[Marxism] Alfred Crosby, ‘Father of Environmental History,’ Is Dead at 87
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 5 09:27:44 MDT 2018
NY Times, April 5, 2018
Alfred Crosby, ‘Father of Environmental History,’ Is Dead at 87
By JOHN MOTYKA
In the eyes of many of his peers, Alfred W. Crosby was the father of
environmental history, and he owed that distinction in large part to his
childhood infatuation with Christopher Columbus. He revered him as much
as he did his comic strip hero Superman.
That fascination led him, as a scholar, to delve into the biological and
cultural impact of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. And to purse that
investigation he expanded the historian’s toolkit.
In groundbreaking feats of interdisciplinary research, he incorporated
studies of biology, ecology, geography and other sciences in his efforts
to chronicle and understand human events — work that introduced sweeping
explanatory concepts like “the Columbian Exchange” and “ecological
“For historians, Crosby framed a new subject,” the historian J. R.
McNeil, author of several books on environmental history, wrote.
Professor Crosby died at 87 on March 14 on Nantucket island in
Massachusetts. His wife, Frances Karttunen, said the cause was
complications of Parkinson’s disease, which he had lived with for almost
In “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of
1492,” a wide-ranging book published in 1972, Professor Crosby examined
in pithy, sometimes wry prose how disease had devastated indigenous
populations after Columbus landed.
He also described a parallel development that transformed global ecology
forever: the transoceanic movement of plants and animals, in which
Europeans shipped staple crops like wheat, oats and fruit stock along
with horses, goats and pigs to the Americas, where they were not known,
and transported back to Europe New World cultivars like maize, potatoes
On Oct. 12, 1492, the “two worlds” on opposite sides of the Atlantic,
“which were so different, began on that day to become alike,” Professor
“That trend toward homogeneity,” he concluded, “is one of the most
important aspects of the history of life on this planet since the
retreat of the glaciers.”
When asked in an interview in 2011 with Smithsonian magazine why his
scholarly approach had not been pursued before, he said, “We were
thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians
thinking ecologically, biologically.”
He had expanded on that idea in 1994 in “Germs, Seeds and Animals:
Studies in Ecological History,” a collection of essays. He wrote that a
venture into epidemiology had led him to “a more general subject:
ecological history, the history of all organisms pertinent to human
history and their (our) environment.”
“Yes, germs were important,” he continued, “and so, it turned out, were
insects, fungi, weeds, crops and domesticated and wild animals. Humanity
turned out to be the purposeful but often drunken ringmaster of a
three-ring circus of organisms.”
In 1986, with “Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of
Europe, 900-1900,” Professor Crosby, in his words, “took ‘The Columbian
Exchange’ up another notch in scope and abstraction.”
In this book he posited the existence of “neo-Europes,” areas and
countries where Europeans settled, especially between 1820 and 1930,
after they had “leapfrogged across the globe.” These settlers became so
successful at food production and food export that they easily dominated
indigenous cultures and then nearly decimated them.
He traced the rise of these “neo-Europes” to a kind of environmental
competition that the invading Europeans won. Flora and fauna native to
the Americas were so different from the plants and animals that
Europeans brought with them, and so acclimated to specific growing
conditions, that they couldn’t compete biologically. What Professor
Crosby called “the companions of the conquistadors” conquered as well.
At the same time, catastrophically, native peoples increasingly died of
diseases, usually smallpox, that had moved from domestic animals to
humans. Descendants of the European settlers, by contrast, had acquired
The books had wide impact. The author Charles Mann’s well-regarded 2011
best-seller, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” was an
effort, encouraged by Professor Crosby, to update “Ecological Imperialism.”
“Al was an exceptionally independent thinker whose work pioneered half a
dozen new genres,” Mr. Mann wrote in an email. “Scores, if not hundreds
of writers — me among them — have scribbled their works in the margins
of ‘The Columbian Exchange’ and ‘Ecological Imperialism.’ ”
Alfred Worcester Crosby Jr. was born in Boston on Jan. 15, 1931, and
grew up in Wellesley, Mass., to Alfred Sr. and the former Ruth Coleman.
He graduated from Wellesley High School.
He told an interviewer in the journal “The Americas” in 2015 that comic
strip superheroes and historical events like “rockets vaulting the
English Channel” during World War II, and “then rockets on their way to
the Moon and Mars,” had seized his imagination when he was young. But he
nevertheless concluded, he said, that “Columbus stumbling on an
unexpected continent seemed more suitable an object for my focus than
even the all-powerful Clark Kent.”
He graduated from Harvard in 1952 with a degree in history and then
served in the Panama Canal Zone as a sergeant in the Army, becoming
exposed to a Latin American culture that he had known little about, he
said. After the service, he obtained a doctorate in history from Boston
Professor Crosby taught at the University of Texas in Austin for 22
years and retired in 1999 as professor emeritus of geography, history
and American studies.
Before that, while teaching at Washington State University, he was
involved in a student strike that led to his becoming a co-founder, with
the anthropologist Johnetta Cole, of the school’s first black studies
department. He taught there for 11 years.
He also came to know the labor and civil rights leaders Cesar Chavez and
Dolores Huerta when Professor Crosby pitched in to help build a medical
center for the United Farm Workers in California.
In addition to his wife, Ms. Karttunen, his survivors include his son,
Kevin; his daughter, Carolyn Crosby; his stepdaughters, Jaana Karttunen
and Suvi Aika; and two grandchildren. His previous marriages, to Anna
Bienemann and Barbara Stevens, ended in divorce.
Professor Crosby’s other books include “The Measure of Reality:
Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600” (1997), which he called
“an essay on the essential characteristic of civilization: mathematics,”
and “Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite
for Energy” (2006).
“The Columbian Exchange” might not have been published at all if
Greenwood Press, a small publisher of academic books in Westport, Conn.,
had not agreed to take it on. Dr. Crosby had found no takers among
In the preface to “The Columbian Exchange,” Professor Crosby addressed
his interdisciplinary method and what may be considered his scholarly
legacy. He expressed hope that the book was “an unpretentious one, but I
am the first to recognize that historians, geologists, anthropologists,
zoologists, botanists and demographers will see me as an amateur in
their particular fields.”
He said he would partly agree with them if they thought so, but he also
concluded that “although the Renaissance is long past, there is a great
need for Renaissance-style attempts at pulling together the discoveries
of the specialists to learn what we know, in general, about life on this
Susan C. Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.
More information about the Marxism