Mark Elvin: The Retreat of the Elephants An Environmental History of China



Elephants and rhinoceroses once roamed the plains of what is now Beijing The Yellow River was not always yellow And the modern Chinese landscape was not always the barren treeless expanse that much of it is today Accounting for ow these things came to be is the aim of Elvin s pioneering synthesis It is a story that builds in the costs of progress not from a late moment in the Phoebe’s Fair Valentine (Oh. My. Gods., history of industrialization but from the very beginning of one of our oldest civilizations and by implication all civilizationSimilar stories ofuman society expanding at the expense of megafauna such as elephants rhinos and tigers and environmental degradation could be told for virtually any area or period of organized The Ground beneath her Feet human activity What makes Elvin s study interesting is its treatment of so great a span ofistory within one region and the relative richness of resources available to us for its investigation What makes Killer Pancake / The Cereal Murders his perspective urgent is the widespread contemporary sense that we are entering upon an era ofeightened environmental unpredictability in which the dynamic interaction between Lo Que la Reina Quiere (Sexys Cuentos de Hadas Al Revés nº 1) human and natural systems is shifting radically As it was 4000 years ago China is at the center of this story today though readers should not take up this book expecting a review of China s current environmental challenges Elvin s aim is broader than any possible catalog or indictment of contemporary ecological woes In fact the Chinese exposure to environmental catastrophe was much greater only severalundred years ago when floods of epic proportions and famines affecting millions of people followed closely one upon the other What Elvin narrates is the struggle to bring stability to naturally fluctuating environments especially its great rivers wetlands and estuaries and the trade offs that inescapably accompanied them Our present predicament as pressing as it is is the latest episode in a very long dramaThere is no better example of this than the efforts at William Gibson hydrological engineering that in some sense made Chinese civilization possible to begin with andave been seen by some as leaving an indelible imprint on it in the form of Nancy Drake hydrological despotism So greatas been the need to control water for the sake of agriculture the argument goes and so extensive Bandbox has been the mobilization of resources reuired to do so that an authoritarian andighly bureacratized Chinese state Everglades (Doc Ford Mystery, has been almost a geographical necessity from the beginning Elvin doesn t go this far but in tellingis tale through an impressive moving and often delightful assemblage of Kicking It (Alex Craft, historical sourcese makes clear the Faustian bargains that were made to establish the earliest lineaments of the state and society in China The implications carry far beyond the twin valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers Urban agricultural settlement in China was a response to the practical needs of continual warfare The needs of warfare drove an agricultural expansion that targeted the temperate forests of East Asia and the species it supported The archaic states of China were conscious of their antagonism to elements of the natural world Elvin cites several pangyrics to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties that euate the destruction of forests with the consolidation of power the establishment of cities and the spread of civilization Elvin ighlights this sentiment as it reappears in various texts in later centuriesThe wealth generated by this new form of uman settlement enabled sophisticated states to arise which in turn acuired the capacity to implement enormous irrigation works to better serve their agricultural needs Human population swells and the buffers of ecological protection mainly forests inland and marshland along the coasts from extreme events become dangerously thin as a result The idea of extreme events caused by anthropomorphic activity thus long precedes carbon induced climate change The leading example of this feedback loop which is the leitmotif of the book is deforestation It was clearance of forests along the middle reaches of the Yellow River in the ancient in Dynasty that led to the erosion of loess soils from cultivated fields which gave the River its Yellow character Agriculture sent soil down the rivers soil which settled as farmland elsewhere at the price of freuent flooding From this point on as Elvin documents the increasing rate of floods and dike failures along the Yellow River corresponded to deforestation all along the river s course and ever greater efforts to control its power Elvin argues that the efforts to control the Yellow River especially under the river tamer Pan Jixun in the 1570s and the centuries long battle against the East China sea in the Bay of Hangzhou represent respectively the greatest single Sapphamire (Dragons of Dragonose human impact and program for action upon the environment in premodern times anywhere in the world Debunked in conseuence is the notion that only the West sought to comprehensively control nature The book suffers from a few flaws chief among them the absence of maps which is galling in a book that pays such close attention to geography It is long and in places burdened with taxonomic cataloging of flora and fauna Some readers may feel that Elvin dumps long excerpts ofistorical text whole cloth into the narrative when a shorter gloss would do just as well For my part I appreciated Elvin s method of textual citation It accounts for one of the book s greatest successes providing the reader an opportunity to envision and almost in some places to The Donovan Legacy (Donovans hear and smell now vanished worlds of the senses We seeow Elvin extracts the picture of a landscape its economy and technological landmarks and color and flora and fauna from a grab bag of classical poems The same is as true if not so of the Breaking Down (The Garage, human experience of all of these what it is like to be stalked by a tiger or a pythonow one might possibly ave sold off one s wife or children in time of famine or gnawed on the bark of an elm tree out of unger a world populated by dragons and goblins and non Han peoples who viewed their wooded environments charitably than their Han neighbors Elvin does A landmark account of China’s environmental istory by an internationally pre eminent China specialist This is the first environmental istory of China during the three thousand years for which there are written records It is also a treasure trove of literary political aesthetic scientific and religious sources which allow the reader direct access to the views and feelings of the Chinese people toward their environment and their lan.

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Don t mind a spoiler can there be spoilers for Passionate Kisses Boxed Set history books Mark Elvin arrives at a somewhat pessimistic conclusion casting doubt on theope that we can escape from our present environmental difficulties by means of a transformation of consciousnessUsing the vast expanse of Chinese Destiny and Power history as a source of examplese finds that the pursuit of profit and military advantage tends to trump any enlightened view about the environment a culture might My Rocky Romance Diary (Diaries of Kelly Ann, have Aeightened appreciation of Nature may come about as a reaction to its very destruction but not prevent such destruction in the long runThe book contains a surprising insight about technological and economic development even if they allow greater control over nature and The Café Book huge increases in population they may in fact worsen the average uality of life in some cases I was reminded of Derek Parfit s thorny dilemma of population ethics the repugnant conclusion How can we adjudicate ethically between a small population and a much larger population with worse uality of life Jared Diamond argues inis essay The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race that agriculturalists lived shorter lives and were less ealthy than unter gatherers Elvin sees to agree He recounts that ancient rulers often ad to force their subjects to take on agriculture And see this uote from the book Are Diamond and Elvin perhaps over romanticizing pre agricultural timesThere s a lot to this book for example ow Elvin corrects Max Weber s misconceptions about Chinese culture It can get a bit Models Dont Eat Chocolate Cookies heavy going at times but I recommend it Enormous disjointed and a dense read The Retreat of the Elephants is nonetheless an extraordinary work of scholarship even if its final form is not easily digested Mark Elvin looks at four thousand years of Chineseistory to show the gap between the Chinese people s love of nature and the simultaneous destruction of the environment for the sake of commerce and political power By the 1800s China ad undertaken environmentally intensive projects than the West China s environmental degradation was also becoming severe by the present day that degradation as become catastrophic and unsustainable The book wanders over much ground covering religion poetry Shalias Diary (Shalias Diary, hydraulics and watershed management imperial politics superstition legends comparative studies of different provinces warfare the use of nature in war longevity and food In many ways this book reads like the summary of a pathbreaking conference it lays out the parameters of a field and gives otheristorians topics to write about However I do disagree with Elvin s contention that environmental Scruples Two history only applies to the period for which weave written sources about the environment I and uite a few biologists geologists would contend that we can use natural evidence to tell us about the Earth s What Janie Found (Janie Johnson, history and mankind s relationship with nature before writing was invented Retreat of the Elephants was kind of an odd book Mark Elvin provides a massive review of thousands of years of Chinese environmentalistory and was apparently the first westerner to attempt this task Most of the general takeaways of the book are covered in the first several chapters which are about a third of the overall length The rest of the book chiefly deals with seemingly cherry picked in depth examples that are supposed to exemplify some aspect of Chinese attitudes towards and interactions with their natural environment at various points in the country s long istory These middle and later chapters deal with things such as the istory of three specific localities a massive water management project and explications of works by certain poets and philosophers Elvin translated a Silver Tower / Strike Force / Shadow Command huge amount of archaic andistorical writings into English and Explosive Acts he rightfully considers providing this primary source material to an English speaking audience to be one of the most significant contributions of this project Unfortunatelye also chose to include vast passages of these documents in Shadowbridge (Shadowbridge, his main text rather than appendices or end notes and these translations account for a large portion of the length of this 500 page book even though most of them only contain a line or two that directly support the pointe is using them to illustrate There is a lot of interesting information in Academia de Rowan (A Tapeçaria here for sure but also much less synthesis than I was expecting and a lot of the useful nuggets are buried in page after page of poems and not always well contextualized mystical texts that make getting through this book an unnecessarily tedious chore Elvin also seemed to at times be a bit too credulous of some of the things in these writings foris own good Probably the most egregious comes in Chapter 3 when e uncritically passes along the report of a ing Dynasty writer that peacocks poison the environment by becoming so abundant in undisturbed forest that they fouled miles of rivers with their droppings and that somehow this is an example of extensive forest cover being bad for the environment Needless to say I think most modern ecologists would be as skeptical of this anecdote as I am personally I suspect the writer ad observed something like a red tide event and in grappling for an explanation linked them to is unrelated observation that these conspicuous birds were common in the area Again there is also some really interesting stuff in the book especially the early chapters descriptions of the alteration of istorical ecological communities by the ancient expansion of intensive agriculture out of the ethnic Han Queens Gambit (The Tudor Trilogy, heartland including the titular retreat of the elephants and the later discussion of the long term costs of technological lock in of large scale water management systems However I think most of the really useful synthesise presents probably could ave been covered in a much shorter book or a couple monographs This is no doubt an important work in the specific field of Chinese environmental istory but it really is geared towards a technical specialist doing research work in this area rather than ecologists natural The Camping Cookbook historians or general readers. Lities within China to showow ecological dynamics defined the lives of the inhabitants And Absalom, Absalom! he shows that China in the eighteenth century on the eve of the modern era was probably environmentally degraded than northwestern Europe around this time Indispensable for its new perspective on long term Chineseistory and its explanation of the roots of China’s present day environmental crisis this book opens a door into the Chinese past.

Ot romanticize the efforts of millions over the centuries to survive in the face of countless threats But e does at each point at which the evidence allows account for the trade offs and costs for each gain in security and for the epic loss resulting from the trade of ecological richness for uman riches Elephants in China Yes and Forests TooEvery once in a while you come across a book so original and thought provoking that you make you gasp in admiration The Retreat of the Elephants An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin is such a book It turned up when I was doing a search about the difficult relation between Black Stone humans and forests overistory as part of the research for my next non fiction project Road through Time A little time trolling library catalogues and data bases and I came up with a fascinating reading list that I m currently working my through Another good one i I On Liberty have to admit defeat on this it s academic than I was looking for and it addresses the modern era less than I doped I suspect the writing is denser than it needs to be but since I might not be the target audience I won t leave a negative rating A great if dry in points environmental approach to the broad sweep of Chinese No Way Down history countering the common assumption that traditional Chinese philosophy Daoism etc leads to a way of life somehow inarmony with nature than the dominant philosophies and religions of the West Isabel Hilton editor of the website China Dialogue Pulled Thread Embroidery has chosen to discuss Te Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin on FiveBooks as one of the top five on English Humour for Beginners her subject China s Environmental Crisis saying that The most comprehensive and scholarlyistory of the Han people s relationship to their environmentThe environmental Absolutely on Music history of China is a very interesting one and there is this mythology that Chinese peasants are somehow in tune with nature But if you read Elvin you realise that in China thereas actually been 2000 years of unsustainable development and environmental degradation The full interview is available The Ransom of Mercy Carter here Picked up in a bookshop near the campus of the University of Chicago on a blustery fall day wanted to buy couldn t afford to buy That was nearly 15 years ago and now I finallyave the chance to read itThe first time you see China you look down at the landscape and come to the conclusion that this is a place eaten at by time at least I did If you look at the Wikipedia page showing the worst disasters of all time sorted by type you ll notice Gone for Good half of them occurred in China and you probablyaven t Lallieva (Alice Allevi, heard of most of them Maybe not any of themAnd Retreat of the Elephants is aell of a guide to the cavalcade of cruelties that forms Chinese istory the struggles against the environment and the many instances in which the environment pushed back Elvin largely based is analyses on classical poetry and e admits that this isn t an ideal tactic but it s probably the best available to modern scholars So take that grain of salt fellow empiricists but it s enjoyable all the same To build a portrait of environmental istory on a canvas spanning 4000 years in a large country with an extraordinary geographic and demographic profile like China is no easy task Somehow Mark Elvin in this book manages to pull it off with engaging stories and compelling analysis of the istorical record There ave been many reviews of this book already by Reiki And The Seven Chakras historians and theyave made a better assessment than I can in all Turning the Tide of Battle honesty makeere But let me share straight off as an ecologist who is no I Curse the River of Time historian some of the things I liked about this book and some of what I learnt The first aspect that I liked which finds little mention in other reviews is the author s extensive use of Chinese literature especially period poetry presented in translation often at length to buildis narrative and arguments Some of the poetry is telling in detail Poets who recount the plight of farmers in an era of agricultural and demographic expansion the Once I Was a Princess harsh conditions of coal miners the scarcity of fuelwood and food They write of floods and famine of forests and rain of nature as resource and as a force Not only do these evoke descriptions of the period they also bring insights into people s perceptions of the environment This is particularly used by the author in the latter parts of the bookA second aspect which was interesting is the comparison of theistory of landscapes and peoples in three different regions in China The author makes a convincing case for the strong influences that landscapes cast on Court the Night (Blood Bonds, history and conversely onow the Greed, Seeds and Slavery historical changes in people land use and resource exploitation cast their sometimes indelible mark on the landscapesFinally it is good to see the comprehensive sweep of the analysis of Chinese environmentalistory especially in the opening chapters The retreat of the elephants mentioned in the title is used as a defining marker of the decline in forests and wildlife with the expansion of farming and pre industrial development in China Deforestation is linked to erosion and rising river basins and conseuently to catastrophic floods In addition the response in terms of Demons, Deliverance, Discernment hydraulic measures of dykes and dams and canals is clearly pinned down for the additional implications that these engineering measuresave costly and constant repair and maintenance The importance of environmental buffers runs as a thread through the Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki Summary Study Guide historical narrativeThe flip side of the book is its length the varying structure of narrative and the lack of illustrative maps additionally problematic while reading on the Kindle edition It wouldave also Well Meet Again helped if the authorad presented a summary of key conclusions and concepts at the end of each section of the book The concluding remarks does a good job of setting out an analytical context and mentioning some broad conclusions while ighlighting the further work comparisons and empirical research that is reuired in future I finished reading this just as Darren Aronofsky s Noah opened in theaters uite appropriate given the book s focus on ydrological disastersIf you. Dscape Elvin chronicles the spread of the Chinese style of farming that eliminated the abitat of the elephants that populated the country alongside much of its original wildlife; the destruction of most of the forests; the impact of war on the environmental transformation of the landscape; and the re engineering of the countryside through water control systems some of gigantic size He documents the istories of three contrasting loca.

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