Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 516-518
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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. By J. R. MCNEILL. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. Pp. xxvi + 421. $29.95 (cloth).
This is a superb book. John McNeill's title corrects Ecclesiastics' claim that there is "nothing new under the sun." On the contrary, he says, there is something new, and this novel phenomenon is the central theme of his book. McNeill argues that the human impact on the biosphere in the twentieth century is utterly unprecedented in human history. Indeed, it may be significant even on the larger scale of planetary history, for his discussion of atmospheric pollution concludes that: "For most of earth's history, microbes played the leading role of all life in shaping the atmosphere. In the twentieth century, humankind stumbled blindly into this role" (p. 51).
McNeill's thesis implies that the conventional historiography of the twentieth century has missed something rather important. According to McNeill, future historians of the twentieth century will notice above all else the environmental changes. "The human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I think, this will appear as the most important aspect of twentieth-century history, more so than World War II, the communist enterprise, the rise of mass literacy, the spread of democracy, or the growing emancipation of women" (p. 4). In themselves, of course, human ecological impacts were nothing new; what was new was the staggering increase in these impacts. To take just two illustrations of the speedup: in 1900, world GNP was c. $1.98 trillion (less than that of Japan in the early 1990 s); by 1992 it stood at c. $28 trillion. In less than a century, world GNP grew 14 times (p. 6). The energy harvested by human societies increased by a similar ratio, or by about sixteen times (p. 14); this means that humans in the twentieth century used more energy than in the entire period from 10,000 B.P. to 1900 (p. 15). Equally striking are the increases in inequality. For example, "The average American in the 1990s used 50 to 100 times as much energy as the average Bangladeshi and directed upwards of 75 energy slaves while the Bangladeshi had less than one" (p. 16). [End Page 516] McNeill's account of twentieth-century history should set up a fruitful historiographical contrast with more familiar accounts, such as Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes. Teachers of history at all levels should get a lot of mileage from contrasting these approaches.
His argument for the importance of environmental change is certainly persuasive. McNeill points out (p. 103) that air pollution may have killed between 25 and 40 million people in the twentieth century, which is similar to the combined casualties in the two world wars, or to the death toll from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. And he argues that the war between humans and disease bacteria was perhaps the most brutal of all twentieth-century wars. Human victories in this epic conflict may have added twenty years to average life expectancies (p. 199); but the eventual outcome remains uncertain as microbial empires strike back with new diseases and new forms of old diseases that can shield themselves against our bacteriological armory.
To defend his central thesis, McNeill offers a systematic account of human impacts on the environment. He surveys the human impact on the land and soils (the Lithosphere and Pedosphere), the atmosphere, the "hydrosphere," and other organisms (the biosphere). In the second half of the book, McNeill looks at dynamic processes or "Engines of Change," such as population growth, urbanization, technological change, and changes in attitudes. In addition (and of particular interest for world historians), he sets these changes in the wider context of deep history. He does this both in the general prologue (which contains superb...