- The Cambridge World History. Volume VII. Production, Destruction, and Connection, 1750–Present. Part 1: Structures, Spaces, and Boundary Making ed. by J. R. Mcneill and Kenneth Pomeranz, and: The Cambridge World History. Volume VII. Production, Destruction, and Connection, 1750–Present. Part 2: Shared Transformations? ed. by J. R. Mcneill and Kenneth Pomeranz
In 1986, Alfred W. Crosby, who recently passed away, published his ground-breaking study Ecological Imperialism. The Biological Expansion of [End Page 318] Europe, 900–1900. One of his most remarkable statements was that, at least relative to what had gone before, between the domestication of the horse around 5000 years ago and the voyages of Columbus, 'little of importance happened'.1 In the words of Crosby: 'Indeed, very little happened that was truly new – just more of the same thing […] There are some new developments […] but they are of minor significance compared to what had gone before […] The dominant theme in the Old World is emulation, not innovation'.2 In fact, there are quite some historians who state that it would take even longer before new and society transforming events took place, i.e. the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, as the renowned historian Matthew Smith Anderson claims, 'during the eighteenth century the continent was still, in its everyday life, closer to the twelfth century than to the twentieth'.3
That would all change in the course of the nineteenth century, which saw, it could be claimed, the most dramatic changes ever recorded in human history. Around 1800 there was no electricity, railways, automobiles, aircraft, telegraph and telephone and numerous other inventions so normal to the present-day society. By 1900, this had all changed completely, at least in Europe and the United States of America. Living standards had improved, be it at a very slow pace, and a number of endemic diseased belonged to the past thanks in part to an elaborate vaccination program (Jenner, Pasteur, Koch), but probably above all because of a better hygiene.4
At the same time, there were still serious threats to public health. For example, as stated by both Robert J. Gordon and Richard J. Evans, cities were still places full of horses: 'It was estimated that 20,000 tons of horse droppings had to be cleared away from London's streets every year in the 1850s; thirty years later, 100,000 tons of dung were being removed from the streets of Berlin each year'.5 However, as the nineteenth century progressed, the government took city planning, improved hygiene and a start of a kind of social welfare ever more [End Page 319] seriously, as 'civic pride and bourgeois squeamishness combined to overcome these problems'.6
In the impressive two volumes of The Cambridge World History. Volume VII. Production, Destruction, and Connection, 1750–present, edited by renowned scholars John Robert McNeill and Kenneth Pomeranz, the editors put the starting point of the momentous changes of the last two and a half centuries slightly earlier than the nineteenth century. However, in the first volume, Structures, Spaces, and Boundary Making, which above all compares and globally studies the material aspects of life, they state that from 1750 onwards 'material production and destruction have, by many measures, changed more dramatically than in all the rest of human history' (p. 2).
Dazzling in their scope, the two volumes under review here cover a very broad range of topics, varying from discussions of specific years (1956, 1989) to global industrialization, and from genocide to the history of industrial rubber. McNeill and Pomeranz make clear that to study the various developments since halfway the eighteenth century, a different periodization can also be used. It is fitting indeed that historians have been labelled...