J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, 2001

Not until Rachel Carson’s mid-60s work Silent Spring, a book which J.R. McNeill and others call “the single most effective catalyst for environmentalism ….” (337), did historians begin to consider history from an environmental perspective. Arguing that the twentieth century actually gradually reduced pollution (in terms of individual industries and efficiency), the scale and size of twentieth century industry, capitalism, economic growth, and militarism outweighed such improvement, damaging or reforming local ecologies globally. Numerous factors contributed to pollution, but not uniformly across the globe. J.R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World explores an “anthropocentric” view of the world’s environmental history. Avoiding value based assessment, McNeil instead pursues explanations that outline who has benefited and who has not, “The answer is complicated. It depends on whose interests one rates over others” but he also notes that he makes no attempt at “Olympian detachment” labeling all of humanity’s pollution “degradation, despoliation, destruction or the like.” (xxv).

The acceleration of processes driving twentieth century industrialism made it unique from previous centuries. The shift to fossil fuels serves as one initial example. Though first indebted to coal and then by the early twentieth century oil, pollution grew steadily. Population growth, migration, and urbanization furthered this process, creating the world’s first real air pollution. (51) Cities also created problems in regard to disease and debates over access to water. From 1945-1980, municipalities made “impressive gains” in terms of improving air quality; even better, during and after the 1970s, urban areas in rich countries increased enforcement of anti-air pollution policies. Still, cities real effects on the environment develop as much if not more from the fact they “have metabolisms. They take in water, food, oxygen (and more) and discard sewage, garbage, and carbon dioxide (and more).” (291).

Cities provide a frequent source of analysis for McNeill, but he provides several others. Additional areas of focus include the effect of ideas and politics on policies, effects of hydroelectric infrastructure, bioinvasion and political structures that both inhibit and drive environmental degradation. McNeill’s analysis illustrates that historical evaluation depends greatly on from whose perspective you look. For example, imperialism in India proved beneficial for the local environment since Britain hoped to use it as a symbol for colonialism’s successes. Something New provides similar examples such as both totalitarian and democratic states contributing to pollution at alarming rates, nationalism’s devotion to industrial progress at the expense of conservation, and the “state religion” of economic growth in which a nation’s economic expansion becomes its only measuring stick for success. Additionally, McNeill seeks to correct assumptions around traditional arguments such as population growth. Something New avoids tying population growth directly to rising pollution levels describing the nexus between the two as “hazy” furthering the point relationships between population expansion and “other forms of environmental change are cloaked in still thicker confusion.” (274). Often such categories as population growth illustrate processes that both increase and decrease environmental degradation.

McNeill’s work draws on examples globally. When discussing cities, McNeill explores urban areas internationally, supplying historical context for each. This transnational approach enables the reader to view the history of 20th century environmental decline as an uneven process around the world, accelerating nearly everywhere, but at various speeds and severities according to the local historical context. Moreover, Something New carefully reveals how most environmental policies enacted by governments have been secondary or relating to more highly prioritized policies or issues. Of these, McNeill notes many of the unintended consequences of such relational attempts at environmental protection. However, McNeill’s work demonstrably puts forth a critical eye toward environmental problems of the 20th century while pushing historians to improve the scholarly integration of ecology and history. Still, the book presents humanity as an abstract destructive force, with few anecdotes revealing “lived experiences”. When discussing cities, McNeill clearly emphasizes the importance of localities, but he fails to explain how other factors in each case (whether they are governmental, economic, or social) create or contribute to the environmental degradation he abhors. For example, there is no mention of environmental racism at the urban level. Finally, some might accuse McNeill of technological determinism when examining the 20th centuries environmental difficulties.

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