A Book I Want to Read

August 31, 2002

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Global Century Series), J.R. McNeill

Reviewer: Alexander from Mazyr

In Something New Under the Sun, J.R. McNeill reconstructs the environmental history of the world over the past hundred years. His central theme is that the twentieth century was the first time in history when humanity could determine the health and success of every single species and ecosystem on Earth. He is equally interested in how and why humanity altered global ecology and the accidental byproducts of those actions. McNeil contends that we are gambling that we can sustain our fossil-fuel based civilization, which is ecologically destructive and dependent on the maintenance of a specific set of environmental conditions. McNeill illustrates this point by dividing all animals into two categories: rats (animals that adapt to changing environments) and sharks (animals that adapt to existing circumstances). He contends that many species survived for millennia using shark-like strategies, providing there was no ecological change. While McNeill observes that humanity has succeeded in large part by pursuing rat-like evolutionary strategies, he postulates that humanity's adoption of more shark-like development strategies in the twentieth century may be dangerous in the long run, given that these same strategies can produce rapid ecological change.

Despite these clear dangers, McNeill argues that shark-like development policies were rational given the political, economic and social conditions in the twentieth century. In particular, he demonstrates that this form of development was conducive to innovations and large-scale projects that produced immediate material and environmental benefits as well as unexpected, less immediately visible side effects. The tension produced by a tradeoff between improving the standard of living and environmental change is critical to McNeill's vision and appears repeatedly throughout the book. He limns this tradeoff clearly in his discussion of the transition from an economy dependent on horses/trains and coal/wood to one that uses petroleum and the automobile. (He labels this invention "a strong contender for the most socially and environmentally consequential technology of the twentieth century.") According to McNeill, the coal/wood and horse/train economy depleted trees rapidly and polluted the air and streets of cities with coal exhaust and dung. The new system, by contrast, did not threaten forests, produced cleaner air and did not clog the streets with animal waste. At the same, he shows that extracting petroleum decimated whole ecosystems and that the burning of petroleum produced harmful greenhouse gasses. Even within these systems, McNeill notes, there were winners and losers: in the Ruhr Valley unionized workers accepted pollution at high levels if it preserved their jobs, while housewives and farmers pushed to end pollution.

McNeill's strongest chapters deal with the environmental, social and material changes resulting from the advances in agriculture and public health in the twentieth century. The most important of these changes was the surge in human population-vividly illustrated by McNeill's estimate that 20 percent of all the humans who have ever lived were born after 1940. The environmental impact of new farming technologies (pesticides, tractors and collective farms) and dams, drainage of wetlands and other water control measures often meant to assist agriculture were also significant. As for public health, McNeill emphasizes the importance of advances in sewage treatment and vaccination in improving the life-expectancy of urban dwellers and insuring that more soldiers died in combat rather than of disease. He then ties these measures to cultural, economic and political conditions both within states and on the world stage. Here McNeill reveals one of his key insights: the close connection between ideology and the treatment of the environment in the twentieth century. Using this insight, he demonstrates that the human actions that most affected the earth's ecology-such as the construction of dams and policies promoting rapid economic growth-were justified in ideological terms and central to maintaining political legitimacy. McNeill is also correct to emphasize the new consciousness and governmental policies that the environmental movement produced worldwide after 1970.

McNeill's well-written book nicely harmonizes the environmental history of the earth over the last century and demonstrates the uniqueness of that history. The many visual aids are a boon to the reader since they make his arguments and the multitude of statistics he presents clearer. McNeill, however, only focuses on political changes at a macro level; he rarely provides specifics on the policies of individual governments. This is an important flaw given the role of governments over the past century in regulating and funding activities that produce ecological change. Nor is it clear to whom McNeill is writing. While he limits himself to academic sources, his writing style is informal and he does not provide the evaluation of sources usually included in academic works as long his book. Undoubtedly the absence of a bibliographical essay reflects the number and variety of sources necessary for a book on the history of the environment, but his decision not to include such an essay deprives his readers of the understanding they deserve of the sources McNeill cites. The book's biography has a number of important omissions as well. One wonders why McNeill did not cite Roger Owen in the book's discussion of cotton in nineteenth-century Egypt or Charles Davies when discussing Los Angeles --

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