Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

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9780393049176: Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

Our profligate, fossil fuel-based civilization is ecologically unsustainable and creates perpetual environmental disturbance, says Georgetown University history professor McNeill, but he remains undecided as to whether humanity has entered a genuine, full-blown ecological crisis. Nevertheless, the evidence he presents in this comprehensive, balanced survey is alarming. Soft degradation now affects one-third of earth's land surface, though intensive fertilizer use and genetic engineering of crops have masked the ill effects. From Mexico City to Calcutta, from China to Africa, megacities choke on air pollution as economic development takes priority over other concerns. Acid rain has decimated lake and river life, crops and forests across Europe and North America. International in scope, McNeill's kaleidoscopic, textbookish history hops from Soviet phosphate mining in the Arctic to deforestation by white settlers in southern Africa, documenting the pollution of oceans and seas; the unchecked "harvesting" of fish and whales; environmentally influenced, disease-producing shifts in human-microbe relations; disruptive invasions by new species (sea lampreys in the Great Lakes, rabbits in Australia); and the massive impact on ecosystems resulting from urbanization, population growth, wars, oil spills, nuclear power accidents. McNeill's study underscores the mixed consequences of environmental and political decision making. For example, the Green Revolution fed additional millions, but it also promoted monoculture and strengthened landed elites in Asia and Latin America. The book closes with a capsule history of the environmental movement, gauging its successes and influence.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

J. R. McNeill is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Mountains of the Mediterranean World and other works.

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