Book Review

How the Great Acceleration has changed the planet

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An important history of the Anthropocene updates the classic ‘Something New Under the Sun.’ It describes how our world has been transformed since 1945, but avoids discussing why.

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An important history of the Anthropocene updates the classic ‘Something New Under the Sun.’ It describes how our world has been transformed since 1945, but avoids discussing why. 

Jeremy Davies is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at Leeds University. His most recent book is The Birth of the Anthropocene. 

An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945

by J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke
Harvard University Press, 2014

reviewed by Jeremy Davies

John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun, his environmental history of the twentieth century, is one of the Bibles of work on the Anthropocene—most of all among researchers in the physical sciences, I suspect. McNeill is a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, and he’s been publishing with them for a long time. He was the co-author with Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen of an influential early article (influential in the wrong direction, I think, but that’s for another time) called “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?”

But Something New Under the Sun deserves its status independently of McNeill’s later collaborations: it’s an extraordinary survey of environmental change in the twentieth century, in ecosystems of practically every kind. As the AWG has focused more sharply in on a mid-C20th golden spike for the Anthropocene epoch, McNeill’s conspectus has got ever more important to them, and to other researchers concerned with what the AWG is up to.

Still, Something New is a decade and a half old now. A lot has changed, both in environmental historiography and IRL. The obvious question, in the context of this blog: does this new book, with “Great Acceleration” and “Anthropocene” right there in the title, supersede the earlier one for researchers working on the Anthropocene? If you wanted to read just one book to give you a survey of the years when (you might be inclined to believe) the Holocene ticked over into the Anthropocene, should it be this one instead of Something New Under the Sun? The answer is… no. But it’s a useful supplement.

One of the pleasures of The Great Acceleration is that it sent me back to Something New, and reminded me just how good it is. It’s beautifully written: witty and vivid, darkly sardonic rather than indignant as it reels off its lists of horrors. I remember being bowled over by McNeill’s surveys of urban air pollution, of industrial fishing, of disease ecology… his great theme is the sheer scale of twentieth-century ecological change, and it’s as complete a survey of environmental consequences as anyone could have managed in under 400 pages at the end of the 1990s, equally good for reading straight through and for dipping into.

The bulk of it, including the bits that really stick in the mind, is emphatically synchronic rather than diachronic. It goes theme by theme through the lithosphere and pedosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. In each case, it sketches the direction of change over the course of the century, then accumulates telling examples of such and such an environmental transformation, mostly for the worst, from all around the world. The whole thing is based on a stunning (I mean, stunning) quantity of scholarship. The method is scrupulously fact-finding and resistant to hasty generalisation; McNeill’s brilliant at plucking out telling details and remarkable statistics.

There’s far less on climate change than there would be today, and the book rather underplayed the ecological significance of war and militarism. (“Combat had its impacts on the environment, occasionally acute but usually fleeting,” McNeill concluded, p. 347.) Its method is essentially comparative rather than integrative. There’s tremendous value in a study that puts acid rain and pesticide poisoning under the same lens, but what McNeill doesn’t seek to do is to tease out the underlying economic and political coordinates of the century’s ecological upheavals. Something New doesn’t theorise the changes it describes in terms of the global ecology of core-periphery relations, say, or development and underdevelopment, or resource colonialism, or comparative advantage, Kondratieff waves, ecological debts and surpluses, or anything like that.

The last hundred pages are called “Engines of Change,” and it’s there that McNeill sets himself the daunting task of saying something about the “labyrinthine links” between changes in the physical world and “social, economic, and political trends” (p. 267). But everything depends on what trends means. The narratives of city growth and oil production in that section could easily have gone into the other half of the book, and they squeeze the final chapter on “ideas”: three pages of text on post-60s environmentalism, less than two on “imperialism, decolonization, and democratization,” and the hastiest tour through capitalism and its alternatives, including a fleeting verdict on Marx as a Promethean uninterested (at best) in ecology (p. 332).

The book as a whole is a stupendous documentation of a century of environmental change, but its resistance to a big causal narrative is striking, and obviously deliberate.

So, given all that, how does the new book change the discussion? Probably the crucial thing about The Great Acceleration is that it wasn’t originally a stand-alone book. It’s a spin-off from a thousand-page monster of a multi-authored thing called Global Interdependence: The World After 1945, within which it was originally a single chapter. Global Interdependence is itself just part of a hulking Harvard UP world history series. And The Great Acceleration is co-authored, the work of McNeill alongside Peter Engelke. It’s not a surprise, then, if it sometimes has a bit of a written-to-order feel.

If Something New already preferred synchronic to diachronic analysis, The Great Acceleration takes that preference still further. In part, that’s because of its declared historiographical standpoint. It presents the whole period since 1945 as a single hectic surge, as one “eccentric historical moment,” still ongoing but now visibly running out of puff or undermining itself: “the Great Acceleration in its present form cannot last for long” (p. 5; cf. 208–9). Fair enough, perhaps. But even taking that standpoint doesn’t altogether explain why there’s so little sense of forward narrative.

There’s essentially nothing about the Great Acceleration’s notional starting point: World War II and its immediate aftermaths are nearly absent. There’s no attempt at the beginning to say “here are the postwar starting conditions, the trends that were already underway, the changes that were brewing, the apparent certainties that would later be turned on their heads”; and at the end, there’s no attempt to say “here’s what’s changed since 1945.” Gradually, as the book goes on, the 1970s emerge as an important inflection point. But that’s more through repeated allusions to the end of the trente glorieuses and the emergence of institutional environmentalism than to any organised narrative that lays out a thesis about how and why the environmental changes of the 60s were different to those of the 80s.

In that light, McNeill and Engelke’s most telling, and for me least convincing, claim is this one: that “at the beginning of the twenty-first century the global economy operated in much the same fashion as it had since 1945” (p. 154). That’s either a sincere but tremendously strong claim about historical continuity, or a decision to pitch the analysis at a level of distanced abstraction that seems to me definitely counterproductive.

It’s as if for McNeill and Engelke the Great Acceleration  can only be grasped as a single whole. I think  the opposite. What’s ideally wanted for a world environmental history of the last threescore and ten, I think, is a deep narrative of the tensions that arose and were resolved, the trends that swelled or died away, the struggles that played out through time: an account of the unpredictable historical course of these decades, in which certain configurations of technology and its deployment, resource availability, trade, power, money, military build-up, decolonization and recolonization, etc. etc. eventually turned out to produce a set of ecological outcomes that could have been otherwise. That’s what we need before we can have a robust sense of the specific biogeochemical configurations that operated on the decadal scale around the proposed GSSP for the Anthropocene in 1952.

The other obvious difference between the older book and this new one is in their scope and size. Something New is essentially a survey of the twentieth century, though there are plenty of erudite backwards glances; it comes to 421 densely printed pages. The Great Acceleration is set up as a specifically postwar history, and there are 275 more loosely typeset pages. All this is a bit awkward for the latter book, at least in my imaginary marketplace of Anthropocene enthusiasts choosing between the two. It’s short enough that it has not much more room for detail about the postwar decades than Something New, but not so much shorter that it makes a readier primer for readers in a hurry.

The Great Acceleration is served up as four chapters, but really there are eight: each of the four contains two more or less discrete halves (“energy and population”; “climate and biological diversity”; “cities and the economy”; “Cold War and environmental culture”). I said above that the book’s a useful supplement to Something New. Specifically, if you’ve read the older book, then what you really want to do is read chapter four of the new one alongside it. Whereas a lot of the best stuff before then is familiar from Something New, the last fifty pages are a brilliant addition to McNeill’s earlier study, and in some respects a rethinking of it. (He’s published a lot about war and ecology in the intervening years.)

Compared to Something NewThe Great Acceleration offers a much-expanded account of the US and Soviet nuclear archipelagos, especially at Hanford and Mayak; an almost all-new discussion of Mao’s crash programme of military industrialization in inland southwest China and the horrible madness of the Great Leap Forward; and a powerful survey of “environmental warfare” (anti-guerrilla defoliation and the like) in southern Africa and Vietnam. At least as importantly, there’s a much more judicious and generous introduction to environmental thought, putting India centre-stage among the environmentalisms of the poor—though the section on “Environmentalism and Socialism” is just an account of the ecological ills of Soviet and PRC state policy.

Chapter four is a cracker; chapter three is the weakest. Its explication of “the merits of capitalism” (p. 148) seems unnecessarily relentless to me, and whatever you feel about that, a frustrating proportion of it isn’t about (a) environmental history, or (b) the years since 1945. There’s a lot of room given over to surveys of urban planning since Classical Rome, GDP growth rates, and the history of changes in living standards. It’s hard to know what you’re meant to take away from a sentence like “America’s Frederick Law Olmstead, Britain’s Ebenezer Howard, Scotland’s Patrick Geddes, Austria’s Camillo Sitte, and Germany’s Reinhard Baumeister were a few of the iconic figures in the early history of city planning and related disciplines.”

I’m not sure who needs to have it explained that “Americanization, it should be noted, is a construct that historians have debated for decades,” or that “like other regions, Africa was and is a heterogeneous place” (pp. 111, 144, 150). Another head-scratcher: the reference to “the integration or reintegration of large parts of the formerly colonized and socialist worlds into the advanced capitalist economy” (p. 129). Surely McNeill and Engelke don’t think that colonies were (are) anything other than an integral part of the capitalist world economy?

There are some points where The Great Acceleration seems to be definitely behind the curve compared to that other big beast in the field of Anthropocene history-writing, Bonneuil and Fressoz’s The Shock of the Anthropocene. When McNeill and Engelke write that “the issue [of anthropogenic climate change] became political for the first time” in the 1980s, or that “before 1950 [the politics of the nonhuman world] was an issue mainly for aristocrats and blue-bloods anxious about birds, game animals, and property rights” (pp. 76, 204)… well, I think that Bonneuil and Fressoz have shown, if it still needed showing, that that just isn’t the case, that in fact “it is impossible without fundamental self-deception to represent the last 250 years as the progressive emergence from an initial unawareness of environmental damage” (B & F, p. 290).

Lastly, what about the thesis of the Anthropocene itself? The Great Acceleration shares Something New‘s emphasis on radical ecological ruptures (“the post-1945 period deserves to be marked off as different from what came before in environmental history,” p. 208). And the new book argues that that emphasis fits neatly with the proposal to declare a new epoch of geological time that begins soon after WW2. I’ve argued the opposite: that fixing the Anthropocene’s golden spike as late as 1952 actually emphasises continuity on the decades-to-centuries scale, because doing so makes it obvious (or it should do) that masses of anthropogenic world-ecological transformation had already happened before the notional start date of the Anthropocene. But here are McNeill and Engelke:

“Our best guess is that the Anthropocene, in the fullness of time, will seem worthy both as an epoch in Earth history and as a period in human history, even if geologists and historians understand the term differently. … As we see it, the Anthropocene began when human actions became the main driving forces behind some basic Earth systems, such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and the general human impact on the Earth and its biosphere lurched upward to new levels … only after 1945 did human actions become genuine driving forces behind crucial Earth systems.” (pp 207–8)

Fine, fine. But why must the Anthropocene begin when and only when humans get into the driving seat? The Jurassic didn’t begin when the Jura mountains became the driving force behind Earth systems. McNeill’s taste for a solidly empirical emphasis on environmental consequences rather than on causation is inverted here, at just the point where I think it’s most needed. But that’s a lonely furrow I’m ploughing, so far…

Reposted, with permission, from Jeremy Davies’ blog, Made Ground.