Perils of writings global environmental history.
My road to global environmental history started about 1993 when Paul Kennedy inquired whether I could recommend anyone, perhaps myself, to write a global environmental history of the 20th century. Kennedy, then as now a prominent professor at Yale, was trying to assemble a roster of 12 or 14 authors for a series of histories of the 20th century. It was to include books on economic history, cultural history, international relations history, and so forth. Most of those books were never written and the series fizzled. But I, unaware that failure to complete a contract was an option, spent the rest of the 1990s trying to liberate myself from my socialization as a historian in order to write the book I had promised to Paul Kennedy.
My socialization and training as a historian was unremarkable, fine as far as it went, but almost counterproductive for the task I took on in 1993. I had been taught in graduate school to frame a subject, read all relevant secondary sources, go to archives until money ran out, come home, and then write. That approximate procedure worked fine for my first two books. But by the time my second book appeared, I had children and could not in good conscience be away from home for more than a day or two at a time, which ruled out visits to archives unless I wanted to become a U.S. historian and work out of NARA, which is about half an hour from where I lived. In those days, I was under the false impression that U.S. history lacked drama. I was not interested in exploring it. One of the attractions of Kennedy's offer was that it could not be done on the basis of archival work and would not require me to go any further from home than the nearest research library-in my case the Library of Congress. So a global environmental history book was much easier to fit with the circumstances of my life.
But it was much harder to do with confidence. When I wrote about 18th-century Havana or Louisbourg, I knew that fewer than 10 people on the face of the Earth knew as much as I did about either of these subjects, and no one knew more about the pair of them. When I wrote another book about environmental changes in Mediterranean mountain regions since 1700, I could feel nearly as confident. And in both cases, I expected that rather few people cared much about any of these subjects-an expectation borne out by the sales of those books. (1) But in writing about 20th-century environmental change, I was venturing into terrain where many people cared passionately, and where more than a few people knew heaps more than I did.
The basic problem, then, was inadequate research anxiety syndrome, or IRAS. This potentially paralyzing condition can afflict any scholar. I contracted it when trying to go global. Indeed I would venture that IRAS is hyperendemic in the terrain of global history and only the most blithely confident of historians is resistant to it. Symptoms can include heightened irascibility.
I suffered from IRAS for three related reasons. The first one is a vulnerability common among all global historians. I knew that there was no way I could know enough about every corner of the world to do justice to the task. I couldn't learn all the important languages. Specialists on every region might complain that I didn't get it right in their domain, didn't use the original sources, and (in most cases) did not even know the languages of those sources. They might further object that I didn't say enough about their domain, given its importance. That problem exists for all global historians, and surely helps to explain why the series Paul Kennedy tried to create fizzled.
My second reason for developing IRAS was that global environmental history required attention to matters such as atmospheric chemistry, wildlife biology, radiation genetics, and climatology, to name just a few of the many subjects that I had never studied. I had to assess data and interpretations in disciplines that I had either never studied, such as climatology, or not studied since high school (biology). Whom should I believe when interpretations clashed? I often don't know whom to believe when trying to adjudicate for myself quarrels among historians. How to do it among chemists or geneticists? I never found a foolproof way to address this problem. I relied upon the opinions of colleagues at my university and my own guesses about the relative authority of various publications. I knew this was inadequate, but I didn't have time to educate myself in all the natural sciences. In practice, I found some of the shores of chemistry and genetics very hard to navigate, and I worried what people with proper educations in these arenas would think of what I wrote.
The third problem that led to my case of IRAS was that so many scholars and scientists are working in the fields related to environmental matters. Collectively, they published staggering amounts of literature relevant to my research every week. It soon dawned on me that if I managed to read 12 hours a day, I would be further behind in the evening than I was in the morning: in the course of that day many additional relevant publications had appeared, indeed more than I had read. And with diapers to change, and then soccer practices to drive to, I wasn't going to get in many 12-hour days even in summers or when on leave from teaching. When I had been researching colonial Louisbourg, perhaps one or two relevant publications appeared each year (and I could get in more 12-hour days back then too).
So I had to discipline myself to read only a tiny fraction of relevant material on the ozone shield or Amazonian deforestation. I tried to find the most conscientious summary pieces, not the cutting-edge in-depth research. This shaped my decisions about what to put in and what to leave out: if I found a good overview of oil's environmental implications in Nigeria but not in Saudi Arabia, then Nigeria it would be, even if Saudi Arabia had a much longer and larger oil history. Sometimes I felt some subjects were too important to leave out even if I could not find a good overview or three, so I would read a little deeper, maybe 10 or 20 specialist pieces, and then try to compose my own overview. Mexico City's air pollution history fell into this category. But I could not afford to have many entries in this category, or else I would never finish. And even in these cases, I knew I was going to read no more than 5% of the relevant scientific literature before I wrote my own paragraphs.
The book I wrote, an overview of 20th-century environmental change and the forces behind it, argues that in the fullness of time the ecological tumult of the 20th century will be the most important thing about it, more so than the world wars, the end of (many) empires, the social changes, and so forth. The energy system people built and the growth of human numbers (in that order) were the main reasons for this tumult, the likes of which the planet had never seen before. Earth history's prior upheavals, some of them much more disruptive than what humankind accomplished in the 20th century, were not the work of an intelligent species. (2)
I was and remain happy with the book in most respects, but the research procedures behind it ran counter to all my training and prior experience as an historian, and did not sit easily with me, at least not at first. But it is remarkable what one can get used to, or almost used to, in time.
For nearly 20 years, the delights of a house full of children kept me from making trips to distant archives. Most of what I wrote was global in scope and exposed me to continual re-infection with IRAS. I silently vowed, more than once, that when the house emptied I would return to the practices I had been trained in, and write things based on detailed research in multiple archives. To some extent I fulfilled that vow slightly ahead of schedule. (3) But I also found that IRAS can be like malaria, something you can get again and again, but becomes less troublesome with each successive bout. Perhaps it is like cliff-diving: the first time is the scariest. Which is not to say that it can ever be done, except by daredevils, without trepidation.
So I did not try to dissuade myself from another foray when in 2009 Akira Iriye, a prominent Harvard professor of international history, asked me to write a short book on post-1945 world environmental history. Iriye had concluded, as Kennedy had years before, that a general multi-volume history of the globe had to include systematic treatment of environmental history. To ensure that Iriye would not change his mind, I promptly agreed to write such a book. Oceans of new and relevant research had appeared in the intervening years, of which, I knew, I would sample well under 5%.
Without careful contemplation of the risks to which he would be exposed, I recruited a Ph.D. student in environmental history, Peter Engelke, to co-author the book that Iriye wanted. Engelke's prior work, his dissertation, dealt with environmental aspects of urban planning in Munich, c. 1960-1980, on which he had become one of the world's foremost experts. This experience of acquiring real expertise made him highly susceptible to IRAS, because he knew what it meant to do research in depth. He put the completion of his dissertation on hold while we wrote our book, which meant we had to do it fast. We did, and Peter struggled manfully with IRAS when writing about environmentalism around the world, or the evolution of the global economy. As a veteran sufferer, I tried to soothe his fears. The book we wrote tries to put recent global environmental history into the ongoing debates about the Anthropocene. (4)
So I have not by any means conquered IRAS but am learning to live with it. It seems to me an inevitable risk of doing global environmental history. In some form, it is, I think, an inevitable risk of any and all global history. In politics people sometimes say it is unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In scholarship, perhaps, it is acceptable to run the risks of IRAS, and to admit the imperfections of the global approach in order to reap the advantages it confers. With luck, the results can be good, if always far from perfect.
J.R. McNeill, Georgetown University
(1) J.R. McNeill, The Atlantic Empires of France and Spain: Louisbourg and Havana, 1700-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985; J.R. McNeill, The Mountains of the Mediterranean World: An Environmental History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
(2) J.R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-century World (New York: Norton, 2000).
(3) In the form of Mosquito Empires: War and Ecology in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
(4) J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, Into the Anthropocene: Global Environmental History since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014 or 2015). The Anthropocene is the term recently proposed as a new geological era to emphasize the role of humankind in shaping the Earth. Geologists are currently debating whether or not to adopt this term, while other scientists, scholars, and journalists use it freely. Among the raging debates is whether to date the onset of the Anthropocene to c. 1945, c. 1800, or earlier. Historians have strong advantages over most other scholars in this particular debate.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: Global Environmental History|
|Publication:||World History Bulletin|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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