Friday, July 10, 2009

Could this be the next Albion's Seed?

Oxford University Press has just published New Zealand historian James Belich's Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939. It's in few libraries as yet, and I haven't seen a copy, but the OUP summary and generous blurb from Jared (Guns, Germs, and Steel) Diamond make me verrrry interested.

Belich is working in the same megahistorical zone as Diamond: why does today's world look as it does instead of some other way? Why didn't Chinese "discover" America, or North Americans "discover" Europe? Here's the key paragraph of the summary:

Between 1780 and 1930 the number of English-speakers rocketed from 12 million in 1780 to 200 million, and their wealth and power grew to match. Their secret was not racial, or cultural, or institutional superiority but a resonant intersection of historical changes, including the sudden rise of mass transfer across oceans and mountains, a revolutionary upward shift in attitudes to emigration, the emergence of a settler "boom mentality," and a late flowering of non-industrial technologies--wind, water, wood, and work animals--especially on settler frontiers. This revolution combined with the Industrial Revolution to transform settlement into something explosive--capable of creating great cities like Chicago and Melbourne and large socio-economies in a single generation.
IOW, among other things, Belich seeks to explain the Midwest (and similar regions worldwide such as Argentina, Australia, and Siberia). If it's up to its billing in substance and style, it may indeed rank with masterpieces like David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed and William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis. And for those whose ancestors peopled these places, it will be equally required reading.

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