Anthropogenic Forest vs. Environmentalism? Not really.

The obvious first thing to say about Charles C. Mann’s 2005 bestseller, 1491, is just that. It was a New York Times bestseller. LOTS of people read it. It probably reached a larger audience than any of the classics of Environmental History it cites (among them, The Columbian Exchange and Changes in the Land). And it certainly reached a much wider audience. All kinds of people who would never have been exposed to the ideas of environmental history got a really good taste of them in 1491.

And it’s not a simple story. The San Francisco Chronicle compared Mann to Jared Diamond, but this comparison only works from the perspective of book sales. Next to 1491, Guns Germs and Steel is as simplistic and misleading as the high school textbooks Mann complains haven’t been changed between his schooldays and those of his son. Other reviews congratulate Mann for being both “scholarly” and “hip.” One even praises him on avoiding political correctness, “other than [in] a recognition of the sensitivity of the issues.” But there is controversy in 1491.

Mann’s story of pre-Columbian America exposed many readers for the first time to the idea that there was a lot going on in the Western Hemisphere before the Europeans arrived. But the book’s thesis goes farther: 1491 argues that we need to recognize that the Americas were really never a pristine wilderness — at least not for the past several thousand years. Everywhere European explorers and colonists looked, they saw (but usually failed to recognize) elaborate man-made ecosystems. Nearly everywhere we look, he says, we’re finding evidence of not only ancient cities or settlements, but also of complex land use. Terraced fields in the Andes, causeways and earthworks in the Beni region of Bolivia, elaborate arboriculture in the Amazon. And Mann also tells the stories of the scholars who have argued over these discoveries and how to interpret them.

An interesting element of these arguments has to do with the relationship between the “pristine myth” and the environmental movement. Mann says early ecologists believed humans were “outside” nature, and that there was a natural “climax” equilibrium before humans blundered onto the scene and messed things up. This isn’t a new idea for environmental historians. Back in the 80s, William Cronon talked about the failure of the steady state idea of ecology. But Mann takes the story farther, and shows how the arguments of scientists such as the Smithsonian’s Betty J. Meggers had an extremely political dimension. Meggers, who theorized that the Amazon rainforest had never (and could never) supported more than about a thousand people, attacked scientists who discovered evidence of Amazonian populations as large as a hundred thousand. Her objection, according to Mann, had as much to do with her fear that understanding the Amazon as a place where up to an eighth of the forest was anthropogenic (a forest garden managed by its residents) would be a green light to modern developers intent on exploiting the Amazon.

Ironically, Mann says the most recent science suggests that not only was the ancient Amazon occupied by huge populations, but over time they actually improved the soil fertility of a large area. Slash and burn techniques, he says, are a “modern intrusion” that began with the advent of European steel axes. Earlier Amazonians planted trees that continued feeding people for generations and created a composted soil called Terra Preta that they used to improve the thin rainforest soils. Some experts claim up to ten percent of the Amazon region was improved with terra preta — an area the size of France.

So not only does Mann’s story help restore pre-Columbian Americans to their rightful place in history, it also suggests that human use of the environment doesn’t have to be quite as destructive as we’ve made it. Burning the Amazon is not the only way humans could use the region. The real history of the region shows that the choice is not between a wilderness that only supports a handful of stone-age tribal people and an agribusiness corn/cattle operation. If people living a thousand years ago were able to support huge populations and improve the ecosystem, why can’t we?

Okay, I suppose you could argue that the fruit and nut trees and the manioc planted by Amazonians elbowed out some indigenous plants and may have even decreased biodiversity. This hasn’t been proven, but it could be argued. We could at least agree, I think, that whatever losses this human management of the forest entailed, it was better than burn the forest, plant a monoculture on the exposed soil until it’s depleted, and then repeat. What we need is an Amazonian Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to put it all together in a Rainforest Permaculture to complement their desert permaculture. Or maybe that has already happened, and we just don’t know because we don’t speak Portuguese.

Postscript: In a new Afterword for the 2006 Vintage edition, Mann says the most controversial part of the book turned out to be the Coda in which he described North American Indians’ “insistence on personal liberty…[and] on social equality” as a direct influence on the Revolution and Early Republic. “Historians have been puzzlingly reluctant,” Mann had said, “to acknowledge [the Indian] contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide.” And he was right: Early American academic historians like Alan Taylor said Mann was naïve to suggest that “the Haudenosaunee could have had an impact on the America character,” in spite of the fact that “Montaigne, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine” had all remarked in print about “the differences between native and European ways of life.” Of course, Joseph Brant, the Indian protagonist of Taylor’s The Divided Ground, is a pretty thoroughly Europeanized Indian; so maybe Taylor’s reaction isn’t so surprising. Either way, there’s a lot to discover and a lot of food for thought in 1491.