This essay reviews two important treatises on environmental history: Something New Under the Sun and Blood and Oil. J.R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun documents the broad sweep of environmental evolution over the last century, and Michael Klare's Blood and Oil documents the troubled history of the US foreign policy conquests in pursuit of oil.
The developments of the last century were unprecedented. Total population quadrupled, while urban population increased thirteen times, world output increased fourteen times, energy use increased sixteen times, and industrial production increased forty times. All this human activity generated a tremendous amount of waste, including agricultural residue, mine tailings, and emissions into the atmosphere, rivers, lakes, and seas. Wetlands have been drained or filled and highways and cities built. For the first time, humankind is influencing ecology on a global scale. McNeill catalogues the impact of all this activity, from America to Zimbabwe, and finds the results are not all bad. For instance, the automobile replaced the horse, which required more land to feed and whose waste products and carcasses were sources of urban stench and disease.
Public attitudes changed in the 1950s and 1960s because cities such as London, Pittsburgh, and Osaka grew so polluted that they became almost unlivable. Major selective cleanups have proceeded even as global waste has grown in volume and cities and rivers have deteriorated. Something new under the Sun is an informative, dispassionate treatment that recounts the last century's environmental history with admirable impartiality.
The world's growing economy is dependent on oil: the supply is running out. The US, China, India, and other powers are engaged in an escalating game of brinkmanship to secure its continued flow. This is the premise of Michael Klare's Blood and Oil. The US, with less than 5% of the world's total population, consumes about 25% of the world's total supply of oil. With no meaningful conservation being attempted, Klare sees the United States' energy behavior dominated by four key trends: "an increasing need for imported oil; a pronounced shift toward unstable and unfriendly suppliers in dangerous parts of the world; a greater risk of anti-American or civil violence; and increased competition for what will likely be a diminishing supply pool."
Growing pain? Man and the environment
During the twentieth century, the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a giant, uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, according to J. R. McNeill in his new book, the environmental dimension of twentieth-century history will overshadow the importance of events like the world wars, the rise and fall of communism, and the spread of mass literacy.
Contrary to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes that "there is nothing new under the sun," McNeill sets out to show that the massive change we have wrought in our physical world has indeed created something new. McNeill contends that we have refashioned the earth's air, water, and soil, and the biosphere to an extent not seen before.
Something New under the Sun begins with chapters on the lithosphere and pedosphere (the rocky crust of the earth and its soil cover), the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, showing how each was modified by human intervention. Human intervention often meant that soil, air and water were degraded, eroded, polluted or exhausted. He then deals with the biosphere: the space occupied by all living things. They serve as the fulcrum of the book and contain some of its strongest arguments. McNeill tells a story of increasing human mastery. He shows how the co-evolution of species gave way to a process of 'unnatural' selection that made the chances for survival of other species heavily dependent on their compatibility with humans. Some prospered, either through domestication (livestock, rice) or because they found niches in a human-dominated biosphere (rats, crabgrass, the tuberculosis bacillus). Others proved incapable of domestication (bison, the blue whale) or unable to adjust (the gorilla, the smallpox virus) and faced extinction.
Reviewing the quickening pace of extinction rates in the 20th century, McNeill suggests that we may be in the early stages of a mass extinction on a par with the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But this mass extinction, if it is one, will have a known cause: the activities of a rogue mammal species. Those activities are surveyed in the second part of the book.
McNeill identifies three major 'engines of change': a steep increase in population prompting migration, urbanization and the search for more resources; a new, fossil-fuel based energy regime; and a belief in economic growth that transcends the lines of political conflict - although the commitment to growth was reinforced by the 'security anxiety' of 20th-century regimes. McNeill criticizes both Capitalism and Communism for their role in the exploitation of nature. He quotes Soviet leaders as saying, 'Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armor of cities, armed with the stone muzzle of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railways. Let the Taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled.'
It was the Soviet determination to 'correct nature's mistakes' that turned most of the Aral Sea into a life-threatening saltpan. The high environmental costs of imperialism are repeatedly noted. McNeill also shows that decolonization has done little to change the process of rapid deforestation. He contends that whoever governed, shortsighted developmentalism ruled.
(Part 2 to follow...)
1.McNeil, John R., Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2000.
2.Klare, Michael T., Blood and Oil: The dangers and consequences of America’s growing petroleum dependency, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004.