The Biosphere in a Nutshell

An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

By J.R. McNeill
Norton 421pp $29.95

All too often, news concerning the environment is calamitous. The ozone hole is growing, global warming is worsening, more and more species are threatened with extinction, the rain forests are being destroyed. And the message conveyed is that there is little that can be done to halt, much less reverse, these worrisome trends. Occasionally, a dissident voice pierces the gloom and serves up an improbably cheery view of how everything will work out. But where is the middle ground? What's needed is some perspective, some dispassionate analysis that sheds new light and understanding on these thorny issues.

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, by Georgetown University historian J.R. McNeill, provides such perspective. ''Environmental changes usually are good for some people and bad for others,'' he explains in his preface, inviting readers to make their own evaluations of the environmental alterations he discusses. Then, in a sweeping but highly accessible survey, McNeill pulls together disparate accounts and data on everything from soil erosion to the hydrological experiments of giant dam construction. He delivers nothing less than a history of the entire biosphere, giving a view that's rich in both anecdotes and data.

This book is especially noteworthy for its look at recent times from an unusual vantage point. The ideological, economic, and technological upheavals that marked the 20th century have been amply documented in numerous studies. But the changes that have been wrought on the earth itself have been recounted far less often. McNeill fills that void gracefully.

Two themes inform his analysis. First, and most important, McNeill argues that in the 20th century, humans have been moving earth, redirecting water, polluting the atmosphere, and affecting populations of all living species on a scale unprecedented in human history. There's a positive side to this, the author notes. Much of the change results from economic development and projects that have improved human living standards. For instance, ''artificial fertilizers allow perhaps an extra 2 billion people to eat,'' he observes. And the author grants that technological change has eased pressure on some resources. But the scale of ecological disruption that McNeill describes is striking: We don't know the limits to the growth of human societies, but we must eventually bump up against them.

Second, McNeill places his environmental history in a social, economic, and political context. During the 1920s, for example, New Caledonia was the world's leading nickel producer. Mining efforts in the French territory uprooted people, destroyed homes, shifted land, and, when smelting was introduced, poured smoke and noxious gases into the atmosphere. It took sixty years, but in time, the devastation played a part in fanning political unrest, contributing to an independence struggle and political violence in the 1980s. The author also tells how, in the early 1970s, overfishing was partially responsible for the disappearance of Peru's anchovy catch. Since the fish, converted into meal and oil, provided a third of Peru's foreign exchange, the seemingly inconsequential development hammered that land's economy, leading to political tumult and the rise of violent revolutionary groups.

There are numerous other historical nuggets. We learn, for instance, that the growth of U.S. railroads, whose wooden crossties had to be replaced every few years, threatened to chew up America's forests at the turn of the 20th century. It was this threat that prompted President Theodore Roosevelt's preservationist efforts, including the National Forest Service. Per capita timber use peaked in the U.S. in 1907, and, as in other temperate lands, forest areas are now maintained at a stable level. But in considerable measure, it is this very achievement that has prompted the deforestation of the tropics.

The author points out that environmental stresses earlier in the century often were far worse than they are today. London's notorious fog was in large measure coal-fed, and in December of 1952, cold weather and stagnant air held chimney smoke over the streets of London for a week, killing 4,000 people. In Germany, industry released heavy metals and chemicals into the Rhine for most of the 20th century, killing off fish--or lacing them with so many chemicals that they were unsafe to eat. Cleanup efforts began in the 1970s but took on greater urgency after a fire at a chemical warehouse in 1986 released pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides into the river. By 1992, salmon were once again being caught in the Rhine.

Although McNeill's writing is generally very good, and well grounded in good footnotes, his discussion is a bit wooden in places. The section on population growth seems especially flat. And some topics that McNeill touches--his history of the development of antibiotics and disease control, for instance--seem overly long.

But these are small criticisms. On balance, McNeill has done a great service to current environmental debates by reviewing the recent past. Neither Cassandra nor Pollyanna, the author provides the reader with both fresh information and analysis. Something New Under the Sun proves to be just that--an unusual look at a period we thought we knew very well.

Pennar has covered economics for Business Week.

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The Biosphere in a Nutshell

PHOTO: Cover, ``Something New Under the Sun''

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