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Fossil-Fuel Fallout

Stephen Pyne

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. J. R. McNeill. xxvi + 421 pp. W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. $29.95.

It's a new world. The earth looks vastly different than it did 100 years ago, and some areas of it have changed so greatly over the past 200 years as to be unrecognizable. Its soils, minerals, landforms, rivers, lakes, coasts; the abundance and arrangement, the variety and vitality of its flora and fauna; even its atmosphere—all show alterations in their structure and informing processes. Together with the rate of change itself, these changes collectively constitute, in J. R. McNeill's mind, "something new under the sun." It is hard to disagree.

This book profiles what has changed and why. Specifically, it argues four propositions: that environmental change in the 20th century was exceptional in its velocity and in the role of humanity as a driver; that this "ecological peculiarity" was the unwitting consequence of how we came to live; that our modern lives, ideas and institutions have become adapted to our current, extraordinary circumstances (which include cheap energy and water as well as rapid population growth and economic growth); and that our "preferences and patterns" will not easily be altered should these circumstances change.

The prime mover behind this era has been inexpensive energy furnished by fossil fuels. Cheap combustion has made other resources cheap and, in fact, has made it possible for industrial societies to convert nature into a cornucopia of natural resources. On this fossil-fuel agar, the human population has grown like feral bacteria.

The earth will survive—it has survived worse shocks. It is not so obvious, however, that humanity will survive without social upheavals of biblical proportions. McNeill observes that "the same characteristics that underwrote our long-term biological success—adaptability, cleverness—have lately permitted us to erect a highly specialized fossil fuel–based civilization so ecologically disruptive that it guarantees surprises and shocks, and promotes just the sort of flux that favors the adaptable and clever." Mix an uncontrolled experiment in environmental meddling with the Law of Unintended Consequences, sprinkle a pinch of irony, and you will brew up what McNeill, with tongue firmly in cheek, terms an "interesting gamble." Unwittingly, we are selecting a "particular evolutionary gambit" that promises to create conditions we will find it troubling to adapt to. The human species will survive; many societies will not. Worse, since it is nearly impossible to understand what is happening until it is "inconveniently late" to change course, it is impossible "to know whether humankind has entered a genuine ecological crisis." All that we can say is that we cannot continue as we are now.

McNeill writes deftly, usually pithily, often sagely—and he deals with matters on a global scale without losing coherence or degenerating into academic prose. He tries to blend "arithmetic and anecdote." The book is as filled with quantitative data as the Colorado River is with silt, yet the flow of its prose never chokes on that load. McNeill routinely employs striking analogies and geographic-based comparisons to provide scale for what he is describing: Thus the area of land subject to cultivation in 1900 was "roughly the size of Australia"; by 1995, it was "more nearly the size of Russia or South America." Maps show active fisheries across the planet, from the Indian Ocean to the Grand Banks. All of this is no small achievement. The book deserves a wide audience.

It is worth asking whether, as historical scholarship, the book itself is something new under the sun. Many topics aren't included, and some themes cannot be developed. What is missing? Readers will have their own favorites. Rather than open-pit nickel mines as an example of earth-moving, why not the sand and gravel that have been reconstituted into concrete-highway rivers and urban deltas? But these are matters of taste.

I offer for consideration four omissions: One, public lands—state-owned domains, crown lands, nature preserves, forests. These battlegrounds of modern environmentalism are highly significant, for if we had no large areas of undeveloped land to use as a reference point, it would be hard to imagine wilderness, or deep ecology. Moreover, state-owned lands offer a convenient arena for governments to test theories and apply their environmental powers. And they are one more thing new under the sun: artifacts of European imperialism, created over the past 150 years, most expansively present in former colonies in which the indigenous population more or less vanished from the scene. Many of these tracts of land may well be swept aside by the forces of decolonization. They deserve at least a vignette.

Two, modern science. McNeill discusses science mostly as a contributor to technology—the science of antibiotics, leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. But what about science as a transnational institution, as an instrument for measuring features of the environment, as a vision of the earth and humanity's place within it? Nearly all the book's data and explanatory metaphors and the very essence of its political and moral judgments about sustainability derive from the apparatus of modern science. But what produced the science, and how? What are the limitations of that evidence? Has not science itself changed conspicuously over the 20th century, and has not this change entered into our judgment about what is sustainable?

Three, politics. The 20th century has witnessed a revolution in politics no less than in energy. The worst havoc has occurred in the name of centralizing states competing and often openly warring on a global scale. Political institutions deserve at least as close an analysis as the dams they built and the radioactive materials they dumped. Most reforms will require political action at some level. What systems seem best? What can we learn from past successes in managing the global commons without tragedy—from Antarctica, for example, which is now the largest conservation zone on earth? Although McNeill includes a chapter on politics, it mostly addresses environmentalism as a political force, not political ideologies as an environmental driver.

Four, countertrends. The more mature the industrial society, the more abundant and diverse are its complex accommodations and even regional reversals. Demographic transition, the decarbonization of energy, the shift to knowledge-based service economies, mandated reduction of ozone-eating chemicals—all are as typical of the contemporary scene as the continued overconsumption of oil. Yet the flattened comparison—the 20th century at its worst measured directly against, say, the late 18th century—compresses the narrative into a single quantitative index.

It is strange and troubling that this is a "history" book without traditional narrative. It offers a pungent snapshot, a rich silhouette, of a century, relying for its argumentative power on sharp, discontinuous contrasts with previous eras. The author presents data in the form of tables rather than graphs and uses geographic-based comparisons (as big as Belgium, half the size of Tibet) and snippets of scenes organized by the spheres of the earth (lithosphere and pedo-sphere, for example). That some trends are slowing or reversing he only hints at. By contrast, graphs would imply continuous movement, a trajectory that could be traced by means of a narrative. Clearly it would be impossible to tell numerous stories and have the text add up to anything more than babble. But the denial of narrative as a mode of explanation is striking. The result suggests environmental change so vast and so sudden that it has shattered not only ecological relationships but also historical continuities, forcing us to explain our circumstances in novel ways.

It is as though J. R. McNeill takes literally his assertion that industrial humanity's planetary manipulations are an uncontrolled experiment. This is history as a preliminary lab report: He can't complete it because the story is still being told by the quirky earth; the data are still percolating through rock and sea and parliament, and without knowing how everything plays out, he can't really give a narrative account with a beginning, middle and end. History as story is one of humanity's oldest devices for understanding what is happening and what change means. Yet if McNeill is right, history may number itself among the old adaptations that the new era is making irrelevant. His book should give many readers reason to pause.

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