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The Usufructuary Ethos

Power, Politics, and Environment in the Long Eighteenth Century
Erin Drew

BUY Cloth · 234 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813945798 · $85.00 · May 2021
BUY Paper · 234 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813945804 · $39.50 · May 2021
BUY Ebook · 234 pp. · ISBN 9780813945811 · $29.50 · May 2021

Who has the right to decide how nature is used, and in what ways? Recovering an overlooked thread of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century environmental thought, Erin Drew shows that English writers of the period commonly believed that human beings had only the "usufruct" of the earth—the "right of temporary possession, use, or enjoyment of the advantages of property belonging to another, so far as may be had without causing damage or prejudice." The belief that human beings had only temporary and accountable possession of the world, which Drew labels the "usufructuary ethos," had profound ethical implications for the ways in which the English conceived of the ethics of power and use. Drew’s book traces the usufructuary ethos from the religious and legal writings of the seventeenth century through mid-eighteenth-century poems of colonial commerce, attending to the particular political, economic, and environmental pressures that shaped, transformed, and ultimately sidelined it. Although a study of past ideas, The Usufructuary Ethos resonates with contemporary debates about our human responsibilities to the natural world in the face of climate change and mass extinction.


"A fascinating study of a potent, overlooked strand of English environmental thought. With sensitive readings of eighteenth-century texts and a sharp eye on their ecological and political resonances, Drew explores fundamental assumptions about relations between humans and nonhumans that have implications for how we understand our past and our present."

Courtney Weiss Smith, Wesleyan University · Empiricist Devotions: Science, Religion, and Poetry in Early Eighteenth-Century England

Erin Drew’s The Usufructuary Ethos offers a vital contribution to scholarly conversations in ecocritical literary history, environmental history, and environmental ethics. The readings—of canonical and lesser-known poems, as well as devotional literature and political philosophy—are incisive, original, and compelling.

Tobias Menely, University of California, Davis, author of Climate and the Making of Worlds: Toward a Geohistorical Poetics

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