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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World
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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  252 ratings  ·  29 reviews
The history of the twentieth century is most often told through its world wars, the rise and fall of communism, or its economic upheavals. In his startling new book, J. R. McNeill gives us our first general account of what may prove to be the most significant dimension of the twentieth century: its environmental history. To a degree unprecedented in human history, we have ...more
ebook, 416 pages
Published April 17th 2001 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published April 2000)
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Joy
Oct 15, 2013 Joy rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: history
I love the big idea behind this book: to write a global history of the changing world environment throughout the 20th century. There is some sense in which any history of the environment has to be global, for where could we draw the line between what matters and what doesn't matter to any given setting? We are one, heal the world, etc. Commensurate with its big idea, McNeill's book follows big trends, beginning with global population explosions, the changing character of the world's soil, atmosp ...more
Michael
The one sentence review I just said to Joy was, "We tried to do good, but we had no idea what the fuck we were doing." She said that pretty much sums up the personal training field as well.

Maybe that is an appropriate one-sentence review for humanity as a whole.
Michael Brickey
In order to be an activist for change one must understand the multiple histories of all things status quo. J.R. McNeill lays out the facts in such a way that is informative, but more importantly, encourages you to read on. Too often a history text will lack a narrative, but this one does not. If you'd like to learn more about the environmental transformations of the 20th century, anthropogenic or not, I recommend this book.
Malex
Aug 27, 2007 Malex rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who doesn't suffer from a short attention span
Great book! A balanced, well-researched look at humans' impact on the environment in the 20th century. A good book to hand to intellectually-inclined enviro-skeptics. And, for that matter, to off-the-wall lefties.
Sridhar
This book, which aims to present an ecological history of the 20th century, but which does more than that, is one of the first really comprehensive global environmental history books I've read. It is balanced, mostly neutral in tone, has a historian's caution in interpreting past and recent events and prognoses for the future. While generally well written, it is a little less engaging in the beginning but becomes better towards the end.

The span is impressive: effects on soil, water, air, ecosyst
...more
Zach Holz
A very generalist environmental history of the world. With a topic that big, the book tends to skip over most of the more interesting historical moments in pursuit of a grand thesis: that humans have changed their environment throughout time. A legitimate thesis, definitely; however, if you're looking for environmental history that really gets into the contexts of particular times, the contours of particular landscapes, and the conceptions of particular people, you'd be better served with the we ...more
Jason
A fascinating history of many of the environmental problems that continue to plague the world. McNeill relates these problems as a historian, replete with interesting (if at times tragic) anecdotes. Such as the day in 1952 when particularly hazy conditions combined with an incredible amount of air pollution and stagnant winds in London resulting in the deaths of 4000 people. Or the copper mine in Ashio, Japan in the 1890s which brought on so much sulfur pollution that death rates exceeded birth ...more
John
I really liked the last third of this book, and the first two-thirds were ok. For a while, McNeill is just listing ways humans changed the environment in the 20th century, and it seems like basically just a list of problems. But then he closes by tying it all to a pretty clear argument. A lot of the great successes humans have experienced in this century have come through supreme adaptation to the ecological circumstances that existed at the start of the century - lots of oil, lots of water, lot ...more
Heather
a very basic, one thing after another history of environmental change around the world. a topic too large to be too deep. consequently, can be a bit boring.
Dewey
In Something New Under the Sun, J.R McNeill analyzes the environmental transformations and degradations that have occurred in the past 100 years. Examining vast arrays of data, McNeill details the impact of human developments and economic growth on the environment. Paradoxically, the human race’s unique abilities to adapt and harness the environment that have allowed it to survive millennia, might also cause such environmental problems to ultimately lead to its demise. The successes of the book ...more
Keith Akers
What I learned from this book is that the 20th century is not just "business as usual," much as that term is used in a derogatory way today among environmentalists. Humans really had a very profound and disturbing effect on the environment. The 20th century really was totally, totally different from anything that had happened before. It's the "hockey-stick" graph phenomenon, multiplied over and over again. He talks about cities, biodiversity, the atmosphere, the land, the oceans, everything. He ...more
Kelsey Fitzpatrick
I was suggested to read this book by both a History and an Anthropology professor and I am very grateful that I did! John McNeill offers an extensive amount of valuable information at a moderate pace that is digestible for readers. Covering an expansive array of information and facts, Something New Under The Sun, does not dwell on the detriments of the twentieth century. But rather focuses on how to improve things for the future of our planet. Encompassing several environmental techniques, I tho ...more
Elliott
If you want a great history of 20th century environmental problems, challanges, and adaptability this is the book to read. If you've ever read The Human Web the writing approach is the same as well as the easily understandable diction.

The way this differs from The Human Web (besides the fact that he didn't write this with his father) is that he structures the world around the various spheres (hydrosphere, biosphere, etc.) rather than regions or societies of the world. He has many interesting ex
...more
Dan
Very worthwhile, thoughtful argument about how technological advances--particularly those related to energy extraction and exploitation--really did create a different world in the 20th century. The energy exploitation prism proved particularly useful for evaluating historical phenomena, and I expect to employ it in the future.

I also greatly appreciated the fairly dispassionate tone of much of the book. McNeill clearly has an opinion on environmentalism and the risks of neglect, but he was a fair
...more
Rick
McNeill’s 2000 book surveys the environmental impacts of industrialization and developing nations over the last century. The availability of cheap/plentiful/clean water and cheap (albeit fossil-based) fuel facilitated the advances, but usually at the expense of the environment. McNeill has become one of the leading lights of environmental history, and this remains his most famous work. His descriptions of how we have reshaped our physical world are thought-provoking.
Jerry
McNeill's approach is unique; he tackles the topic of environmental history through the environmental spheres. He looks at soil separately, then air, water, life, etc. It has a wide breadth of cultures put under the microscope and it doesn't have the haughty air of other books I read in the discipline. I don't know if I'll keep it, but it was fairly enjoyable to read!
Michael Liquori
Often-engaging book about a topic that could seem dry (environmental history). Occasional parts seem a bit tedious, like a long listing of facts, but usually one is not far from a very interesting anecdote that frames industrialization and globalization in deep historical, and not purely human-centered, perspective.
Ian
Makes a convincing case that the twentieth century is fundamentally different that what came before, due to the massive explosion in demography, energy use, etc. The body of the book is somewhat less interesting, but the introduction is a must-read.
Patsy
I learned a lot of interesting things like baboons outnumbered us at the start of agriculture, the Ogallala under the Great Plains is over 10,000 years old and moving inches a year. Humans are the most efficient converters of energy.
John
This is a really cool book- but its breadth somehow undercuts its depth. Probably a great jumping off point for find references for a number of different topics. Well worth the time you might take to read it.
Juha
Apr 26, 2009 Juha rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody interested in environment, indeed 20th century history.
Recommended to Juha by: Howard Stewart
This is a superb book. Very clearly written and well organized. It is factual and very balanced in its presentation. Only in the final chapter, 'So What?', does the author let in his own views.
Ian
A little dated as this edition I read was from the 90s. A good overview, while the readable writing style makes up for the sometimes dry subjects..
Kim
This was a collection of articles but it was difficult to focus the attention on the writing due to the plodding nature of the prose.
Caro
Depressing, of course, but written in an even-handed way. The introduction is quite witty, the rest fairly dry. Didn't quite finish it.
Michael
Impeccably researched and let's the facts speak for themselves instead of taking on an alarmist tone
AJ
Apr 16, 2012 AJ rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: school
interesting perspectives on the impact of the 20th century on our environment
Charlie
This book was great at offering new ways to interpret well worn history.
Merethe Ida
Somewhat easy to read and it's an interesting way to write history.
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