World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


McNeil, John R., Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 421 pp. $16.95.

      Thanks to the work of historians like Al Crosby (The Columbian Exchange, Ecological Imperialism), most World History textbooks now address the massive ecological consequences of contact between the "old" and "new" worlds after 1492. Those of us who teach World History often include at least one lecture about the highly unequal spread of disease that marked this new relationship, not to mention the exchange of edible plants, weeds, and animals that transformed both the Americas and Afro-Eurasia. Beyond this attention to the 'American' or 'Columbian' exchange, however, it seems safe to say that both texts and teachers of World History tend to give ecological concerns rather short shrift. At best, most of us treat the natural environment as a stage on which the real stuff of history—politics, cultural developments, warfare, intellectual movements—happens. John McNeil's Something New Under the Sun, however, helps us understand that such an approach is just not good enough. Indeed, the environmental changes wrought by contact in 1492 pale in comparison to those changes caused by humans in the twentieth century. Now more than ever, the history (and future) of humanity and the history (and future) of the planet are so tightly interwoven that they are nearly incomprehensible in isolation. 1
      The reasons for this, according to McNeil, lie in the massive environmental changes humans produced in virtually every ecological sphere during the twentieth century—changes that have affected the planet's soils, air, waters, and its living plant and animal organisms. The main engine for these changes was an "enormous surge of economic activity" in the last century, which itself was fueled by rapid population growth around the world and the exploitation and use of energy based on fossil fuels (356). Each of these causes of environmental change were in turn caused and sustained by social and political preferences that favored rapid industrialization, production for national protection and war, and the accumulation of wealth by the world's most powerful nations. 2
      The book is divided into two main sections, preceded by an introductory chapter and followed by an epilogue. Part One, "The Music of the Spheres," chronicles the astonishing changes humans have caused to the lithosphere and pedosphere (chapter 2), the atmosphere (chapters 3 and 4), the hydrosphere (chapters 5 and 6), and the biosphere (chapters 7 and 8). Part Two, "Engines of Change," explores the human causes for these changes in terms of population growth and urbanization (chapter 9), energy use and economic expansion (chapter 10), and political and ideological regimes (chapter 11). The epilogue, called "So What?", both recaps the book's major arguments and seeks to identify the lasting significance of these changes in terms of the human future. 3
      The net result of so much environmental change, according to McNeil, is that our current situation represents "an extreme deviation from durable, normal ecological circumstances" (326). For example, in the twentieth century alone, humans likely used more energy than in all of previous human history (15). Whereas natural forces (ie. wind, water) were once responsible for the majority of soil erosion, in the twentieth century that role was assumed by humans (35). Now, nearly a third of the world's land surfaces suffer from soil degradation (48). But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Human pollution of air and water—by fossil fuel combustion and chemical and organic contamination—has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, not to mention countless plants and animals. Forests on the scale of the Indian subcontinent have disappeared (236). And although some wealthy countries have taken impressive steps to clean their air and water and to slow deforestation, these efforts have come at the cost of increasing exploitation of natural resources in poor countries. Likewise, while humans have had some successes in increasing food surpluses and fighting both pests and microbes, these successes have come at the cost of decreasing biodiversity and increasing pest and microbe resistance. In fact, we have evidence that human actions have brought us to the verge of what may be the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the history of the Earth (262). As all of these examples indicate, McNeil hopes to show that our current ecological situation—shaped as it was by the historical processes, choices, and preferences of the last century—is fundamentally unsustainable over the long term. More ominous still, it seems certain that many of the consequences of environmental change wrought by humans in the twentieth century (global warming, ozone depletion) will only become fully apparent in the future. 4
      Something New Under the Sun is written in a style that is accessible to teachers and college-level students at all levels, and perhaps even to advanced high school students. As a result, its possibilities for use in a World History classroom are several. At the very least, teachers can use the book to provide background reading for specific information about the ecological consequences of modern, industrial economies in the twentieth century. Lectures about the social and political consequences of the World Wars, the Cold War, or globalization, for example, could be supplemented by attention to the ramifications each had for the environment. Alternatively, teachers could use selections from the book to augment textbook readings as a means of spurring discussion about the relationship of humans to the environment. While any of the chapters could work well for this purpose, chapter four ("The Atmosphere: Urban History") is particularly suited to framing the long-term consequences of the Industrial Revolution in a global, ecological context; while chapter eight ("The Biosphere: Forests, Fish, and Invasions") makes an excellent complement to readings and discussions about the effects of globalization in recent history.  Whether used as background reading or as a classroom text, teachers may do well to consider McNeil's prediction that the colossal scale of human-induced change to the natural environment in the last century may turn out to be of more historical importance than anything else that occurred in the same period—more important, even, than "World War II, the communist enterprise, the rise of mass literacy, the spread of democracy, or the growing emancipation of women" (4). If nothing else, this idea may attract the interest of students who might otherwise feel disengaged from the past, for this view of history places their own futures squarely at stake. 5
Heather Streets
Washington State University

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use