am 1. August 2000
"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.