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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (The Global Century Series)
 
 

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (The Global Century Series) [Kindle Edition]

J. R. McNeill
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J.R. McNeill, a professor of history at Georgetown University, visits the annals of the past century only to return to the present with bad news: in that 100-year span, he writes, the industrialized and developing nations of the world have wrought damage to nearly every part of the globe. That much seems obvious to even the most casual reader, but what emerges, and forcefully, from McNeill's pages is just how extensive that damage has been. For example, he writes, "soil degradation in one form or another now affects one-third of the world's land surface," larger by far than the world's cultivated areas. Things are worse in some places than in others; McNeill observes that Africa is "the only continent where food production per capita declined after 1960," due to the loss of productive soil. McNeill's litany continues: the air in most of the world's cities is perilously unhealthy; the drinking water across much of the planet is growing ever more polluted; the human species is increasingly locked "in a rigid and uneasy bond with modern agriculture," which trades the promise of abundant food for the use of carcinogenic pesticides and fossil fuels.

The environmental changes of the last century, McNeill closes by saying, are on an unprecedented scale, so much so that we can scarcely begin to fathom their implications. We can, however, start to think about them, and McNeill's book is a helpful primer. --Gregory McNamee

Amazon.com

J.R. McNeill, a professor of history at Georgetown University, visits the annals of the past century only to return to the present with bad news: in that 100-year span, he writes, the industrialized and developing nations of the world have wrought damage to nearly every part of the globe. That much seems obvious to even the most casual reader, but what emerges, and forcefully, from McNeill's pages is just how extensive that damage has been. For example, he writes, "soil degradation in one form or another now affects one-third of the world's land surface," larger by far than the world's cultivated areas. Things are worse in some places than in others; McNeill observes that Africa is "the only continent where food production per capita declined after 1960," due to the loss of productive soil. McNeill's litany continues: the air in most of the world's cities is perilously unhealthy; the drinking water across much of the planet is growing ever more polluted; the human species is increasingly locked "in a rigid and uneasy bond with modern agriculture," which trades the promise of abundant food for the use of carcinogenic pesticides and fossil fuels.

The environmental changes of the last century, McNeill closes by saying, are on an unprecedented scale, so much so that we can scarcely begin to fathom their implications. We can, however, start to think about them, and McNeill's book is a helpful primer. --Gregory McNamee


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4 von 4 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen The 20th Century: Prodigal or Profligate? 1. August 2000
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
"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." (J. R. McNeill)
Over the past few years there have been a spate of histories of the 20th century. Most of them have been written from traditional, often Eurocentric, historical perspectives that focus upon political history set in the context of socioeconomic development and ideological and military conflict. J. R. McNeill's *Something New Under the Sun* replaces the political narrative, usually found at the center of histories, with an environmental one. It invites readers to reevaluate the legacy of the 20th century.
By any measure, the 20th century is, as McNeill characterizes it, "a prodigal century." In terms of growth of population, economic development, and energy production and consumption, it is a case of 'quantity having a quality of its own.' On the one hand, it is a triumph of the human species. (McNeill suggests readers consider that over the past 4 billion years of human history, 20% of all human life-years took place in the 20th century.) On the other hand, this prodigal century - this triumph of human ingenuity - has also exacted an unprecedented environmental cost. It is this trade-off that McNeill's book explores.
McNeill's approach is interdisciplinary, and the book is divided into two sections. The first section is organized around transformations to the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere, and the resulting pollution and resource depletion.
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Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
J.R. McNeill's Something New Under The Sun provides a fine environmental history of the 20th century, blending history with science in a piece which charts the significance of politics and cultural change to environmental and ecological concerns. From addressing environmental issues and experiencing successes and failures to reversing adverse conditions, this presents an excellent history.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 von 5 Sternen  31 Rezensionen
31 von 34 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Of rats, sharks, and history 29. März 2002
Von "michaeleve" - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Taschenbuch
Most science writing nowadays must be interdisciplinary; able to use empirical evidence and relevant concepts, theories, and conclusions from vastly different fields of enquiry. Would you expect the same of a history book? Although this book's publishing category is science/environment it really should be history. The author says as much. This is "a history of - and for - environmentally tumultuous times". And that history is broad. From the ancient days when the book of Ecclesiastes was written to our modern era of Nobel Prize winning physicists, there has been a remarkable common conception of our planet as immutable and infinite. In contrast to the biblical gentleman who said there was nothing new under the sun, or physicist Robert Millikan who saw Earth's vastness as effectively shielding it from real harm from humanity, J R McNeill sees SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN and it's simply that "the place of humankind within the natural world is not what it was."
Can we link man's history with that of the natural or biological world? Many have tried from both sides of the equation. Great historians and thinkers like Kant, Marx and Pierre Tielhard de Chardin have seen a direction and inevitability about history while Berlin and Popper spoke eloquently against historicism. This book doesn't go there nor does it tackle the attempt by some evolutionary biologists to explain all we see in life as determined at the genetic level. Great scientists from Einstein forward have sought some unifying or final theory and it's still going on. Today sociobiologists, quantum physicists and game theorists say they have the answers.
What McNeill contributes to this is his view that "in recent millennia, cultural evolution has shaped human affairs more than biological evolution has. Societies...unconsciously pursue survival strategies of adaptability or of supreme adaptation." The entire book is a brilliant exposition on this point. How mankind, like the rat, was a creature that used adaptability to select for fitness for exploitation of new niches created when short term environmental shocks killed off competition. I say "was" because McNeill convincingly argues that in the 20th century we have tended more towards the strategy of supreme adaptation. Best typified by the shark this is fine-tuned specialization that "is rewarded by continuous success only so long as governing conditions stay the same." The stability required for continued success in this system is based on "stable climate, cheap energy and water, and rapid population and economic growth". Through chapters such as "The Atmosphere: Urban History", "The Hydrosphere: Depletions, Dams and Diversions", "More People, Bigger Cities" and "Fuels, Tools and Economics" he uses tables and data and balanced and thoughtful reasoning to show that these conditions are neither static nor stable, and he effectively makes his pont. His point is not that of a Cassandra warning of an impending environmental apocalypse but something more measured. "We might then consciously choose a world that would require only irksome adaptations on our part and avoid traumatic ones." Couched in these terms his message is much more likely to be read, thought about, and most importantly acted upon. If nothing else McNeill would encourage us to act as the very process itself will "distinguish us from rats and sharks."
30 von 34 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen A unique history 24. September 2000
Von Alexander - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
In Something New Under the Sun, J.R. McNeill reconstructs the environmental history of the world over the past hundred years. His central theme is that the twentieth century was the first time in history when humanity could determine the health and success of every single species and ecosystem on Earth. He is equally interested in how and why humanity altered global ecology and the accidental byproducts of those actions. McNeil contends that we are gambling that we can sustain our fossil-fuel based civilization, which is ecologically destructive and dependent on the maintenance of a specific set of environmental conditions. McNeill illustrates this point by dividing all animals into two categories: rats (animals that adapt to changing environments) and sharks (animals that adapt to existing circumstances). He contends that many species survived for millennia using shark-like strategies, providing there was no ecological change. While McNeill observes that humanity has succeeded in large part by pursuing rat-like evolutionary strategies, he postulates that humanity's adoption of more shark-like development strategies in the twentieth century may be dangerous in the long run, given that these same strategies can produce rapid ecological change.
Despite these clear dangers, McNeill argues that shark-like development policies were rational given the political, economic and social conditions in the twentieth century. In particular, he demonstrates that this form of development was conducive to innovations and large-scale projects that produced immediate material and environmental benefits as well as unexpected, less immediately visible side effects. The tension produced by a tradeoff between improving the standard of living and environmental change is critical to McNeill's vision and appears repeatedly throughout the book. He limns this tradeoff clearly in his discussion of the transition from an economy dependent on horses/trains and coal/wood to one that uses petroleum and the automobile. (He labels this invention "a strong contender for the most socially and environmentally consequential technology of the twentieth century.") According to McNeill, the coal/wood and horse/train economy depleted trees rapidly and polluted the air and streets of cities with coal exhaust and dung. The new system, by contrast, did not threaten forests, produced cleaner air and did not clog the streets with animal waste. At the same, he shows that extracting petroleum decimated whole ecosystems and that the burning of petroleum produced harmful greenhouse gasses. Even within these systems, McNeill notes, there were winners and losers: in the Ruhr Valley unionized workers accepted pollution at high levels if it preserved their jobs, while housewives and farmers pushed to end pollution.
McNeill's strongest chapters deal with the environmental, social and material changes resulting from the advances in agriculture and public health in the twentieth century. The most important of these changes was the surge in human population-vividly illustrated by McNeill's estimate that 20 percent of all the humans who have ever lived were born after 1940. The environmental impact of new farming technologies (pesticides, tractors and collective farms) and dams, drainage of wetlands and other water control measures often meant to assist agriculture were also significant. As for public health, McNeill emphasizes the importance of advances in sewage treatment and vaccination in improving the life-expectancy of urban dwellers and insuring that more soldiers died in combat rather than of disease. He then ties these measures to cultural, economic and political conditions both within states and on the world stage. Here McNeill reveals one of his key insights: the close connection between ideology and the treatment of the environment in the twentieth century. Using this insight, he demonstrates that the human actions that most affected the earth's ecology-such as the construction of dams and policies promoting rapid economic growth-were justified in ideological terms and central to maintaining political legitimacy. McNeill is also correct to emphasize the new consciousness and governmental policies that the environmental movement produced worldwide after 1970.
McNeill's well-written book nicely harmonizes the environmental history of the earth over the last century and demonstrates the uniqueness of that history. The many visual aids are a boon to the reader since they make his arguments and the multitude of statistics he presents clearer. McNeill, however, only focuses on political changes at a macro level; he rarely provides specifics on the policies of individual governments. This is an important flaw given the role of governments over the past century in regulating and funding activities that produce ecological change. Nor is it clear to whom McNeill is writing. While he limits himself to academic sources, his writing style is informal and he does not provide the evaluation of sources usually included in academic works as long his book. Undoubtedly the absence of a bibliographical essay reflects the number and variety of sources necessary for a book on the history of the environment, but his decision not to include such an essay deprives his readers of the understanding they deserve of the sources McNeill cites. The book's biography has a number of important omissions as well. One wonders why McNeill did not cite Roger Owen in the book's discussion of cotton in nineteenth-century Egypt or Charles Davies when discussing Los Angeles
17 von 18 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Good 7. August 2001
Von Tom Munro - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Taschenbuch
This is an interesting book. A good deal of history is concerned with the anecdotal recounting of the exploits of a small number of people. This book is part of the "new idea of history". That is the use of large scale quantitative material to look at larger issues.
Prior to 1800 most civilizations in the world depended on muscle power to produce wealth. Societies were generally similar with small elite's dependent on others to produce their wealth. After 1800 the world started to change as energy was used by man to produce wealth. This has continued to change the globe in ways that could never have been anticipated.
The world has seen enormous increases in population. Places such as Java had in 1800 populations of around 10 million. The current figure is some 127 million. These increases have occurred throughout the world with patterns of agriculture changing and in Western Countries people living in cities.
The book divides the history of the environment into a number of chapters which focus on specific topics. The effect on the water supply of increased irrigation and pollution. There is a chapter on air pollution and how governments have responded to it.
The book is reasonably no polemical in an area which can become highly emotive. The affect of some environmental changes such as those to the ozone layer however can have extremely long lasting effects. The current changes to reduce fluro carbons will probably take about 87 years before the ozone levels will return to normal.
All in all this book is worth a read. It is interesting as it shows how government in richer countries has been responsive to the threat to the environment but non democratic countries especially in poorer areas will continue to contribute to the environmental problems of the world.
17 von 18 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen The 20th Century: Prodigal or Profligate? 1. August 2000
Von Ein Kunde - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
"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." (J. R. McNeill)
Over the past few years there have been a spate of histories of the 20th century. Most of them have been written from traditional, often Eurocentric, historical perspectives that focus upon political history set in the context of socioeconomic development and ideological and military conflict. J. R. McNeill's *Something New Under the Sun* replaces the political narrative, usually found at the center of histories, with an environmental one. It invites readers to reevaluate the legacy of the 20th century.
By any measure, the 20th century is, as McNeill characterizes it, "a prodigal century." In terms of growth of population, economic development, and energy production and consumption, it is a case of 'quantity having a quality of its own.' On the one hand, it is a triumph of the human species. (McNeill suggests readers consider that over the past 4 billion years of human history, 20% of all human life-years took place in the 20th century.) On the other hand, this prodigal century - this triumph of human ingenuity - has also exacted an unprecedented environmental cost. It is this trade-off that McNeill's book explores.
McNeill's approach is interdisciplinary, and the book is divided into two sections. The first section is organized around transformations to the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere, and the resulting pollution and resource depletion. Each topic includes a (very) brief conceptual introduction, case studies from around the world, (black and white) photos, maps, and tables. This section also includes the best example of unintentional environmental consequences. McNeill introduces Thomas Midgely, the inventor of leaded gasoline and Freon, "[who] had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in earth history."
In the second section, McNeill introduces the 'engines of change" - 1) population growth, migration, and urbanization, 2) energy, technology, and economic growth, and 3) politics and environmental awareness. The pulses of 'coketowns' and 'motowns' take place amidst the tumultuous social, economic, and political events of the 20th century. Environmental awareness doesn't take root until the 70's - a critical period for women as well. (His examples of Rachel Carson and Wangari Maathai were well chosen - and gendered.) In his epilogue (So What?), McNeill's history portends an environmental crunch, a change of circumstances - a dilemma unlike the world has witnessed so far.
"With our new powers we banished some historical constraints on health and population, food production, energy use, and consumption generally. Few who know anything about life with these constraints regret their passing. But in banishing them we invited other constraints in the form of the planet's capacity to absorb wastes, by-products, and impacts of our actions. The latter constraints had pinched occasionally in the past, but only locally. By the end of the twentieth century, they seemed to restrict our options globally. Our negotiations with these constraints will shape the future as our struggles against them shaped our past." (J. R. McNeill)
*Something New Under The Sun* is written in a popular style well suited to both non-fiction readers and students. Readers of environmental historians like William Cronon, William McNeill, or Alfred Crosby will certainly find McNeill's book interesting. Personally I think that McNeill's global perspective of the 20th century will stand the test of time.
9 von 10 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen excellent 9. Juli 2000
Von Ein Kunde - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Von Amazon bestätigter Kauf
Not a cheerful little story, but McNeill tells it well. We have not been kind to the planet, and if you want the details of our agressive assault on the planetary ecosystem that we depend upon, McNeill lays it all out in black and whate. We have exterminated species, depleted topsoil, sullied our waters supply and warmed the atmosphere to truly dangerous levels. A somewhat less gloomy account of the human impact on the land can be found in Diana Muir's recently puvblished, Reflections in Bullough's Pond. In addition to being a wonderful storyteller, Muir gives some grounds for hope. Muir seems to feel that the record of past human creativity in problem-solving implies that we can solve our environmental problems, too. On the other hand, perhaps McNeill is right in implying that as a species we are capable only of destruction.
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&quote;
First, that the twentieth century was unusual for the intensity of change and the centrality of human effort in provoking it. Second, that this ecological peculiarity is the unintended consequence of social, political, economic, and intellectual preferences and patterns. Third, that our patterns of thought, behavior, production, and consumption are adapted to our current circumstancesthat is, to the current climate &quote;
Markiert von 20 Kindle-Nutzern
&quote;
preferences and patterns are not easily adaptable should our circumstances change. &quote;
Markiert von 19 Kindle-Nutzern
&quote;
humans in the twentieth century used ten times more energy than their forebears over the entire thousand years preceding 1900. &quote;
Markiert von 12 Kindle-Nutzern

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