Ecological Imperialism Essay

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A core premise of ecological imperialism is that the success of European colonial settlement is due at least as much to nonhuman forces, including plants, animals and pathogens introduced both deliberately and inadvertently, as it is to military, political, economic, and demographic incursions. The term has been developed most fully by Alfred W. Crosby in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, an erudite environmental history of the relationships between ecology and European colonialism.

Crosby explores the concept to explain successful European population expansion into particular regions of the world he labels Neo-Europes. These areas include temperate zones of North America, South America, New Zealand, and Australia that – while oceans away from Europe-contain comparable climates in which European plants, animals, and diseases could successfully establish. In contrast, European colonial settlements generally failed in regions with tropical climates less suitable for European species and with more virulent diseases.

Import into Neo-Europes

Along with new technologies, colonists brought to the Neo-Europes what Crosby cals a “grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing, chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering avalanche” that collectively supported vast ecological and social transformations. The previously unidentified, yet most important ally, of the Neo-European invaders was their portmanteau biota, “… fellow life forms, their extended family of plants, animals, and microlife…first domesticated or…first adapted to living with humans in the hearthlands of Old World civilization.” Successful conquest occurred in those places with ecological similarities to western and northern Europe. “Where the portmanteau biota ‘worked,’ where enough of its members prospered and propagated to create versions of Europe, however incomplete and distorted, Europeans themselves prospered and propagated.”

Weeds, for instance, were of vital importance to the establishment of Neo-Europes. “The exotic plants saved newly bared topsoil from water and wind erosion and from baking in the sun. And the weeds often became essential feed for exotic livestock, as these in turn were for their masters.” Domesticated animals “adapted marvelously well to the Neo-Europe” with their ability to “alter environments, even continental environments, …[better than] any machine we have thus far devised.” Germs, too, were of immense significance. “It was their germs, not these imperialists themselves, for all their brutality and callousness, that were chiefly responsible for sweeping aside the indigenes and opening the Neo-Europes to demographic takeover,” Crosby states. Through years of isolation, indigenous peoples had their own infections (e.g., hepatitis and polio amongst Native Americans; trachoma amongst Australia’s aborigines) but they had had no experience of the wide range of Old World ailments such as chicken pox, smallpox, cholera, and influenza, which were to decimate them. Indeed, Crosby suggests that smallpox may have killed up to one-third of the Australian Aboriginal population in the late 1700s. Remarkably, the flow of disease between invaders and invaded was substantially one-way, with relatively few infections and ailments having effect on the Old World.

Asia and the Tropics

By contrast, Europeans failed to build lasting settlements in Asia and tropical Africa not only for obvious reasons of heat and humidity, but much more importantly on account of their “contact with tropical humans, their servant organisms, and attendant parasites, micro and macro.” In West Africa, parasites and disease prohibited European domesticates from thriving. And in Asia, along with the plants and animals that had “existed in and around thousands of villages and cities for thousands of years there had evolved many species of germs, worms, insects, rusts, molds,… attuned to preying on humanity and its servant organisms.” While Europe succeeded in exploiting these regions through colonialism, permanent settlements were rarely established. In short, successful conquest occurred in those places with ecological similarities to western and northern Europe. “Europeans and their commensal and parasitic comrades were not good at adapting to truly alien lands and climates, but they were very good at constructing new versions of Europe out of suitable real estate,” Crosby states.

Crosby’s exposition places the indigenes of Australia, New Zealand and North America into a more complex and controversial relationship than that encapsulated by the notion of “advanced” Europeans achieving some ecological triumph over indigenous peoples. Paul S. Martin’s controversial work postulates that Stone Age hunters eliminated entire species of giant animals (such as sabretoothed tigers and giant ground sloths) in a process known as blitzkrieg. Crosby draws from this idea to suggest that it “…places the Amerindians, Aborigines, and Maori, on the one hand, and the European invaders, on the other, in a fresh and intellectually provocative relationship: not simply as adversaries, with the indigenes passive and the whites active, but as two waves of invaders of the same species, the first acting as shock troops, clearing the way for the second wave, with its more complicated economies and greater numbers.”

European Ascendancy

The concept of ecological imperialism has been extended both temporally and spatially to further explain European ascendancy and its ecological impacts. In the preface to the second edition of Ecological Imperialism, Crosby makes the point that more than simply establishing different patterns of social and environmental practice, ecological imperialism provided colonial powers such as Britain, the United States, Germany, and Japan with the ecological assets that allowed them make a “quantum jump” in productivity, which consequently facilitated scientific, industrial and agricultural revolutions. With resources provided by their colonies, imperialist powers were able to start and fuel enduring industrial revolution. More controversially, in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Jared Diamond argues that the dominant position of Europe on the stage of colonialism was due to ecological and physical characteristics of Europe and Asia; for example, that the suite of successful European domesticated animals was due to the eastwest orientation of Eurasia and the lack of physical barriers to the movement of technology and species.

Other uses of the term ecological imperialism include many accretions that link colonialism to ecological change conceptually. Johnston’s interpretation emphasizes the importance of the colonists’ introduction and imposition of particular forms of agricultural production and surplus distribution arrangements together with associated environmental management practices. Elsewhere, critics of international development have used the term to refer to either the disastrous impacts of current policies on or the remaining control of post-colonial ecologies.

Criticisms of Crosby’s ideas have been relatively few; however, Cronon views his uncritical adoption of Martin’s “blitzkrieg’ theory and the lack of more explicit linkages to cultural determinants of European expansion as potential faults. Others, looking more closely at the ecology of species exchange across the Atlantic, found no inherent advantage to European species and a much more complex web of species exchange than described by Crosby. In the period from 1500-1900, plant transfers may have been more evenly balanced than Crosby suggests that “acquisition of Amerindian crop plants had a dramatic impact on ‘Old World’ economies and social histories.” However, these criticisms remain minor corrections to Crosby’s central and still compelling argument.


  1. William Beinart and Karen Middleton, “Plant Transfers in Historical Perspective: A Review Article” Environment and History (vol. 10, pp. 3-29, 2004);
  2. John Byrne, Cecilia Martinez, and Leigh Glover, “A Brief on Environmental Justice” in Environmental Justice: Discourses in International Political Economy, John Byrne, Leigh Glover, and Cecilia Martinez (Transaction Publishers, 2002);
  3. Andrew H. Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals (Rutgers University Press, 1949);
  4. William Cronon, “Review of Ecological Imperialism” Journal of American History (vol. 74, 1, pp. 150-151, 1987);
  5. Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, (Cambridge University Press, New Edition, 2004);
  6. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, (Jonathan Cape, 1997);
  7. Michael Hall, “Ecotourism in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific: Appropriate Tourism or a New Form of Ecological Imperialism?” in Ecotourism: A Sustainable Option? eds. Erlet Carter and Gwen Lowman (John Wiley & Sons, 1994);
  8. Jonathan Jeschke and David L. Strayer, “Invasion Success of Vertebrates in Europe and North America’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol. 102, no. 20, pp. 7198-7202, 2005);
  9. Ronald J. Johnston, Nature, State and Economy: A Political Economy of the Environment (John Wiley & Sons, 2nd ed., 1996);
  10. Paul S. Martin, “Prehistoric Overkill: The Global Model,” Quaternary Extinctions, A Prehistoric Revolution, eds S. Martin and Richard G. Klein (University of Arizona Press, 1984);
  11. Elinor K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge University Press, 1994);
  12. Richard G. Wilkinson, “Review of Ecological Imperialism” Ethnohistory (vol. 36, 1, pp. 119-120, 1989);
  13. Timothy Weiskel, “Agents of Empire: Steps Toward an Ecology of Imperialism,” Environmental Review (vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 275-288, 1987);
  14. Stephen Wroe, Judith Field, and Richard Fullagar, “Lost Giants,” Nature Australia (vol. 27, 5, pp. 54-61, 2002).

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