Something New Under the Sun: Review Essay
Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon towards the end of his life, discusses vanity in terms of items that bring no ultimate value, that many things on earth have a temporary value. He tells readers that “there is nothing new under the sun” as humankind has pursued individual, short-term profits and gains throughout time and will continue to do so. McNeill contradicts King Solomon in the title of this book and tells his readers that there is indeed “Something New Under The Sun. For centuries the human race has repeated the patterns described by King Solomon, but due to technological advancements, the twentieth century brought with it unprecedented global impacts, the likes which the world had never seen before. In this prolific account of the last century McNeill explains to his readers that what is new is humanity’s ability to affect the entire world ecology over vast periods of time – our affects are no longer short-term. McNeill also takes the time to point out that modern ecological history and socioeconomic history only really make sense when examined together.
J. R. McNeill, Duke graduate and professor of history at Georgetown University (John Robert McNeill, 2009), wrote this book as part of the Global Century series, which is edited by Paul Kennedy. Although the intended audience for this book is not clear the language, attention to detail, use of case studies, broad scope, and interdisciplinary nature make it an excellent source of information to students in almost any field, the general public, and politicians.
This comprehensive overview of very large, complex problems provides readers with a cornucopia of background information, skillfully defined terms that serve to assist the reader in understanding the language of science, and illustrative photographs, maps and tables. In 421 pages McNeill is able to give his audience a clear view of the impacts humanity has had on Earth, in particular those impacts of the twentieth century. Part One, The Music of the Spheres, focuses on the four spheres – the lithosphere and pedosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere.
Each chapter is well organized with a brief introduction, carefully selected case studies that serve to make the author’s arguments clear, and succinct, logical conclusions which bring the author’s ideas together in an easy-to-understand manner. Part Two, Engines of Change, focuses on the forces of change that have led to our current environmental state, namely social, economic, and political trends. McNeill illustrates that the twentieth century was the first time when the human population was able to affect every species on Earth.
He also attempts to show readers how and why the human population altered their world and the accidental results of their actions. McNeill attempts to illustrate the complex links that have resulted in environmental change through two main trends: expeditious human population growth and our switch in energy production from coal and wood to petroleum. Population growth resulted from two main forces, improved food supply and disease prevention. The change in energy production a result of technological advances.
Through these two trends the author is also able to illustrate his arguments that the strategies and development that led to our current environmental state were rational given the political, economic, and social conditions in the twentieth century and many of the very strategies and developments that caused problems also prevented others. Population growth both caused and prevented soil erosion. In some places population growth drove agriculture to marginalized lands that were steep and furnished with unstable soil, which in turn quickened erosion.
In other areas population growth allowed for a work force that was able to build and implement soil conservation initiatives. The social and economic switch from coal and wood and horses and trains to petroleum and the automobile is, according to McNeill, “a strong contender for the most socially and environmentally consequential technology of the twentieth century” (McNeill, 323). The economic system based on horses, trains, coal, and wood was vastly dependent on trees and polluted the air and city streets with smoke, dust, and feces.
The switch to petroleum and automobiles did not rely on depleting forests for fuel, resulted in cleaner air, and rid the streets of animal waste. But, as we now know, our petroleum and automobile based economy has created greenhouse gases, vast wastelands, and a hole in the ozone layer. McNeill is also sure to point out that at the time of these changes “the job of science was to unlock the secrets of nature and to deploy scientific knowledge in the service of human health and wealth” (McNeill, 328).
McNeill’s has written a well-researched, well-supported, clear and engaging piece that lacks the depressing overtone of some other works in this genre. The author is able to make many connections throughout the book, often referring to information from previous chapters, creating a work that fastidiously ties together. Throughout analysis, arguments, and science the author is also able to inform the reader of individuals who have had great effects on our environment, including Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch, the fathers of artificial fertilizers, and Thomas Midgley, inventor of leaded gas and Freon.
He manages to blend history with science and writes in an even-toned, easy-to-understand voice that still manages to be imaginatively descriptive. As an example, chapter two the author likens soil management to alchemy. As a student of Environmental Studies I can see two main flaws to McNeill’s work. First, the timeframe McNeill is working under is the twentieth century, yet many of the case studies he uses have their beginnings much earlier. In McNeill’s own words and explanation the North American dust bowls of the 1930s had their roots in rapid population growth and poor agricultural practices of the late 1800s.
One can easily go one step further and trace this issue back to the Columbian Exchange. The second flaw is McNeill’s clear separation of “people and the environment” (McNeill, XXIV). The author is clear in labeling his work as anthropocentric, but throughout the book discusses the environment as a resource for human use. In the conclusion of chapter two McNeill discusses soil degradation in terms of agriculture, but soil’s purpose goes far beyond providing food for the human population on this planet – it provides a home and food for millions of other organisms.
If we are all as connected as McNeill explains we are, then why does the author consistently separate us from the home we all share? This is central to the very philosophy that has gotten us to where we are. The work McNeill has written is poignant, yet inspiring. King Solomon wrote that happy and prosperous lives will end in disaster if centered on short-term gratification and that man unfortunately doesn’t observe this right away but often only after most of his life has passed. McNeill does not believe that we have reached a point that we cannot turn back from.
He stresses that there is nothing we can do about what has created the current environmental situation we find ourselves in, but does encourage us learn from past mistakes and to take action. He tells us that although we are the main cause of many environmental problems we are also the only ones who can do anything to fix them. Every person can make a difference.
John Robert McNeill (2009). In Contemporary authors online. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from http://galenet. galegroup. com/servlet/BioRC Massell, D. 2002). [Book review]. [Review of Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world]. The Journal of American History, 88(4), 1570. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from http://proquest. umi. com. myaccess. library. utoronto. ca/pqdlink? did=110659782&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=12520&RQT=309&VName=PQD McNeill, J. R. (2000). Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Soluri, J. (2002). [Book review]. Review of Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world]. Journal of Social History, 36(1), 183. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from http://proquest. umi. com. myaccess. library. utoronto. ca/pqdlink? did=376490671&sid=2&Fmt=3&clientId=12520&RQT=309&VName=PQD Squatriti, P. (2002). [Book review]. [Review of Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world]. The Historian, 64(3-4), 874. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from http://find. galegroup. com. myaccess. library. utoronto. ca/itx/start. do? prodId=ITOF