The central proposition in John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun is that human activity during the twentieth century provoked environmental change on an unprecedented scale. Although not the first book to make this claim, McNeill’s work is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on “global” history. The writing is clear and engaging, the secondary sources consulted are wide-ranging and remarkably up-to-date, and the author avoids the breathless and moralizing tones in which environmental issues are sometimes addressed. The book’s sweeping perspective effectively conveys the often mind-boggling scale of environmental change wrought by people living in twentieth-century societies marked by different ecologies, economies, and political ideologies.
Something New Under the Sun combines the comprehensiveness of a textbook with historical analysis and brief accounts of some key events in twentieth century environmental history. The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to chapters that describe the transformations of the planet’s physical and biological resources. The chapters are organized around what environmental scientists refer to as “media” (i.e., land, air, and water) and biological resources (flora and fauna). Individual chapters combine descriptions of broad trends with sketches of environmental transformations in specific places and regions. This organization enables the author to reveal linkages between ideas, places, and processes that are seldom brought together under one study. For example, in a chapter entitled “The Biosphere: Eat and Be Eaten,” McNeill identifies both parallels and interactions between two pillars of modernity: high-input agriculture and public health. He notes the degree to which both food production and health care systems have contributed to extending human life spans while simultaneously calling attention to their fragility and dependency on increasingly complex and energy-intensive technologies.
In another chapter, McNeill offers an all-too-brief comparative history of the North American and Brazilian Atlantic forests. In the case of the eastern United States, forests began to regenerate during the twentieth century, while in Brazil the Atlantic forest continued to shrink. The explanation for the divergent pathways—that technological and social changes in the U.S reduced pressures on forests—is not entirely convincing, but the example illustrates how McNeill’s willingness to cross geopolitical and disciplinary boundaries raises provocative comparisons that point the way toward new avenues of research.
The last third of the book examines what the author calls the “engines of change:” population, urbanization, technologies (particularly fossil fuels), economic structures, politics, and ideologies. Not surprisingly—given the daunting task of explaining environmental change on a global scale—this is the section that many social and cultural historians are likely to find the most problematic. McNeill is careful to stress that the forces of change were multiple and interwoven, yet the scope of the work leads to instances of oversimplification and/or over-generalization about complex processes that seldom operated evenly throughout the globe. [End Page 183]
For example, McNeill argues that “food demand drove most of the century’s doubling of cropland, helped to fuel the Green Revolution, and multiplied the world’s fishing effort,” (p. 275). However, in many parts of Latin America (the region with which this reviewer is most familiar), the expansion of agriculture during the twentieth century resulted from land speculation, state-sponsored land colonization, and expanding export markets for products such as cattle, coffee, and cotton—projects that had little to do with feeding hungry mouths. Furthermore, the book’s global lens does not have a fine enough focus to distinguish between different kinds of croplands and production systems. Thus, there is no way to distinguish the environmental impacts of shade-coffee farms in Costa Rica from those associated with Brazilian monocrop plantations, two qualitatively distinct ways of producing coffee for global markets.
The book’s broad scope also severely limits its ability to convey a sense of how race, class, ethnicity, gender, and culture shaped the historical meanings of these profound environmental transformations. McNeill acknowledges that “surges in population, production, and...