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

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  503 ratings  ·  45 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
Paperback, 448 pages
Published April 17th 2001 by W. W. Norton Company (first published April 2000)
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Aug 06, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, ...more
Feb 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Eddie Bartoletti
Mar 03, 2015 rated it did not like it
I read Something new Under the Sun by John Robert McNeill. I had to read this book for academic decathalon , and it was the social studies book. This book is mainly about population growth throughout history. It is also about the immigration around the world and how it affected the land, air, and people around it. The major themes of Something New Under the Sun are that population growth and immigration are not helping the land but hurting the land in every way, and that we are using up all of ...more
Aug 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
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,
Nov 24, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 races 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
Michael Brickey
Apr 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 15, 2018 rated it liked it
This environmental history is based on a fascinating premise: That because of all the technological changes that the 20th century engendered, its impact on the world we live in was unlike any other era's.

On the demerit side, the book reads like the textbook that it is. And because it casts such a wide net -- examining everything from whaling in Japan to groundwater in the high plains of the United States -- it takes on a survey-like quality in which too many topics are too briefly touched upon.
Jan 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read Something New Under the Sun as a required text for a class that all students were required to take before graduating. It was called The Contemporary World and had an Environmental focus. I was getting my second bachelors (in Nutrition) and had taken courses in environmental Biology previously, but really knew nothing about the relationship between our environment and how environmental concerns affect our world economically and politically. I'm glad now that our university made this ...more
Sep 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 28, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Aug 14, 2008 rated it liked it
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.
Richard Reese
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A verse* in the Old Testament proclaims, there is no new thing under the sun. These words come from a low-tech era when nomadic herders diminished their ecosystem so slowly that little change was noticeable to the passing generations. Something New Under the Sun is the title of J. R. McNeills environmental history of the twentieth century. It describes a high-tech era when industrial society got thoroughly sloshed on cheap energy, and went on a berserk rampage, smashing everything.

With the
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a book not so glorious for homo sapiens, the foot prints we have left for this earth have caused a lot of irreversible damages.
The author discussed from seven aspects : 包括 岩石圈lithosphere和土壤圈pedosphere大气圈atmosphere水文圈 hydrosphere和生物圈biosphereto let us understand how we are able to destroy so rapidly in such short time.
Bravo! I can not find any other species on earth could be this greedy like humans.

Bernard M.
Jul 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
An awfully depressing read which doesn't give me much hope for the future of the planet. I suppose this quote best captures the tone of the book:
"In any case, human history since the dawn of agriculture is replete with unsustainable societies, some of which vanished but many of which changed their ways and survived. They changed not to sustainability but to some new and different unsustainable development."

Despite pointing out government inducements to environmentally damaging behavior
Aug 06, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: ch3, e-book
"If one esteems all individuals equally, then the toll from air pollution may be reckoned as equivalent to the toll from the world wars. But if one considers instead that the elderly have already made what contributions to society they are likely to make, and that the very young - having little invested in them - are very easily replaced, the calculus changes*" *"I prefer the latter calculus intellectually, although I am offended by it's heartlessness" p103

Okay, so I was going to complain about
Chris Cook
Sep 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
The subject matter might be depressing to most people, but McNeill has put together a highly readable and informative book here. I feel a lot more knowledgeable about the various environmental impacts the 20th century wrought on this fragile earth we call home. It's a well-researched wake-up call that makes clear we need to do everything we can to reverse the environmental damage we have done.
Dikshant Agarwal
Oct 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Being a technological buff and believing in credo of solving all problems through technological advances, this book gives a perspective from the other side of things. According to me, it might explain the fermi paradox and why aliens might not have found us. A really captivating read.
Carlee Jane
May 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
An impressive overview that's chunked into digestible sections and written with an even-handed, practical eye on the issues. Still, it's an information-heavy read that made it a slow and laborious read.
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: edd
Quick concise and fascinating environmental history.
Nancy Lieberman
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Must read for people who want to understand how we destroyed and kinda saved our earth.
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
John McNeills SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN advances the historical idea that during the twentieth century, humans have altered the physical environment through the polluting effects of industrialization. McNeills comprehensive overview covers a broad scope of scientific systems explained clearly (lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, etc.) as well as many case examples of particular cities and issues, and yet, the book does not overwhelm the audience with statistics or points that are ...more
Aug 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
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, ...more
Keith Akers
Jan 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Oct 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
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
Lorraine Herbon
Feb 19, 2016 rated it liked it
This book was unremittingly grim! The author provides a lot of very valuable information on the environmental impacts humans have inflicted on the earth during the 20th century. While I can admire the depth and breadth of the author's research and the admirable manner in which he tries to stay objective and non-preachy, this is still tough going. This book will leave the reader feeling helpless in the face of what is happening on the global stage. But no one should let that stop them from ...more
Dec 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
McNeills 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. ...more
Dec 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
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!
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