With the start of the newmillennium, humankind entered “stage three of the Anthropocene”, shaped bygrowing environmental awareness and efforts to build global governance systems (Steffenet al. 2011, p. 256). Mc Neill’s evidence of ignorance and failure in the 20thcentury helps to get a sense of perspective to prevent past mistakes from recurring.Current and future challenges include the choice of appropriate policyinstruments accounting for environmental complexity and addressing the unequaldistribution of climate impacts over the world. Pending issues are the decouplingof economic growth from pollution and the adoption of a precautionary politicalstance, minimizing the time lag between the occurrence of environmental issuesand respective policy responses.
I personally consider the book as aneye-opener, which I would strongly recommend for an extensive overview of 20thcentury environmental history, evaluated from a macro-perspective and focusedon big-picture findings. Mc Neill captivates theaudience through astute linkages between politics, economics, society andecology, compiled to an exceptionally comprehensive portfolio of historicalanalysis. Mc Neill synthesizes a century ofenvironmental havoc in an informative and dispassionate manner refraining fromapocalyptic scenarios and a moralizing tone. Even though he covers considerableground, a few issues remain undiscussed or only partly addressed.
First, theauthor’s anthropocentric focus neglects the interaction of human-inducedchanges and natural variability, which needs to be considered to fully understandthe scope of human impact (Steffen et al. 2008, Chap 3). Second, even though McNeill contends that “most truculent of all were those problems that derivedfrom citizen behavior” (p.
353), his macro-perspective provides little insightinto psychological effects and the mindset of individuals. The author’srecommendations for future action thus appear insufficient, solely suggesting theimplementation of a cleaner energy regime as well as the transition to low-fertilityand low-mortality societies to counteract population growth. According to McNeill, environmentally-conscious behaviour on the individual level and along-term policy focus would be more fundamental and therefore less practicable(pp. 359-360). However, the discourses of Ecological Modernization or the moreradical Deep Ecology suggest that any viable course of action must include structuralreform on the political and societal level and in case of Deep Ecology areformation of the current normative framework (Mool and Spaargaren 2000). As the breadth oftopics limits the scope for in-depth analysis, “Something New Under the Sun”seems to be not primarily written for an expert audience but for a broadreadership of people with a genuine interest in environment and history. The book represents a valuable readingfor study programmes as the interrelation between global change and the greatpolitical and economic events of the past century is relevant for numerous disciplinesranging from history, environmental and social science to politics andmanagement studies.
Particularly interesting is Mc Neill’s presentationof prominent individuals in environmental history, such as Alexander Fleming asfounding father of antibiotics (pp. 198-202) or Thomas Midgley as inventor of chlorofluorocarbons(p. 111).To provide aglobal perspective, the author consults a strikingly broad range of historicaland contemporary sources for topic- and country-specific secondary research.
Scopeand scale of environmental impacts is underscored through qualitative materialin the form of case studies and quantitative evidence. Maps help to visualizethe geographic reach of damage, for instance in case of deforestation or airpollution, while original photography captures the “zeitgeist” of the 20thcentury. The development of key indicators, such as global GDP, worldpopulation and emission data, is summarized in tables, enabling the reader toquickly locate information within the book. In-depth explanations aboutstatistics as well as mentioned events are presented in foot-notes, whichsupport the readability of the text. Concluding,neither shark nor rat strategies might represent viable future options as bothadaption and adaptability are based on an overall degree of stability, which isno longer guaranteed (Steffen et al.
2004, Chap. 5). “We could make our ownluck instead of merely trusting to luck” (p. 362) is Mc Neill’s appeal to increaseglobal change mitigation efforts to avoid traumatic environmental outcomes. He acknowledges the conflicting natureof technological clusters as source of the problem and driver for environmentalreform: “Paradoxically, if humanity is to escape projected environmentalcrises, then technology, which helped bring them on, will be asked to lead usout.” (p. 314). In this context, the role of technology needs tobe redefined either as vehicle for a more natural functioning of the earthsystem or as means to further eliminate constraints, for instance throughgeoengineering (Steffen et al.
2004, Chap. 6).Mc Neill impressively demonstrates that framingassumptions of stability and linear reactions were mostly followed by environmentalsurprises. As examples serve the emergence of multiple-drug-resistant bacteriaafter the invention of antibiotics (p.
201) or the depletion of the ozone layerdue to wide-spread use of hydrofluorocarbons (pp. 111-114). Yet, Mc Neill’s conclusion remains tentative.
The author’s personalconviction of a potentially irreversible ecological crunch in the future growsout from his observations of the past. He counters business-as-usual optimism about earth’s robustness, warningthat the environment’s past tolerance has diminished with human-induced exhaustof its ecological buffers, such as “open land, unused water and unpollutedspaces” (p. 359). Accounting for inherent uncertainties of the future,which he describes as “more volatile than ever before” (p. 358), Mc Neillconsiders the past as best predictor for future development. He delivers a compelling counter argument to those, who fail torecognise the man-made instability of the Anthropocene. The exemplification ofhuman alteration and damage to the Earth System provides evidence of the”regime of perpetual disturbance” (p.
362) humanityconstructed over the 20th century: Due to chemical alteration, onethird of the world’s land surface is affected by soil degradation (p.48). Airpollution, he estimates, “killed about 25 to 40 million people in the 20thcentury”, reaching a scale which equals the combined casualties of two WorldWars (p. 103). 30-50 % ofterrestrial species might disappear over the next two centuries, causing the”sixth great extinction event in earth’s history” (p. 263). With local andregional-scale climate impacts evolving as “global-scale concerns” as in thecase of air pollution and soil erosion, politicians are challenged to extendinstitutional capacities to reach international agreements (p.
4).Most remarkable is Mc Neill’s attempt to integrate a myriad ofperspectives into a coherent and holistic picture of global change, whichmirrors the findings of complexity theory. 20th century politics, hecontends, was shaped by ignorance towards environmental issues and a neglect ofprevailing uncertainties, risks and dynamics (p. 356). Case studies, such asthe Aral Sea irrigation disasterillustrate the environmental malaise resulting from chain reactions andreverberations through the earth system.
Sacrificing the Aral Sea for a giganticSoviet cotton belt not only came at the price of the lake’s climate moderatingcapabilities. With shrinking water levels, salinization aggravated and reducedcrop yield, fisheries disappeared, and indigenous fish species went extinct.Pesticides for the treatment of cotton pest poisoned soil andgroundwater, thereby threatening the health of the population (pp. 162-166).
Turning to thehistorian viewpoint, the second part explores three distinctive “engines ofchange” (p. 267), which fuelled environmental transformation in the 20thcentury. Thus, Mc Neill analyses rapid population growth, linked tourbanisation and migration, the conversion to a fossil-fuel based energy systempropelling industrialization andlast, prevailing ideological and political ideas, particularly the commitmentto economic growth. The thematicalrather than chronological organisation of the book maps out the “complexinterplay” (p. 82) between different components of the Earth System, which isillustrated with examples of places and regions all over the world. A connectionbetween history and ecology is established through the division in two parts.
Thefirst part of the book focuses on major changes in the lithosphere, pedosphere,atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere – the five components of the Earth’slife-support system. Mc Neill gives a comprehensive outline of air pollution,patterns of land and water use and pollution, deforestation and shrinkingbiodiversity. Four overarchingassumptions, presented in the preface, help to follow Mc Neill’s line ofargumentation. First, as indicated by the title, the 20th century marksa turning point in history, peculiar for unprecedented human alteration of the earthsystem. In the author’s view, this has been a result of shifting “social,political, economic and intellectual preferences and patterns” (Preface, p.XX). He further argues that humankind is highly adapted to the newly createdcircumstances with fossil-fuel based civilization built on the premise ofstable climate conditions, cheap energy and freshwater as well as rapideconomic growth. In Mc Neill’s words,societies have become shark-like “masters of adaptation” living in a rat’sworld where adaptability would be favourable to cope with unexpected shocks andsurprises.
He concludes that the current lifestyle and adaptions to deceptive stability have madechanges in the foreseeable future most likely and warns that entrenched behaviouralpatterns might be difficult to adjust. (Preface, pp. XIX-XXII).In the 20thcentury, “humankind has begun to play dice with the planet without knowing therules of the game” (p. 3).
Describing the shattering human impact on the planet,the book is written from an anthropocentric viewpoint and exclusively focusedon events of major change. To account for an unequal distribution ofenvironmental impacts across different countries and levels of society, McNeill avoids labelling outcomesas “good” or “bad”. Instead, he pursues a differentiated analysis ofenvironmental change to stimulate critical reflection and judgement of the audience(Preface, pp. XXII-XXIV).With “SomethingNew Under the Sun” John Mc Neill, American environmental historian andprofessor at Georgetown University takes the reader on a journey through theenvironmentally tumultuous 20th century. Exploring the interactionbetween the “planet’s and the people’s history”, he unravels the unprecedented environmental changes spurredby humanity and links them to their historical context.
Translated into ninelanguages and awarded with the “World History Association Book Award” in 2000, “SomethingNew Under the Sun” is considered John Mc Neill’s best-known work to date(Georgetown University n.d.).