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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (The Global Century Series) Paperback – April 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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. Soil 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. This scientifically informed survey makes a useful resource for environmentalists, scholars, globalists, biologists, policy makers and concerned readers. 40 photos and 15 maps not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: The Global Century Series
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (April 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393321835
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393321838
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #287,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 29, 2002
Format: Paperback
Most science writing nowadays must be interdisciplinary; able to use empirical evidence and relevant concepts, theories, and conclusions from vastly different fields of enquiry. Would you expect the same of a history book? Although this book's publishing category is science/environment it really should be history. The author says as much. This is "a history of - and for - environmentally tumultuous times". And that history is broad. From the ancient days when the book of Ecclesiastes was written to our modern era of Nobel Prize winning physicists, there has been a remarkable common conception of our planet as immutable and infinite. In contrast to the biblical gentleman who said there was nothing new under the sun, or physicist Robert Millikan who saw Earth's vastness as effectively shielding it from real harm from humanity, J R McNeill sees SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN and it's simply that "the place of humankind within the natural world is not what it was."
Can we link man's history with that of the natural or biological world? Many have tried from both sides of the equation. Great historians and thinkers like Kant, Marx and Pierre Tielhard de Chardin have seen a direction and inevitability about history while Berlin and Popper spoke eloquently against historicism. This book doesn't go there nor does it tackle the attempt by some evolutionary biologists to explain all we see in life as determined at the genetic level. Great scientists from Einstein forward have sought some unifying or final theory and it's still going on. Today sociobiologists, quantum physicists and game theorists say they have the answers.
What McNeill contributes to this is his view that "in recent millennia, cultural evolution has shaped human affairs more than biological evolution has. Societies...
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Tom Munro on August 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is an interesting book. A good deal of history is concerned with the anecdotal recounting of the exploits of a small number of people. This book is part of the "new idea of history". That is the use of large scale quantitative material to look at larger issues.
Prior to 1800 most civilizations in the world depended on muscle power to produce wealth. Societies were generally similar with small elite's dependent on others to produce their wealth. After 1800 the world started to change as energy was used by man to produce wealth. This has continued to change the globe in ways that could never have been anticipated.
The world has seen enormous increases in population. Places such as Java had in 1800 populations of around 10 million. The current figure is some 127 million. These increases have occurred throughout the world with patterns of agriculture changing and in Western Countries people living in cities.
The book divides the history of the environment into a number of chapters which focus on specific topics. The effect on the water supply of increased irrigation and pollution. There is a chapter on air pollution and how governments have responded to it.
The book is reasonably no polemical in an area which can become highly emotive. The affect of some environmental changes such as those to the ozone layer however can have extremely long lasting effects. The current changes to reduce fluro carbons will probably take about 87 years before the ozone levels will return to normal.
All in all this book is worth a read. It is interesting as it shows how government in richer countries has been responsive to the threat to the environment but non democratic countries especially in poorer areas will continue to contribute to the environmental problems of the world.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Alexander on September 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In Something New Under the Sun, J.R. McNeill reconstructs the environmental history of the world over the past hundred years. His central theme is that the twentieth century was the first time in history when humanity could determine the health and success of every single species and ecosystem on Earth. He is equally interested in how and why humanity altered global ecology and the accidental byproducts of those actions. McNeil contends that we are gambling that we can sustain our fossil-fuel based civilization, which is ecologically destructive and dependent on the maintenance of a specific set of environmental conditions. McNeill illustrates this point by dividing all animals into two categories: rats (animals that adapt to changing environments) and sharks (animals that adapt to existing circumstances). He contends that many species survived for millennia using shark-like strategies, providing there was no ecological change. While McNeill observes that humanity has succeeded in large part by pursuing rat-like evolutionary strategies, he postulates that humanity's adoption of more shark-like development strategies in the twentieth century may be dangerous in the long run, given that these same strategies can produce rapid ecological change.
Despite these clear dangers, McNeill argues that shark-like development policies were rational given the political, economic and social conditions in the twentieth century. In particular, he demonstrates that this form of development was conducive to innovations and large-scale projects that produced immediate material and environmental benefits as well as unexpected, less immediately visible side effects.
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