Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (The Global Century Series)

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W. W. Norton & Company, Apr 17, 2001 - Science - 448 pages
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"One of those rare books that’s both sweeping and specific, scholarly and readable…What makes the book stand out is its wealth of historical detail." —Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

The history of the twentieth century is most often told through its world wars, the rise and fall of communism, or its economic upheavals. In his startling book, J. R. McNeill gives us our first general account of what may prove to be the most significant dimension of the twentieth century: its environmental history. To a degree unprecedented in human history, we have refashioned the earth's air, water, and soil, and the biosphere of which we are a part. Based on exhaustive research, McNeill's story—a compelling blend of anecdotes, data, and shrewd analysis—never preaches: it is our definitive account.

This is a volume in The Global Century Series (general editor, Paul Kennedy).


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Extensively footnoted and balanced in its claims, John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun is an engaging and worthwhile study of
the environmental history of the twentieth century. It covers atmospheric, hydrospheric, and biospheric concerns - focusing on those human actions and technologies that have had the greatest impact on the world, particularly in terms of those parts of the world human beings rely upon. People concerned with the dynamic that exists between human beings and the natural world would do well to read this volume. As McNeill demonstrates with ample figures and examples, that impact has been dramatic, though not confined to the twentieth century. What has changed most is the rate of change, in almost all environmentally relevant areas.
The drama of some documented changes is incredible. McNeill describes the accidental near-elimination of the American chestnut, the phenomenal global success of rabbits, and the intentional elimination of 99.8% of the world’s blue whales in clear and well-attributed sections. From global atmospheric lead concentrations to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, he also covers a number of huge changes that are not directly biological. I found his discussion of the human modification of the planet’s hydrological systems to be the most interesting, quite probably because it was the least familiar thing he discussed.
Also interesting to note is that, published in 2000, this book utterly dismisses nuclear power as a failed technology. In less than three pages it is cast aside as economically non-sensical (forever dependent on subsidies), inherently hazardous, and without compensating merit. Interesting how quickly things can change. The book looks far more to the past than to the future, making fewer bold predictions about the future consequences of human activity than many volumes of this sort do.
Maybe the greatest lesson of this book is that the old dichotomy between the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’ world is increasingly nonsensical. The construction of the Aswan High Dam has fundamentally altered the chemistry of the Mediterranean at the same time as new crops have altered insect population dynamics worldwide and human health initiatives have changed the biological tableau for bacteria and viruses. To see the human world as riding on top of the natural world, and able to extract some set ’sustainable’ amount from it, may therefore be unjustified. One world, indeed.


Peculiarities of a Prodigal Century
The Crust of the Earth
Urban History
Regional and Global History
The History of Water Use
Eat and Be Eaten
Forests Fish and Invasions
More People Bigger Cities
Fuels Tools and Economics
Ideas and Politics
So What?


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About the author (2001)

J. R. McNeill is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of award-winning works in world and environmental history. These include The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (co-authored with his father and world history pioneer, William H. McNeill), and Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, both published by Norton. McNeill is a recent past president of the American Historical Association.

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