Something New Under the Sun

Reviewed by Richard Walthers

Jim Morrison of The Doors once sang in the song "Roadhouse Blues," "I woke up this morning and got myself a beer / the future’s uncertain and the end is always near." J.R. McNeill echoes these sentiments when he writes in his new book, Something New Under The Sun, that the future is "inherently uncertain" and that "wrenching adjustments" will be necessary to prevent the end from getting too close. Although it doesn’t rhyme like The Doors song, the implications of McNeill's story may have you reaching for something stronger than a beer.

This book is a well-documented overview of the environmental history of the planet during the 20th century. McNeill provides factual details as well as some very interesting stories to construct the recent past, thereby illuminating how much of an aberration the 20th century really has been. McNeill takes a sweeping look at all the planet’s systems, such as the lithosphere, pedosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and the anthropogenic reasons for their general degradation.

The physical structure of the book is arranged around these topics, which is useful because you can access any type of pollution and get a very complete review of the topic. However, even McNeill admits the scheme of this organization disguises the intimate links between the spheres. so while this order creates some level of redundancy in the notes, photo captions and text, it is because all of the earth's systems are so closely interconnected. This repetitiveness is only a minor distraction, however, for a highly readable book that also serves as a wonderful resource guide for the factual history of how earth’s environment has been altered by human activity.

Something New Under The Sun is written in an easily accessible narrative style. McNeill tells a great story, however I wanted more analysis as to why things happened as they did. He begins with a short discussion of the twin strategies for evolutionary success: adaptability and supreme adaptation. Humans and rats are examples of the former strategy whereby they can easily adapt to changing situations. Pandas, on the other hand, represent species that depends on very specific conditions for their survival. Pandas via supreme adaptation only eat bamboo, which is fine as long as nothing happens to the bamboo. Instead of following this theme throughout the book, though, it’s not mentioned again for more than 300 pages. That’s a shame because, as McNeill notes repeatedly, our increasing dependence on fossil fuels, specifically oil, has dramatically affected the environment. Of course, if we don’t change our ways this dependency can easily turn us into pandas.

McNeill states that "the biota evolved without reference to humankind for about 3.5 billion years. Humanity, at least in our primitive form, arrived four million years ago. For most of the last four million years, most of the biota continued to evolve without our influence." Then, about 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, with the acquisition of tools and language, we became "genuinely dangerous to many other forms of life. Co-evolution gave way to a process of ‘unnatural’ selection whereby chances for survival and reproduction were apportioned largely according to compatibility with human action."

"In the 20th century we became what most modern cultures long imagined us to be: lords of the biosphere… For most of earth’s history, microbes played the leading role of all life in shaping the atmosphere." The author demonstrates how in the 20th century we stumbled blindly into this role by introducing us to the undisputed individual champion of 20th century air pollution, Thomas Midgely.

What makes our century so peculiar is that we were able to break the old constraints of population growth and energy use. "From the 1760s forward we have continually devised clusters of new technologies, giving access to new forms of energy…" In fact, in the last 100 years we have used 10 times as much energy as was used in the previous 1,000 years. "The preferred policy solution after 1950 was yet faster economic growth and rising living standards: if we can all consume more than we used to, and expect to consume still more in the years to come, it is far easier to accept the anxieties of constant change and the inequalities of the moment. Indeed, we erected new politics, new ideologies and new institutions predicated on continuous growth. Should this age of exuberance end, or even taper off, we will face another set of wrenching adjustments."

The history explored in this book is loosely set in a framework of energy use and related technology clusters. McNeill defines these clusters as combinations of simultaneous technical, organizational, and social innovations. For the last 250 years new clusters have evolved approximately every 50 years. The one that is emerging presently is centered on gene biotechnology. If ever a case could be made for the idea of technology as disease, this is probably it as the potential for modifying both human life and the rest of the earth’s biota has never been greater or more dangerous. In the 20th century McNeill shows us how we have already seen technology--in the guise of farm mechanization--select the winners "both in agricultural ecology and in international affairs, among crops, pests, and nations."

The author mentions several times throughout the book how various political agendas have either promoted, or impeded or reversed pollution around the globe. In this context I would have liked to have seen a discussion of the impact of government policies on indigenous peoples around the globe. Many of the current environmental battles such as resource extraction, hazardous waste dumping and power generation are being fought on Indian reservations throughout the American West today.

Finally after describing a whole century’s worth of man-made environmental problems, McNeill writes that while the clusters of technologies, energy regimes, and economic systems co-evolved with the environment during the century, their relative roles changed at times. He warns that if global warming or biodiversity loss proves to be fundamental, "then the equation will be revised in the direction of a stronger role for the (new) environment. Paradoxically, if humanity is to escape projected environmental crises, then technology, which helped bring them on, will be asked to lead us out."

Unless the chosen redeeming technology is nature-based I fear we are headed down a road of ever greater and more bizarre techno-fixes where true natural sustainability is always just out of reach. Something New Under The Sun is important because it tells us where we have been. The American Indian leader and activist Rueben Snake once said "If we don’t change direction, we’re going to end up where we’re headed." Armed with the knowledge of this history, it should be apparent that we cannot afford to follow the same old road at the start of a new century to seek out new solutions for sustainable living.