Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2014
John Richards' The Unending Frontier is a magisterial survey of the formation of a globally connected society in the early modern age. For Richards, the main forces creating a global society were ‘a critical conjuncture between two developments: the expansive dynamism of European early modern capitalist societies, and the shared evolutionary progress in human organization that appears to have reached a critical threshold across Eurasia, if not the entire world’. These two forces—markets and states—drove the increasingly intensive exploitation of natural resources around the globe, uniting continents, empires and traders in a tighter network of trade and administration. It is a brilliant synthesis of environmental and political history, which will shape all future work on this period.
For Richards, frontiers are sites of penetration by outsiders seeking control over borders and productive natural resources. A relentless process of warfare, consolidation, investment and exploitation of nature leads over the long run to heavy resource usage, and often exhaustion, driving the conquerors to push farther into the hinterlands in search of further gains. Native peoples of the frontier borderlands, for the most part, are merely victims of the much more powerful organized states and trading companies around them.
Although the nineteenth century is not the subject of this book, and the North American continent appears only in discussion of the fur trade, the ghost of Frederick J. Turner still hovers over Richards' work. It is now not a uniquely American story, but a global one, and it begins three centuries earlier. Still, the story of penetration of empty or underutilized lands and their increasingly intensive exploitation resonates with Turner’s original account.