September 05, 2006

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

Picking up a copy of J.R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World was my own personal response to my earlier question on how to deal with issues of scale. While I'm not quite sure it answered that particular question, I certainly can recommend the book highly and widely. It's quite simply the best thing I've read on the relationship between humans and the environments around us.

Of course I should note that I'm no expert, nor particularly well read on that subject. More than that though, it's a book that pretty much confirmed what I was thinking before I had stumbled across it in San Francisco's classic City Lights bookstore. Any book that tells you what you want to hear of course needs to be treated as suspect, but to McNeill's credit I suspect a lot of people with quite different viewpoints than mine would put down the book feeling similarly justified. That sounds contradictory of course, but McNeill is grappling with an enormously complex problem, one that is perhaps a bit too large for any one human to fully understand, and he does so in an incredibly clear and factual manner. He avoids preaching as best possible, and lays out a vast array of details spanning both history and nearly the entire scope of the earth, air, fire and water of our planet.

If you open up the book thinking the world is catapulting towards environmental disaster, you'll probably close it thinking McNeill has given you all the evidence you need to seal the deal. If you fall in the opposite extreme, if you think environmental problems are a figment of our imagination, well then actually you'll be disappointed with this book. But if your take is a bit closer to mine, that humans are capable of enormous problems, but also capable of solving just slightly more than we create, then well you'll find as much evidence of that as there is of the sky falling fast...

If there is a real problem with this book, it's probably that it's too damn short. It clocks in at a healthy 360 pages, but scope of facts and concepts compacted into those pages make it seem a bit meager. From tales of murderous fogs of coal smoke suffocating London and Pittsburgh to the stories of irrigation projects destroying entire seas, from war reports from the battlefields of the Green Revolution to deep sea journeys of whalers and fishermen, the book spins you around the globe enough to make the jet set jealous. In a slower time and place perhaps this book would have gotten the 800 or 1000 pages it deserves, but of course 21st century readers like me and you are probably both happier with and more likely to buy the 360 pages it actually delivers. Either way though I suspect the conclusion would be the same, sobering yet with just enough room for optimism to slip in:

It is impossible to know whether humankind has entered a genuine ecological crisis. It is clear enough that our current ways are ecologically unsustainable, but we can not know for how long we may yet sustain them, or what might happen if we do. In any case, human history since the dawn of agriculture is replete with unsustainable societies, some of which vanished but many of which changed their ways and survived. Perhaps we can, as it where, pile one unsustainable regime upon another indefinitely, making adjustments large and small but avoiding collapse...

Posted by Abe at September 5, 2006 11:48 PM

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