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One Hundred Years of Solitude

02.26.2001 | BOOKS

Something New Under the Sun:
An Environmental History of the 20th Century World

by JR McNeill
WW Norton Company, 2000

If history is nothing but a sequence of causes and effects, then it is easy to understand why environmental history has to this point commanded little attention. The past two hundred years have largely comprised causes, and it is only now, on the cusp of a new millennium, that we are beginning to see their attendant effects. For an historian of ambition, this opens new doors in how we trace human progress, and also allows familiar events to be freshly viewed through the prism of environmental impact.

This is precisely what JR McNeill has done in Something New Under the Sun, the first environmental history of the twentieth century. And he has done it quite well; the book touches on almost every area of ecological concern, and for a work whose subject is a source of constant contemporary conflict, Something New Under the Sun is admirable in its evenhandedness. McNeill refuses to embrace needless doomsaying, and his restraint is such that hardened environmentalists may find him too cautious in his conclusions. This is the nature of the historical profession; its practitioners write for posterity, and as such consider caution preferable to false certainty.

That said, the book is far from tepid in its views, and its thesis fairly grim. The title is a play on the first book of Ecclesiastes, whose jaded narrator states that "nothing is new under the sun". McNeill contends that the twentieth century has belied this statement, because the scope and manner in which humans have altered the earth in the last 100 years is incomparable to any other event in the history of the world.

Even without the darker implications of climate change--which McNeill acknowledges but doesn't dwell on--the dizzying array of statistics presented in Something New Under the Sun more than backs up this assertion. Mammals in the twentieth century became extinct at 40 times the rate of world history; birds died off at 1,000 times the pace. More fish were taken from the oceans in the last 100 years than in all previous centuries combined, and the amount of irrigated land has more than quintupled since 1900. McNeill's strength lies not only in his accumulation of this data, but also his ability to place it in the context of other historical events.

He begins in 1909, the year Fritz Haber, an academic chemist, succeeded for the first time in "fixing" nitrogen--that is, adding it to soil where it wasn't previously. Prior to his discovery, nitrogen could only be added to the earth by lightning, or by certain microbes that lived in the roots of legumes. A seemingly innocuous accomplishment, Haber's work led to the manufacture of nitrogenous fertilizer and quite literally transformed the planet. Fertilizer revolutionized agriculture, greatly expanded the earth's carrying capacity for humans, and--because petroleum was a necessary ingredient in it--irrevocably altered the political economy of food and development, making both dependent on fossil fuels. Haber considered none of this. He was first and foremost a German patriot, and his work at fixing nitrogen was driven by a desire to free his homeland from the food dependency that constrained its nationalism. His success contributed mightily to the German arrogance that precipitated World War I, and when the war began he threw himself into the creation of poison gas with an enthusiasm sufficient to drive his wife to suicide.

This sort of 360 degree insight informs all of Something New Under the Sun, and reminds us that environmental history, like all history, has been made by individuals. More important, however, it also shows that environmental history was largely made by accident. For much of the twentieth century, environmentalism didn't exist, and even now, when the movement is arguably at its strongest, its policies are over overridden by other concerns. "For good and for ill," McNeill writes, "real environmental policy, both on the national and international level, was made inadvertently, as side effects of conventional politics and policies."

Specifically, he lays the twentieth century's environmental tumult at the feet of two nearly universal ideologies. One is the ‘growth' imperative, which holds that an economy cannot reach a healthy point and just stay there, and that only constant growth can ensure stability. The paradox of this is self-evident--perpetual growth is by definition not stable or sustainable--but this mandate has governed the actions of fascist states and monarchies, and later dictated the policies of both the United States and the Soviet Union. In this way it also led to the second ideology, which is security anxiety, or the need to grow faster than those with different political ideas.

Of all the examples McNeill uses to illustrate this, his chapter on dams is probably the best. In the twentieth century the power to alter the earth became a statement of not just economic but also political potency. Both established and emerging nations built dams at a remarkable rate, as the taming of rivers nicely satisfied the need for immediate economic growth, and proclaimed loudly the virility of regimes and their ideologies. The Hoover Dam, conceived in the midst of the Great Depression, showed the world that capitalist democracy had not been humbled by market failure. It also created jobs, gave electricity (and thus air conditioning) to the Southwest, and spurred a drastic reorganization the U.S. population. Its benefits were immediate, and its costs--such as the damage done to the ecosystems of the Southwest--were shunted onto later generations.

Similarly, China's incredible Three Gorges dam, perhaps the greatest act of international defiance since the Cold War's end, is intended to show the world that even after Tiananmen, communism remains as vigorous as ever. The Three Gorges, in damming the Yangtze River, will displace over 1 million people, create a lake bigger than Lake Michigan, deprive the Yangtze Delta of the silt it needs for healthy soil, and drown some of the country's finest scenic vistas. And China is doing it, it seems, precisely because the world would rather it didn't.

McNeill does a fine job of following security and growth through the world wars, the Cold War, and particularly through the spasms of dimly understood urbanization that have given the planet sprawling suburbs, rampant air pollution, and inefficiently devoured land. For a survey history, Something New Under the Sun is also likably peppered with anecdotes, which help break up the sometimes-dense science that underlies it. The book discusses Thomas Midgely, the well-intentioned engineer who invented both leaded gasoline and freon, and who has, in McNeill's words "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in the earth's history." It also offers brief but colorful sketches of Aristotle Onassis and his pirate whaling fleet, of Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring, and of course of the Reagan Administration, a nadir in modern environmental awareness. Reagan himself asserted that trees cause pollution, and his Interior Secretary, James Watt, suggested that environmentalists should be shot (Watt also, at his confirmation hearing, told the Senate that preservation was a waste of effort, because God would soon be sending the apocalypse). Diversions such as these make one long for a more journalistic approach to environmental history, as science woven into human drama is often more accessible that science alone.

And on that note, anyone planning to read Something New Under the Sun should be aware that it is a work of academic history, and therefore written in the turgid style so beloved by acadamia. The book plods at times, is laden with statistical tables, and structured in a clunky outline-format that allows McNeill to end sections abruptly, depriving readers of transitions that might make his conclusions more coherent.

One hopes that this will not keep too many people from reading the book, although if the past is any judge this hope is likely in vain. The libraries of leaden prose that are professional history constitute a fantastic and needless waste of knowledge, and if all Americans should read academic history (as many historians contend), then all historians should be forced to read On Writing Well. Too much history is ignored, simply because the Academy empties it of life before binding it and putting it on a shelf. In most cases, to be sure, this is unfortunate but harmless. The world does not suffer, after all, if no one reads a 12-volume history of the Peloponnessian Wars. McNeill's book is important, however, and deserves better.

The environmental debate is too often framed as a conflict between activists who want change and conservatives happy with the status quo. But in a world bent on perpetual growth, change is the status quo. The twentieth century, as McNeill so powerfully points out, cannot be used as a benchmark for environmental normalcy: it is in itself a massive deviation from a pattern that is hundreds of millions of years old.

McNeill stays within the bounds of his profession, and declines to speculate on the consequences of these changes. Those of us concerned with the present, however, can ill afford that sort of professional luxury. Security anxiety may have diminished with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the growth imperative remains the dominant school of economics, and it is accepted unquestioningly by a population that has come to view the economy as an entity unto itself, detached and ethereal, like the Internet.

At the outset of the international conference on climate change held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the United States delegation made it clear that the "lifestyles" of American citizens would not be up for negotiation. "Lifestyles" in this sense meant the American love affair with automobiles, and American industry's love affair with oil. Under the weight of this ultimatum, along with the developing world's insistence that it be permitted to grow as America did, the climate conference fell apart.

Reading McNeill, one wonders how much longer we can subsume the environment to other considerations. It doesn't take a terrible amount of perception to realize that the economy is a function of the environment, and that everything from which we derive wealth is itself derived from the natural world. The American "lifestyle," which powers the world economy, is one that is built on consumption. Our country has a frightening metabolism, and it requires the labor and resources of much of the rest of the world to continue our economic growth.

Yet for all that, America does not comprise the majority of the Earth's population; far from it. So what happens when the rest of the world wants to live the way America does? Much of the planet today subsists on grain; the simple conversion to an American beef and poultry-based diet could cripple resources of fresh water. It takes ten times as much grain to raise beef as it does to feed humans a grain diet. It takes 3,000 tons of water to make a ton of grain. Much of what absorbed the massive changes of the last 100 years--pristine oceans, plentiful fresh water, and open land--is now gone. So will we tell the rest of the world that they cannot live as we do, because the earth cannot afford it? That they cannot wantonly drive, or build their economies on unclean energy? That they must live in poverty because of our growth imperative? What does it say about us, that we sustain our consumption on the backs of the world? What does it say about us, that to allow the rest of the world to live as we do could in fact destroy it?

"We never learn anything, never in the world, and in spite of all the history books written," Saul Bellow once wrote. "There's a regular warehouse of fine suggestions, and if we're not better it isn't because there aren't plenty of marvelous and true ideas to draw on, but because our vanity weighs more than all of them put together."

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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