Something new under the sun : an environmental history of the twentieth-century world /

Main Author: McNeill, J. R.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, c2000.
Edition: 1st ed.
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Review by Choice Review

The 20th century witnessed unprecedented environmental change, largely unintentional and at the hand of humans, according to McNeill (Georgetown Univ.). He suggests that while humans certainly altered nature at other times in the past, the intensity, scale, and pace of change in the last hundred years far surpassed that during any previous time period. This important work examines a veritable "who's who" of environmental problems, ranging from soil erosion and mining to whaling and over fishing. McNeill systematically presents numerous detailed historical case studies of an entire host of environmental crises, including Chernobyl, Love Canal, smog in Los Angeles, and many other lesser-known examples. He then delves into possible reasons for this environmental change. Rapid population growth and urbanization, the development of fossil fuels, and various economic and political ideologies have all played significant roles. Although many good environmental studies books such as G.T. Miller's Living in the Environment (11th ed., 2000) address many of the same issues, McNeill goes one step further in putting them in a historical context. This very thorough and well-referenced work is a must for any college or university library. All levels. ; Illinois State University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Booklist Review

As we celebrate the first Earth Day of the twenty-first century, environmental degradation looms as one of our greatest challenges. To mark this milestone, historians and scientists are assessing the state of the planet, past and current environmental viewpoints, and strategies for a more ecologically sound future. Environmental issues are dauntingly complex, but when scientists as lucid and engaging as the 31 contributors to Schneiderman's vivifying compendium write about them, such topics as urban water supplies, deforestation, erosion, ultraviolet radiation, extinction, and the ethics of science become vital and captivating. In her clarifying essay about the disposal of high-level nuclear waste, Allison Macfarlane raises a key question--"How did we get into this mess?" --which she and her fellow writers address in a valiant effort to help us find a way out. Not only do 16 prominent scientists share their life stories in Life Stories, they also tell the story of life on Earth as they see it, sharing their passion for nature and their commitment to resolving environmental woes. James Lovelock describes his immense curiosity as a boy, and the revelation that inspired his controversial Gaia theory, which views the earth as a self-regulating system. Paul Ehrlich recalls his youthful passion for "butterflies, tropical fish, and girls," interests he retained even after embarking on his pioneering population studies. Other distinguished contributors include Ruth Patrick, an expert on diatoms; Henry Kendall, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of quarks; Thomas Lovejoy, who created the public television series Nature; and Max Nicholson, a founder of the World Wildlife Fund. The phrase "unintended consequences" crops up repeatedly in analyses of the havoc wrought by planet-altering technologies, such as fluorocarbons and nuclear power. Historian McNeill employs it often in his cogently structured, richly detailed, and thoroughly engrossing appraisal of what made the twentieth century unique in both social and ecological terms. Judiciously integrating science and history, he assesses our impact on every aspect of the earth, from its soil to the atmosphere and hydrologic cycle. He identifies our profligate use of fossil fuels as the primary catalyst for radical environmental and social change, and notes that this energy source has exacted severe tolls in the form of pollution and social instability as a result of growing inequalities in wealth and power. As he delineates the unintended consequences of artificial fertilizers, mining, automobiles, deforestation, wetland drainage, dam building, plant breeding, antibiotics, and bioinvasions, McNeill portrays mankind as a "rogue primate" who has unwittingly damaged every known ecosystem. The focus of Rothman's swiftly flowing, crystal clear analysis is the evolution of American environmentalism, which he pegs firmly to economics and technology. The story begins late in the nineteenth century, when what once seemed like an endless frontier shrank under the assault of a rapidly growing and mobile population. Visionaries such as John Muir responded with a new conservationist ethic, thus launching the complicated and ever-shifting movement to protect wilderness and combat the toxicity of industrialization. As Rothman chronicles each phase in environmentalist thought and action, from its elitist, macho beginnings to fruitless attempts to team up with corporate interests to the anti-establishment back-to-nature sensibilities of the 1970s and beyond, he presents invaluable perspectives on the rise of agribusiness and the nuclear power industry, and forthrightly articulates the dangers inherent in a heedless prosperity that stokes the engines of environmental destruction while leaving so many people out in the cold. Leaving Shutkin's look toward the future until last, we'll take up Woodard's alarming survey of the state of the oceans instead. A seasoned observer of global affairs, journalist Woodard visited various marine ecosystems, and now presents his findings in a lively and personable narrative in spite of their dire nature. He reports on the nearly moribund Black Sea; the demise of the once abundant cod population; Cancer Alley, a string of 136 petrochemical plants situated along the Mississippi that ejects a billion pounds of toxins a year into the mighty river and the Gulf of Mexico; and Belize's threatened coral reefs. In each locale, he chronicles the unmitigated greed and utter disregard for life and common sense that allow us to fill the oceans with poison while removing unconscionable quantities of fish and other marine life-forms. Woodard makes it clear that the squandering of the oceans is a crime of which every living thing is a potential victim. Shutkin injects optimism into the environmental discourse by championing what he calls civic environmentalism, a new approach to combating environmental problems that accentuates community concerns. Its mission, he explains, is both to preserve wilderness and to protect "ordinary places." Civic environmentalism, the "ultimate common ground," is about the quality of urban life as well as the viability of oceans, prairies, and forests. To demonstrate how it works, Shutkin offers four case studies that showcase successful grassroots efforts to overcome the inertia and greed engendered by business-as-usual politics and corporate finagling. This is an eloquent and well-researched blueprint for a new phase in environmentalism that just might live up to genuine democratic ideals. --Donna Seaman

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Our profligate, fossil fuel-based civilization is ecologically unsustainable and creates perpetual environmental disturbance, says Georgetown University history professor McNeill, but he remains undecided as to whether humanity has entered a genuine, full-blown ecological crisis. Nevertheless, the evidence he presents in this comprehensive, balanced survey is alarming. Soil degradation now affects one-third of earth's land surface, though intensive fertilizer use and genetic engineering of crops have masked the ill effects. From Mexico City to Calcutta, from China to Africa, megacities choke on air pollution as economic development takes priority over other concerns. Acid rain has decimated lake and river life, crops and forests across Europe and North America. International in scope, McNeill's kaleidoscopic, textbookish history hops from Soviet phosphate mining in the Arctic to deforestation by white settlers in southern Africa, documenting the pollution of oceans and seas; the unchecked "harvesting" of fish and whales; environmentally influenced, disease-producing shifts in human-microbe relations; disruptive invasions by new species (sea lampreys in the Great Lakes, rabbits in Australia); and the massive impact on ecosystems resulting from urbanization, population growth, wars, oil spills, nuclear power accidents. McNeill's study underscores the mixed consequences of environmental and political decision making. For example, the Green Revolution fed additional millions, but it also promoted monoculture and strengthened landed elites in Asia and Latin America. The book closes with a capsule history of the environmental movement, gauging its successes and influence. This scientifically informed survey makes a useful resource for environmentalists, scholars, globalists, biologists, policy makers and concerned readers. 40 photos and 15 maps not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

McNeill (history, Georgetown Univ.) offers a concise synthesis of humanity's relationship to and alteration of the environment during the 20th century. Divided into 12 chapters, each with a brief introduction and summary of the topics discussed therein, his volume examines Earth's lithosphere, pedosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. McNeill interprets the human impact on the earth politically, economically, and socially, noting that history and ecology cannot be separated, as each influenced the other. Whether it be defoliants used to fight a war in Vietnam, the construction of military-industrial complexes, or the production and consumption of consumer goods, the environmental damage was severe but not always irreversible. As a history of causes and consequences, McNeill's volume will be a welcome addition to environmental history collections and will appeal to the general reader who wants a quick overview.--Patricia Ann Owens, Wabash Valley Coll., Mt. Carmel, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.