"We used 10 times as much energy in the 20th century as in the 1,000 previous years"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Jun 25 18:05:54 MDT 2000

NY Times, June 25, 2000

Review : "Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the
Twentieth-Century World", by J. R. McNEILL"

First Chapter: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/mcneill-sun.html


On an April day in 1970 I was riding an elevator to my job at Fawcett
Publications (our motto: ''Something for every page!'') when the executive
vice president, a man not usually taken to speaking to science editors,
cornered me and poked an executive finger into my sternum. ''Y'ever heard
of this ecology thing?'' he demanded. He pronounced it with a long, hard
''E.'' The previous day, after drinks at the Park Lane, he had wandered
into Central Park, no doubt in search of bad novels to sign up, where he
had run smack into the first Earth Day celebration. He had learned a new
word. ''Keep your eye on this EEE-cology thing,'' he barked at me. ''It's
going to be big!''

Not big enough, apparently, is the message of J. R. McNeill's ''Something
New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century
World.'' McNeill, a professor of history at Georgetown University, tells us
how humans have altered the earth from the 1890's to the 1990's. We've done
a lot. O.K., asteroid crashes and volcanic explosions, McNeill concedes,
can do more in one fell swoop than we can. The five previous great
extinctions, like the one that erased 90 percent of marine species, make
our clubbing of harp seals and building of strip malls seem pathetic by
comparison. When the biography of the earth is written, our effect on the
planet will be a footnote at best -- until 1890. In the past century,
McNeill says, that started to change. We are beginning, as high school
valedictorians always promise, to make a difference.

The author has compiled a volcanic eruption of statistics to prove this.
Usually such numbers, in the hands of environmentalists, are nothing more
than ''cocktail statistics,'' meaningless tidbits to share with Tipper and
Al or Annette and Warren over tofu canapés and mineral water. My favorite:
we lose a football field's worth of rain forest each second. About which I
always wonder, American rules or Canadian? Or, 75 percent of the water we
use in our homes is used in the bathroom, to which P. J. O'Rourke says:
''Thank goodness. Think of the mess it would make in the den.''

McNeill spares us such trivia, serving up his numbers rare, such as 13x,
16x, 40x (the increases, respectively, in the world's urban population,
energy use and industrial output during the past century). He doesn't
examine man's assault on the earth as an environmentalist, but as a
historian: ''The human race, without intending anything of the sort, has
undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I
think, this will appear as the most important aspect of 20th-century
history, more so than World War II, the Communist enterprise, the rise of
mass literacy, the spread of democracy or the growing emancipation of

McNeill's tone will not please liberals, because of his lack of moral
outrage. He writes about deforestation with the same dispassion that one
might use to describe the 17th-century defenestrations in Prague. And
conservatives will not like the content he thus delivers: world economic
growth, up 120 times since 1500, has exacted an enormous toll on the
earth's crust, atmosphere, water supply, plants, animals and finally on its
rogue species, us.

We used 10 times as much energy in the 20th century as in the 1,000
previous years. Before 1900, humans had little impact on earth and rock,
compared with oceanic volcanoes, tectonic movements (mountain building) and
glaciers. By the 1990's, we had surpassed all of them, moving 42 billion
tons of rock and soil per year against 30 billion tons by volcanoes, 14
billion tons by tectonics and only 4.3 billion tons by glaciers. And why
not? A single bulldozer operator today has as much power at his control as
an Egyptian Pharaoh with all his slaves.

We have lost in one century an amount of topsoil it took 1,000 years to
form, and we're running out of clean water. Take the Ogallala Aquifer, an
underground river stretching from South Dakota to Texas. In the 30's, when
we began using the aquifer for irrigation, it was equal in volume to Lake
Huron. Nature took 25,000 years to make the Ogallala. We will sprinkle the
remainder away within 20 to 30 years. Joining the assault on the earth is
the chain saw, which allows us to cut trees 100 to 1,000 times faster than
with axes; without it the clearance of tropical forests might not have
happened. (The need for a new football field every second is not a driving

The author thinks we suffer from ''ideological lock-in.'' Prevailing ideas
and politics, from an ecological perspective, have changed little. After
1880 economists took nature out of economics. Robert Solow, the 1987 Nobel
Prize winner in economics, claimed ''the world can, in effect, get along
without natural resources.'' There is plenty of blame to go around. ''While
economists ignored nature,'' McNeill says, ''ecologists pretended humankind
did not exist.''

''Something New Under the Sun'' is full of big numbers. I sought help from
Michael Sutherland, the director of the Statistical Consulting Center at
the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Sutherland is an expert at
detecting fake or misleading statistics, but found no such problem with
McNeill's, pointing out that he always identifies his sources and is
willing to cite numbers that point in different directions, as often
happens in real life. McNeill doesn't attempt to make his statistics
dovetail to further a point. Sutherland also applauded McNeill's penchant
for not always interpreting the numbers, leaving that responsibility to the
reader. He was amazed, however, at the dearth of data on the environment.
''We know more about commercial shipping than about the condition of the
earth,'' Sutherland says, ''and we have few statistics beyond the U.S.''

McNeill tempers his numbers. He points out that while soil erosion appears
catastrophic, ''more food per capita was available by the end of the 20th
century than at any time in human history,'' thanks to better agricultural
technology. And while air pollution killed as many people in the century as
the two world wars, he points out that air pollution kills the sick,
elderly and very young, while wars kill people in the prime of life --
quite a different matter from social and economic points of view.

This is a book about the collective work of lots of people (the 80 billion
people born in the past four million years), but there are entertaining
stories, too. There's Thomas Midgley, a chemical engineer who in 1921
figured out that adding lead to gasoline would allow it to burn better. By
the 70's most Americans had elevated lead levels in their blood. In
1930-31, Midgley went on to invent Freon, which eats ozone molecules. He
eventually contracted polio, and built a system of ropes and pulleys to
help him in and out of bed. Midgley, perhaps the most politically incorrect
man of the century, strangled himself in the contraption and died suspended
in midair.

Princess Diana and President George Bush notwithstanding, land mines and
Saddam Hussein have proved beneficial to the environment. ''Iraqi land
mines in the Kuwaiti desert kept people out and allowed a resurgence of
animal and plant life in the 1990's,'' McNeill writes. Heinrich Himmler's
SS was ecologically correct, too, with plans to establish an enormous
wildlife preserve in Europe. The Poles, however, opposed the SS's choice of
a site: Poland. An early conservationist, Peter the Great, introduced laws
on wildlife conservation, forest preservation, overfishing, soil
conservation and water pollution between 1689 and 1725. Catherine the
Great, despite her fondness for horses, later rescinded most of these laws.
Admirers of Eastern religions will learn that in the 1980's the Ganges was
choked by several million tons of ashes per month -- cremated remains of
the 30 million Hindus per year who sought post-mortem salvation in the
sacred river. German U-boats helped restore marine life in the North
Atlantic during World War II by scaring fishermen back into port. McNeill
says that humans have done a good job of preserving several species --
those we find delicious.

''Something New Under the Sun'' is an original work of history,
exhaustively researched and carefully written. The message, however, is not
particularly pleasant. McNeill writes that the future is ''inherently
uncertain'' and that ''sharp adjustments will be required.'' The most
hopeful statement here comes from James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's
secretary of the interior. Nominated by a man who blamed trees for air
pollution, Watt said environmentalists were not real Americans and
suggested they should be shot. At his Senate confirmation hearings, he said
there was no need to worry about the environment. An apocalypse, being
prepared by God, Watt told the senators, was imminent.

(Dick Teresi is writing a book about the non-European roots of Western

Louis Proyect
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