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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: 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 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, 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 professor J.R. McNeil in his new ecological history Something New Under the Sun, was profoundly shaped by "security anxiety," imperialism, decolonization, democratization, 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 of conventional politics and policies," writes McNeill. For example, when British Prime Minister Margaret 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 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 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 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 winner Robert Solow: "The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources."

Presumably 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 (OPEC), 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 (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, has complicated antiterrorist efforts. Oil overuse 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" 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 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, pedosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. In the second half of the book, he focuses on the century's social, economic, and political trends and their "labyrinthine 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. 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 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
Words:1770
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