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Unnatural history. (Book Review).

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century by J.R. McNeil (New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).

In late October 2001, the Washington Post ran an article entitled "War Effort Pushes 'Green' Issues Aside," detailing the extent to which anti-terrorism and national security concerns were affecting U.S. environmental policy. Congressional advocates of drilling in the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) covers 19,049,236 acres (79,318 km²) in northeastern Alaska, in the North Slope region. It was originally protected in 1960 by order of Fred A. Seaton, the Secretary of the Interior under U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  argued that the project would reduce the country's dependence on foreign sources of oil. Environmentalists countered with calls for energy conservation. Administration promises to provide a proposed alternative to the Kyoto climate treaty were shelved. Critics observed that the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. , in attempting to hold together an international anti-terrorism coalition, could no longer afford to act unilaterally on climate change and other global issues.

All this provides a reminder that ecology cannot be separated from domestic and international politics. Indeed, the twentieth century human impact on the environment, as described by Georgetown University Georgetown University, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.; Jesuit; coeducational; founded 1789 by John Carroll, chartered 1815, inc. 1844. Its law and medical schools are noteworthy, and its archives are especially rich in letters and manuscripts by and  professor J.R. McNeil in his new ecological history Something New Under the Sun, was profoundly shaped by "security anxiety," imperialism, decolonization decolonization

Process by which colonies become independent of the colonizing country. Decolonization was gradual and peaceful for some British colonies largely settled by expatriates but violent for others, where native rebellions were energized by nationalism.
, democratization de·moc·ra·tize  
tr.v. de·moc·ra·tized, de·moc·ra·tiz·ing, de·moc·ra·tiz·es
To make democratic.

, and war.

Most of the environmental changes we set in motion in the twentieth century are actually unintentional byproducts. And the international response to many ecological calamities has been less than comprehensive, as environmental policies and politics are still quite young and immature, only really having been forged in the tumult of the 1960s. And even then, many of the policies that have had significant impact were not necessarily directed toward ecological ends. "For good and ill, real environmental policy, both on the international and national levels, was made inadvertently, as side effects Side effects

Effects of a proposed project on other parts of the firm.
 of conventional politics and policies," writes McNeill. For example, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Noun 1. Margaret Thatcher - British stateswoman; first woman to serve as Prime Minister (born in 1925)
Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, Iron Lady, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Thatcher
 scuttled her country's coal industry, the effect was to dramatically cut sulfur emissions. In China, the country's Cultural Revolution and drive for collectivization col·lec·tiv·ize  
tr.v. col·lec·tiv·ized, col·lec·tiv·iz·ing, col·lec·tiv·iz·es
To organize (an economy, industry, or enterprise) on the basis of collectivism.
 prompted a massive population boom.

While environmental gains and losses in the twentieth century often were inadvertent, the new century demands that we prioritize environmental threats alongside traditional (and competing) notions of "security." Today's obsession with security in the wake of September 11th need not be bad news for environmental policy. In fact, long term thinking about security--political, economic, and environmental--will be crucial in the twenty-first century.

To McNeill, the deeply rooted twentieth century ideology toward the environment is encapsulated by Katherine Hepburn's character in the movie the African Queen: "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above." That mindset mind·set or mind-set
1. A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person's responses to and interpretations of situations.

2. An inclination or a habit.
 still plagues us, writes McNeill: "One reason the environment in the twentieth century changed so much is because prevailing ideas and politics--from an ecological perspective--changed so little." Meanwhile our ability to manipulate the environment grew in leaps and bounds as science, for example, unlocked new technologies and created massive new industries that produced chemicals, computers, and even new organisms.

The great political movements of the twentieth century also affected the environment in conflicting ways. Nationalism led sometimes toward preservation of nature, sometimes toward its overexploitation. Communism aimed to harness nature to satisfy the state's demand for gigantic farms, industrial complexes, and dams, which often caused major ecological disruptions. While communism faltered, "a more flexible and seductive religion"--the quest for Verb 1. quest for - go in search of or hunt for; "pursue a hobby"
quest after, go after, pursue

look for, search, seek - try to locate or discover, or try to establish the existence of; "The police are searching for clues"; "They are searching for the
 economic growth--succeeded, writes McNeill. "Capitalists, nationalists--indeed almost everyone, communists included--worshiped at this same altar because economic growth disguised a multitude of sins."

In the past, these "sins"--corruption, social inequalities, pollution--were tolerated in the name of economic growth. Adherents to the faith--the World Bank comes to mind here--argue that only more growth could redress these problems. But with the United States awakening to the possibility that poverty and deep international disparities can foster discontent and ultimately terrorism, and with former World Bank staffers critiquing its "elusive quest for growth," MeNeill asks what the cost will be of remaining locked into a twentieth-century ideology. Environmental policymakers have long known the ecological costs; but with the events of September 11th, the human cost of economic fundamentalism has been chillingly brought to the world's doorstep.

The author is harsh with the high priests of this new religion, the economists--mostly Anglo-American--who took credit for ending the Great Depression and managing the war economies. He caricatures those who, having attained enormous amounts of prestige and influence, spread their gospel of economic growth and made their ideas orthodoxy around the world. And why is this important? "All this mattered because economists thought, wrote, and prescribed as if nature did not." McNeill mines this quote from Nobel Prize Nobel Prize, award given for outstanding achievement in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, or literature. The awards were established by the will of Alfred Nobel, who left a fund to provide annual prizes in the five areas listed above.  winner Robert Solow Robert Merton "Bob" Solow (born August 23, 1924) is an American economist particularly known for his work on the theory of economic growth. He was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal (in 1961) and the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics. : "The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources."

Presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
 Solow was not thinking about petroleum, which became increasingly intertwined with twentieth century--and now, early twenty--first century-conflict. McNeill contends that "for world environmental history, few if any things mattered more than the triumph of oil." One accidental player in this history was the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), multinational organization (est. 1960, formally constituted 1961) that coordinates petroleum policies and economic aid among oil-producing nations.  (OPEC OPEC: see Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
 in full Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries

Multinational organization established in 1960 to coordinate the petroleum production and export policies of its
), which initiated the oil shortages of the 1970s that spurred a movement toward energy efficiency in industrial nations, above all Japan. Beginning in the 1970s, the environmental impacts of oil production became increasingly prominent--not least because of their tie to the automobile, "a strong candidate for the title of most socially and environmentally consequential technology of the twentieth century." This machine's energy and material requirements, demand for land, pollution production, and death toll have been unprecedented--no small irony, since part of the car's appeal was its modest emissions and perceived lower impact on the urban environment, relative to the horse.

In the United States, energy gluttony Gluttony
See also Greed.

Belch, Sir Toby

gluttonous and lascivious fop. [Br. Lit.: Twelfth Night]

Biggers, Jack

one of the best known “feeders” of eighteenth-century England. [Br. Hist.
 (created in part by unrestrained automobile use), appears to have contributed in part to the terrorist attacks by requiting a U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia--a major grievance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. United States dependence on oil from the corrupt and repressive Saudi regime, a supporter of intolerant Islamic practices and a financier of anti-American terrorist networks using U.S. petrodollars Petrodollars

The money that oil exporters receive from selling oil and then deposit into Western banks.

Petrodollars refers to the money that Middle Eastern countries and members of OPEC receive as revenue from Western nations and then put back into those same
, has complicated antiterrorist an·ti·ter·ror·ist  
Intended to prevent or counteract terrorism; counterterror: antiterrorist measures.

 efforts. Oil overuse overuse Health care The common use of a particular intervention even when the benefits of the intervention don't justify the potential harm or cost–eg, prescribing antibiotics for a probable viral URI. Cf Misuse, Underuse.  has also contributed to environmental vulnerability, in terms of susceptibility to climate changes and heightened urban air pollution woes (see "What Will it Take to Halt Sprawl?" page 12).

Oil consumption could well serve as the poster child for the "prodigal PRODIGAL, civil law, persons. Prodigals were persons who, though of full age, were incapable of managing their affairs, and of the obligations which attended them, in consequence of their bad conduct, and for whom a curator was therefore appointed.
" twentieth century. As McNeill writes, "No other century... in human history can compare with the twentieth for its growth in energy use." With the explosion in fossil fuel fossil fuel: see energy, sources of; fuel.
fossil fuel

Any of a class of materials of biologic origin occurring within the Earth's crust that can be used as a source of energy. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
 extraction, we have probably deployed more energy since 1900 than in all of human history before 1900.

How did this happen? McNeill cites, above all, human ingenuity--the invention of new technologies, and the design of new forms of social and business organization-- as driving the rate of economic activity. This expansion brought social and ecological disruption, of course. But since 1950, most leaders sought more economic growth as the answer to most problems-"we erected new political, new ideologies, and new institutions predicated on continuous growth."

Many other important environmental changes took place in the twentieth century. (See table, below.) McNeill devotes the first part of his book to tracking the causes and consequences of major alterations to the Earth's lithosphere lithosphere (lĭth`əsfēr '), brittle uppermost shell of the earth, broken into a number of tectonic plates. The lithosphere consists of the heavy oceanic and lighter continental crusts, and the uppermost portion of the mantle. , pedosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere hydrosphere

Discontinuous layer of water at or near the Earth's surface. It includes all liquid and frozen surface waters, groundwater held in soil and rock, and atmospheric water vapour. Virtually all of these waters are in constant circulation through the hydrologic cycle.
, and biosphere biosphere, irregularly shaped envelope of the earth's air, water, and land encompassing the heights and depths at which living things exist. The biosphere is a closed and self-regulating system (see ecology), sustained by grand-scale cycles of energy and of . In the second half of the book, he focuses on the century's social, economic, and political trends and their "labyrinthine lab·y·rin·thine
Of, relating to, resembling, or constituting a labyrinth.


pertaining to or emanating from a labyrinth.
 links" to environmental change. The relationship between environmental and social change, he acknowledges, is complex and defies grand theories. But his boiled-down answer is that "two trends--conversion to a fossil fuelbased energy system and very rapid population growth--spread nearly around the world, while a third-ideological and political commitment to economic growth and military power--which was already widespread, consolidated."

MeNeill is careful to avoid hyperbole. "It is impossible to know whether humankind has entered a genuine ecological crisis An ecological crisis occurs when the environment of a species or a population changes in a way that destabilizes its continued survival. There are many possible causes of such crises:
. It is clear enough that our current ways are ecologically unsustainable, but we cannot know for how long we may yet sustain them, or what might happen if we do." But he adds an ounce of precaution, writing that, "It is nearly impossible to see what is happening until it is inconveniently late to do much about it.... If one accepts the notion that there is a significant chance that more serious ecological problems lie ahead ... it is prudent to address the prospect sooner rather than later." Specifically, he proposes hastening the institution of a new, clean energy regime and speeding the demographic transition Demographic transition occurs in societies that transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and low death rates as part of the economic development of a country from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economy.  toward lower mortality and fertility rates.

Will leaders heed this advice? McNeill is skeptical, noting that "those responsible for policy tend to take as their frame of reference the world as we know it." This leads them to think of things as "normal," when, ecologically speaking, the current situation is a serious deviation from the normal states of the world that have prevailed during human history. Hence the need for environmental history: "If we lived 700 or 7,000 years, we would understand this on the basis of experience and memory alone. But for creatures who live a mere 70 years or so, the study of the past, distant and recent, is required to know what the range of possibilities includes, and to know what might endure."

Speaking at a Worldwatch brownbag this summer, McNeill explained that in writing Something New he sought to reach two audiences in particular. The first audience was his fellow historians, whom he hopes to convince to see non-human factors as more than geographical background. His second audience was environmental professionals, whom he hopes to convince that the long-term perspective is "helpful, useful, valid, and necessary." Just as historians benefit from broader treatment of environmental trends, so do environmentalists gain from a greater attention to historical processes. Without this synthesis of history and ecology, humanity will continue to treat the last 100 years as the normal state of affairs that they seem, not the ecological anomaly that they are.

Seth Dunn is a research associate at Worldwatch Institute. He is the author of Worldwatch Paper 157, Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future.
The Measure of the Twentieth Century

                                      Increase Factor,
Item                                    1890s-1990s

World population                          4.0
Urban proportion of world population      3.0
Total world urban population             13.0
World economy                            14.0
Industrial output                        40.0
Energy use                               16.0
Coal production                           7.0
Air pollution                             5.0 (*)
Carbon dioxide emissions                 17.0
Sulfur dioxide emissions                 13.0
Lead emissions to the atmosphere          8.0 (*)
Water use                                 9.0
Marine fish catch                        35.0
Cattle population                         4.0
Pig population                            9.0
Horse population                          1.1
Blue whale population                     0.0025
Fin whale population                      0.03
Bird and mammal species                   0.99
Irrigated area                            5.0
Forest area                               0.8
Cropland                                  2.0

Source: McNeill.

(*)Approximate numbers
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Author:Dunn, Seth
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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