[Marxism] Alfred Crosby, ‘Father of Environmental History,’ Is Dead at 87

Louis Proyect 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

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 
20 years.

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 
and beans.

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 
Crosby wrote.

“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 
mainstream publishers

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.

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