Bid farewell to utopia, it won't get you anywhere

Something New Under the Sun
December 7, 2001

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Book I:9) and John McNeill are in competition. For the first, there is nothing new under the sun; for the second, "the place of humankind within the natural world is not what it was... modern times are different". So McNeill sets out to show that, roughly speaking, there was more of everything, and indeed of everyone, in the 20th century. He also reckons that they have brought about more environmental change than did humanity in preceding millennia.

The narrative is structured about the "spheres" of the planet: the litho, pedo, atmos, hydro, and bio-spheres, though not V. I. Vernadsky's noosphere. Part two is devoted to the "Engines of change", such as urbanisation, energy regimes, technology, ideas, and politics. An epilogue is provocatively titled, "So what?" So far as part one is concerned, showing that a lot of environmental change has recently taken place at human hands is not too difficult; choosing what to leave out is often the main problem for authors at this level of spatial coverage. The problem of a period such as a century is that it leaves little space for preceding times. Thus we are told about the advent of chemical fertilisers and their effects on crop yields, and about a few other soil-improving techniques but there is no opportunity to discuss the myriad ways in which pre-industrial societies turned over their soils and modified them. So while not disputing the author's claims about the magnitude of 20th-century change (who could?), it is as well to remember that they did not happen in most cases to pristine ecosystems. As this section is subtitled "The music of the spheres", perhaps the human voice that McNeill now thinks clashes with that music has been creating discords for a lot longer than he implies?

This collection of empirical material is not brought together elsewhere at a worldwide spatial scale in quite this form, though versions not far from it can be found. Hence, the core of the argument must be in the discussion of the engines of change. McNeill decides that the major drivers are energy, economy and technology, and provides us with a useful table that summarises numerically the multipliers of the century 1890-1990. Less important, he thinks, are population growth and urbanisation, and there are strong links to ideological and political currents. The problem for him (as it is for anybody not wedded to the idea of a foreseen utopia or to environmental determinism) is that the past is not necessarily a good guide to the future. The synergies of nature, technology and culture provide conditions that could not be predicted from a previous era, and McNeill finds no difficulty in this admission. I would, though, have gone further than him in suggesting that certain elements in today's processes deserve more emphasis as producers of unlooked-for metamorphoses. I think he gives too little treatment to the arguments over climatic change, for example.

Whether or not the scientists' consensus is adopted as a guide for action, the fact of interna-tional debate and existence of the partial agreements of international conventions (despite the endless recriminations all round) throws a new element into politics. Similarly, really new phenomena such as genetic manipulation, of which we get a very small amount here, must be capable of ramifying through almost every resource process on earth, not least the production of meat, which is one of the great environmental modifiers of the planet. Molecular engineering and nanotechnology, the production of yet more compounds not found in nature and therefore not having any degradation pathways (think of plastics and pesticides), and above all perhaps the realisation of something like Vernadsky's noosphere in the shape of instant electronic communications, seem to me to make McNeill's approach to avoiding prediction look tame. I think there are more new things under the sun than he admits.

For all that, this book has so many virtues that to carp at its emphases is ungenerous. It has some reasonable maps, excellent tables and a wonderful bibliography that excites by the range of languages on which it draws, an uncommon feature in mono-linguistic academia these days. In the United States it will have a clear target audience in the universities and colleges but here in the UK I am not so sure: many of the basic data of part one are available in other sources and the discussion in part two needs to be a bit more complicated for most of our undergraduates. But for a wider audience, McNeill makes the point that history raises the whole question of what is "normal" and that many decisions are taken with the assumption that now is normal, whereas environmental history points out the impossibility of finding some kind of defensible benchmark. There is no going back to an environmentalist utopia and the sooner we find the value system to cope with that, the better. Ecclesiastes 1, McNeill 2, I should say.

Ian Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

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

Author - John McNeill
ISBN - 0 14 029509 7
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 421

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