The natural world is going to hell in a handbasket. That is now a perception widely held across the globe, reinforced by the occasional issuance of national and international surveys of the declining state of biodiversity. Not very long ago, Bill McKibben ( 2006) went so far as to suggest that we should declare “the end of nature”—a motion that Jedediah Purdy (2015) later seconded by instructing us that we all needed to learn to live in and with a world “after nature” (unless perhaps we could be happy constructing our own nature, which Braverman  claims we have been doing for some time).
These observations are deeply disconcerting, because they appear to mean that, depending on where you start to count, a half century or more of determined and often quite imaginative legal and policy interventions at all levels of government and across the globe have conspicuously failed to halt nature’s decline. So, who or what is to blame? And what do we do about it?
For many years, the scholarly search for answers to these questions has created a burgeoning, interdisciplinary literature about environment and empires (Beinart and Hughes 2009; Butlin 2009; Crosby  2004; Grove 1995; MacKenzie 1988, 1990). In this fascinating body of work, major attention is given to the culpability of imperial ambitions for the decline and fall of nature around the world, and most especially to the marriage of those imperial ambitions in the nineteenth century to industrial capitalism, the principal engine through which colonial nature has been turned into commodities and profitably exploited. The urge to exercise dominion over distant people and places, understood as little more than resources needed to keep the homeland alive and well, and morally and legally superior (Fitzmaurice 2014), has fueled a vigorous, often ruthless, sometimes criminal, frequently inept, and thoroughly unsustainable exploitation of nature across the globe. The consequences of imperialism and colonialism for nature have been devastating.
David Johns would like us to reckon with the significance of empires in the decline and fall of nature by characterizing contemporary environmental politics across the globe as “the last anti-colonial battle.” It is, he believes, a battle that can be won if we approach it as a giant problem in political engineering, where the objective is a drastic rebalancing of the power to manage nature in favor of skillfully mobilized mass publics. His central argument is that the decline and fall of nature, which he reduces to the loss of species and healthy ecosystems, is best understood as a consequence of the human imposition on the nonhuman world of a colonial relationship of exploitation and domination.
He asks how this domination originated and was accomplished politically and then asks how it can be counteracted by asking what seem to him to be the right questions, by “taking the offensive” and learning from other political movements, by applying those lessons with the help of the science of conservation biology to various terrestrial and marine environments, and by foregrounding in global environmental politics what he calls “the human obligation to the wild.”
This same political engineering theme is echoed on a more micro scale by Rachel DeMotts. She points out how much more successful the creation of transfrontier or peace parks in Africa would be if the outcomes they yield on the ground could be meaningfully shaped by the people who live on that ground, or who did live on it before implementation of the peace park idea required their removal. Her specific focus and the site for her detailed field research is the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in southern Africa, an initiative that supposedly “takes down the fences” (xiv) between three existing national parks in Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
DeMotts argues that better policy outcomes for peace parks can be engineered by taking public participation in decision-making more seriously, above all by acknowledging the legitimacy of the claims local people make that the nature enclosed by the peace park belongs as much to them as to anyone else, probably more so. Her description of the imperious way the officials charged with planning, establishing, and managing the park treated local people and forced many of them to resettle, the empirical core of the book, is disheartening, even difficult to read. But it is in line with other instances of forced removal in the creation of African wildlife parks. And it raises a bigger and more important question that unfortunately she does not treat at length: whether, as Bram Büscher (2013) argued earlier, the international peace park idea that has diffused across Africa represents an unacceptable resurrection of colonialism.
So, while the light DeMotts shines on the lack of real public participation in African wildlife conservation is fascinating, her argument that reengineering such participation would solve a lot of problems seems to miss the mark. Although the scholarly impulse to analyze the environmental consequences of the scramble for colonies that was ended by the First World War in Africa is alive and well (Gissibl 2016; Schauer 2019), it is preoccupied with the extent to which assumptions about how to manage resources successfully in distant colonies, most especially the charismatic wildlife in British and German East and Central Africa, were undercut by the refusal of metropolitan elites in London and Berlin to engage with conditions on the ground—or, perhaps more pointedly, by the inability of distant elites to adapt their own cherished ideas about how and for whose benefit the natural world ought to work to the possibility that in distant colonies it could and should work differently.
And in the case of the British Empire, the influence of this conceptual imperialism continued to be felt even as the empire began to be dismantled. As Schauer demonstrates, postcolonial regimes took their cues about how to manage what the newly independent states wanted to think of as their nature from ideas the empire left behind—ideas wildlife imperialists had embedded in the “elephant treaties” (Adam 2014), now the crown jewels among global regimes for the conservation of biodiversity.
Over time, and not just in the period when nineteenth-century European empires were in their prime, the demands imperial centers placed on their colonial peripheries for resources induced major environmental changes in those colonies. This conclusion holds not only across different regions of the world but also across a variety of resources, whether minerals, forests, fisheries, rivers and lakes, coasts and deltas, wildlife, or land cleared of plants to produce, often on a plantation basis, other plants more valuable in international commerce. It even holds, albeit in strikingly different ways, for the autonomous empires of China (Marks 2012) and Japan (Totman 2014).
The actual and potential environmental changes induced by imperial demands have typically been judged to be so alarming that only very ambitious legal and political responses have seemed sufficient to the task of saving nature, before it’s too late. Some current manifestations of those ambitious proposals surface in the books considered here, ranging from a call for the massive mobilization of public participation in the still ongoing global battle against colonialism to the complete abolition of wildlife trading to the designation of international peace parks to conserve charismatic megafauna.
None of these proposals has much chance of real-world success. The notion, for example, that global environmental politics can be radically transformed through public participation in environmental policy making, across all the world’s varied political systems, has a superficial implausibility that is hard to shake off, notwithstanding the energy and sincerity with which it is advanced. And in the case of wildlife trafficking and habitat protection, we have sufficient experience with previous policy interventions to know that the imposition of trade bans and the designation of new conservation fortresses, even big ones that span national boundaries and link ecosystems, are imperfect instruments for saving nature (Brockington et al. 2008; Duffy 2010; Gissibl et al. 2012; Weber et al. 2015). These interventions create at least as many problems as they solve, for postcolonial peoples as well as for postcolonial nature.
Suppose that in the longue durée (Guldi and Armitage 2014) the significance for environmental change of colonial moments (Roberts 1990) and their accompanying imperial mind-sets is more complicated than this. While attempts to reckon with relationships between empires and global environmental change in the context of relatively recent European imperial ambitions might explain these relationships in the case of the European empires, what would they tell us about the Greeks and the Romans, about the Aztec and Inca Empires, about the Mongols and the Ottomans, about the Hapsburgs, and about the relatively autonomous Chinese and Japanese Empires not caught up to the same extent as others in processes of global commercial exchange? These empires all left environmental footprints that were more or less enduring.
Imperialists wanted control over the nature they encountered in various ways in various distant places, and usually over the people too. A great deal of time and effort have been expended to explain how this political economy dynamic played itself out in different empires, in different parts of the world, at different moments in time—and to explain, too, how imperial experiences of interactions with nature stimulated enhanced environmental sensibilities, as the environmentally destructive impacts of exploitation began to become apparent and understood (Grove 1995). And when a different political economy dynamic began to take hold in response to these sensibilities, efforts to internalize some, at least, of the costliest of these externalities, most notably perhaps species extinction, found their way into law and policy.
But are empires to be understood first and foremost as powerful engines, at least for a time, of the economic exploitation of nature, invariably bringing environmental destruction in their wake? The downside of this view is its deflection of our interest away from what is a much more fundamental political process at work in empires, one that is arguably antecedent to economic exploitation, namely, the process of subordination—the process by which distant places and people are enclosed within an imperial regime and denied a life of their own, until and unless they again achieve independence.
This is close to the point at which Rosemary-Claire Collard begins her analysis of the global trade in exotic animals to be used as pets. She tracks across various species the process by which animals are captured in Central American biosphere reserves. She then examines the mechanics of their exchange at exotic animal auctions in the United States. And finally, she unfolds the process by which the rehabilitation of former pets is attempted at a wildlife center in Guatemala. Her book is an important and original adaptation of commodity chain analysis to living things. “My overarching questions in this book are,” she writes, “How do living things … come to appear as if they do not have lives of their own. [How] are their lives made not their own?” (18). Her answers, which begin to give empirical substance to the philosophical arguments advanced by Christine Korsgaard (2018), should have a major impact on the way we think about the history and effects of changing relationships between people and animals, including those attributable to empires.
Collard begins by observing that the practice of keeping exotic animals as pets goes back thousands of years to some of the earliest efforts at empire building and colonialism, when wild animals were captured, collected, and displayed by political and military elites to animate assertions of and claims to power. “With the onset of European imperial expansion,” she writes, “captive animals and colonized people were put on display in colonial centers, standing in for conquered distant territories, [as] a demonstration of the ‘spoils of empire’ and a testament to … colonial power” (10–11). Such displays signaled that political enclosure had occurred and that subordination of the human and nonhuman subjects in the resulting colonies would ensue, along with the extraction of many of their natural resources.
By the time exotic animal keeping moved into Victorian private homes, for reasons explored by Harriet Ritvo (1987), the principal rationale for it had changed. Large numbers of people believed it was both possible and acceptable to keep exotic pets as objects of affection and sentimental attachment. The spatial scale across which the enclosure and subordination of exotic animals are enacted shifted over time from empire and colony to cages and aquaria in suburban living rooms. But Collard makes it quite clear that this shift in the scale of pet keeping has had no impact on the willingness of people who say they keep exotic pets because they love them to acknowledge that what they are really doing is cutting their loveable pets off from the complex history of their own being and therefore from the relationships with their own environments that their life histories entail.
Although Collard does not go so far as to say so, it is reasonable to imply from her work that the imperium homeowners now exercise over exotic birds kept in cages is essentially no different from that which humans have exercised over all animals for many centuries past. And her book assuredly establishes that, if global environmental politics is going to meet the challenge of controlling the defaunation the exotic pet trade has set in motion (Weis 2018), that imperium will have to be broken, with the most likely first step being the stiff regulation, perhaps even the closure, of exotic animal markets.