- The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945by J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke
Over the last few years, the Anthropocene has become a remarkably hot topic, both within academia and in the public sphere. Scholars and activists from all disciplines have embraced, challenged, and contested this amorphous and seemingly all-encompassing concept of the Age of Humans. These debates range widely, covering the causes, implications, responsibility, and periodization of the Anthropocene. The stakes are high, since this is where geological time bleeds into the present. In 1885, the International Geological Congress officially adopted the Holocene as a name for the current geological epoch characterized by stability of climate, allowing a flourishing of human civilization. The Anthropocene represents a break with the stability of the Holocene, characterizing a world irrevocably changed by the technologically augmented activities of humanity.
The Great Accelerationis an environmental history of the Anthropocene, organized in four chapters that center on energy and population; climate and biological diversity; cities and the economy; and the cold war and environmental change. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke tell a large story in a short book, easy to read and filled with many illustrative mini-histories from across the world. This aggregated approach leads to few identifiable historical actors besides countries and corporations, which leaves individual human agency and responsibility in the Anthropocene an unanswered question.
McNeill and Engelke place the start of the Anthropocene within the exponential escalation of the human impact on Earth and the biosphere since 1945, often called the Great Acceleration. Energy stands at the center of the story they tell, using both statistics and short historical examples. For instance, they highlight that since 1945, three-quarters of the human-caused loading of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide took place; the number of motor vehicles increased from 40 million to 850 million; the number of [End Page 623]people tripled, a large part in cities; the production of plastics grew from 1 million tons in 1950 to 300 million tons in 2015; and synthesized nitrogen (largely for fertilizers) grew from under 4 million tons to 85 million tons. The point with these many and often technology-based factoids that fill the book is that within a human lifetime, our impact on the planet and its resources has accelerated dramatically. McNeill and Engelke argue that this development has a physical limitation, as we are burning through the resources that this acceleration utterly depends on.
Technology is absolutely central to their analysis, though it is seldom explicitly discussed in the book. Instead, technologies indirectly shape the Anthropocene through agriculture, fishing, deforestation, urbanization, transportation, and scientific monitoring of the world. But more than anything, McNeill and Engelke treat technology as a means of unlocking new energy sources and of extracting millions of years of prior photosynthesis stored underground.
Like so much scholarship on the Anthropocene, this book can be depressing reading. There is a clear underlying story of humanity as interested in maximizing short-term gains, effectively making the Anthropocene a tragedy of the commons. Yet McNeill and Engelke make sure to highlight some positive trends, such as ongoing transitions to cleaner energy sources. Likewise, new technology made economically viable by political regulation (often instigated by citizen action) has reduced environmental damage, but one could argue that this is often countered by growth in consumption. It is clear from their book that the future depends on the crafting of new energy systems. A shift toward non-fossil fuels will likely slow down the Great Acceleration, but the Anthropocene will continue and its consequences will linger for a long time. The Great Acceleration may be a blip in time, but the Anthropocene is not.
The Anthropocene debate represents an arena for increased visibility and relevance of historical scholarship. It is arguably the first geological age to fully reside in the domain of what we do as historians. As a result, historians are being invited into these debates...