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Something New Under the Sun

J.R. McNeill is an environmental and world historian at Georgetown University. In this book, he places environmental degradation as well as human solutions to problems such as air pollution in a global context. Since its publication in 2000, the issue of global environmental change has become even more prominent, contentious, and politically-charged.

McNeill, J.R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.*

J.R. McNeill’s central argument in Something New Under the Sun is that in terms of human involvement in environmental change, the twentieth century is quantitatively and qualitatively different from all previous eras in human history. It is not the human activities such as agriculture, logging, or mining that are new, McNeill claims, but “for the most part the ecological peculiarity of the twentieth century is a matter of scale and intensity” (p. 4). Most environmental change is the result of economic activities, and during the twentieth century constant economic expansion has been fueled by increases in human populations. He examines the consequences for the planet’s soil, air, water, forests, and various forms of life in part one of the book; the second part analyzes the “engines of change” such as energy, technology, economics, and politics.

McNeill claims that soils have borne the brunt of the human impact on the environment. Fertilizers make it possible to replenish the soil and feed about 2 billion people, but chemical industries also cause soil pollution that contaminates crops. Since the 1950s, what he identifies as the third great global surge of soil erosion has particularly affected tropical regions as they have become more integrated into the world market economy. He argues that generally, “two chief factors explain modern increases in erosion: migration or growth of population, and the intensification of market links” (p. 47). His figures are quite sobering, such as the fact that China has lost 31 percent of its arable land to soil erosion since 1978.

McNeill examines air pollution at the local, or urban level, as well as regionally and globally. While modern urban air pollution primarily results from population density and automobiles, heavy industries are the primary culprits in regional air pollution (like the cement plants in Midlothian, Texas, just south of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex).** He turns next to air pollution at the global level, such as CFCs and greenhouse gases. Subsequent chapters analyze water use and abuse, deforestation, whaling, species invasions, and the linked changes in energy, technology, and economics. The final part of the book analyzes some of the “swirl of ideas, policies, and political structures of the twentieth century” and concludes that the “growth imperative” and “security anxiety” were the most environmentally significant (p. 355).

One of the strengths of the book is that McNeill points out that there are solutions to even very serious environmental problems. U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have been able to significantly improve their air quality and Japan achieved what he calls an “environmental miracle” by the mid 1980s. However, these successes have primarily been due to the fact that pollution controls could be implemented in these wealthy First World countries without sacrificing economic growth. Poorer nations such as Mexico have been much less willing or able to attempt similar policies. I was also puzzled that he neglected to mention genetically-modified foods in his discussion of the Green Revolution. I know very little about the subject myself, but recently heard a scientist describe this technology as a “vast uncontrolled experiment,” which is nearly identical to the rhetoric used by the scientists who discovered the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer, and McNeill himself (p. 4). The consequences of “genetic pollution” from GM crops may be equally staggering, especially in terms of destroying the genetic diversity that enables species to adapt to environmental changes.


Notes:

*Another response paper from a reading seminar in U.S. and global environmental history. Although primarily intended for my professor, it is styled in the standard format of professional journals in the field, and I hope does not reflect too badly on them. I sometimes think it’s important for the so-called general public (although E2 writers and readers are certainly a distinctive and far more knowledgeable subset) to see some of what historians actually do, such as reading and writing critical analyses of other historians’ books. See, for example, McNeill’s review of Jared Diamond's immensely popular book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997):

Diamond's book is very distinctive in several respects. First, it takes on the very big picture, treating the human experience as a whole. Professional historians are very averse to doing this themselves, trained as they are to consult documents and tease out their meanings. Even the growing cadre of world historians only rarely produces a bold soul willing to venture onto ground where his or her expertise is inevitably paper thin. It is a striking fact that most of the big picture histories have been written by people not trained as historians. Diamond's background is in physiology and evolutionary biology.

**Especially if you live in North Texas, see also: Downwinders at Risk, http://www.cementkiln.com/

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