities – from guano birds and anchovies to Banabans , Japanese , and Jews . This explains much about how experts attained such authority over matters of life and death . Capitalists , fascists , and communists were not the only perpetrators of these sins . The widespread conviction that one ethnicity , nation , or species deserves to exist at the expense of another explains much about why our species intentionally committed these actions . Our carnivorous craving for meat and other emblems of high living standards only intensified these beastly tendencies .


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