The Prodigal Century

David Blackbourn

  • Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century by John McNeill
    Penguin, 448 pp, £8.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 14 029509 7

What happened last November in Florida diverted attention from Ralph Nader’s part in the outcome of the Presidential election. In Florida itself, where every vote mattered (I won’t say counted), he garnered 100,000 of them. And in New Hampshire, the only state in the North-East that Gore failed to carry – a state whose three electoral votes would have made him President even without Florida – Nader’s vote comfortably exceeded Bush’s margin of victory. Green Party supporters told pollsters that, in the absence of Nader, they would have voted overwhelmingly for Gore (or not at all). It was thus voting decisions by the most environmentally conscious part of the electorate that put one former oilman in the White House, made another Vice-President, and led to a Cabinet that generously represents the interests of mining, logging, chemicals and agribusiness.

However true it may be that Gore and Bush were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of corporate America, most Nader supporters would have preferred a different outcome. That they ended up with Bush is another example of a hardy perennial: the historical importance of unintended consequences. Historians encounter its workings whether they deal with political institutions, ideas or demography. But there is probably no other branch of the discipline in which unintended consequences play such an important part as they do in environmental history.

Consider the Aswan Dam. Begun in 1960 and completed in 1971, this archetypal Cold War prestige project was designed to ‘build pyramids for the living’ (in Nasser’s words). It would control the Nile flood, allow its water to be used more systematically for irrigation, and generate electricity. These things the dam achieved. It also had serious unwanted consequences. To replace the silt that no longer came down the Nile, electricity from the dam had to go into manufacturing chemical fertiliser. Salinisation, the scourge of irrigation regimes, increased without the flushing provided by the annual flood, while Egypt’s irrigation canals became a breeding ground for the snails that carry schistosomiasis, a disease of the liver, intestines and urinary tract that now affects the entire population in many rural areas. Deprived of silt, the Nile Delta shrank, displacing people and depriving the Mediterranean of nutrients, which destroyed the sardine and shrimp fisheries. This was not quite the ‘everlasting prosperity’ Nasser had promised.

The unintended consequences of the Aswan Dam, like those of other great hydrological schemes from the Punjab to the Central Asian catastrophe of the Aral Sea, were regional in their effects. Other kinds of human impact on the environment have had global consequences. That is true of the unwitting world-historical role played by the American chemical engineer Thomas Midgely. In 1921, Midgely calculated that adding lead to petrol would make it burn better and prevent engine knock – it was a ‘gift from God’, said the first company to sell the fuel. Not until half a century later, by which time 25 trillion litres had been burned by cars, did public health concerns overcome industry resistance and usher in the unleaded era. Nor was leaded petrol Midgely’s only legacy. In 1930, he invented Freon, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants, solvents and sprays. In the thirty years following World War Two, intensive use of CFCs created holes in the ozone layer that protects life on earth from ultraviolet radiation. This unintended consequence had a happy ending, however – sort of. Beginning in the 1970s, scientific research and unusually prompt international action led to sharply reduced use of CFCs, over the protests of chemical manufacturers. On the other hand, some of the CFCs released into the atmosphere before the Montreal Protocol of 1987 will still be destroying ozone in 2087. Enhanced radiation will increase the risk of cataracts, damaged immune systems and skin cancers in humans; it will also continue to kill phyloplankton, the basis of ocean food chains.

The Aswan Dam and Thomas Midgely both have a place in John McNeill’s excellent environmental history of the 20th century. McNeill has done a vast amount of reading and his range is truly global. He discusses the effects of oil extraction from Tampico to the Niger delta, the problems caused by air pollution from the ‘sulphuric triangle’ between Dresden, Prague and Cracow to the Hanshin district of Japan; and on the subject of deforestation in the tropics (‘one of the central events of our time’) he draws on evidence from Indonesia as well as Brazil. His thematic coverage is equally impressive. The index ranges from acid rain to the zebra mussel, an aquatic invader in the Great Lakes region that shut down a Ford motor plant and costs the USA a billion dollars a year. Only occasionally does a section seem skimpy, like the half-page on space junk or – more surprisingly – the three pages plus picture of Rachel Carson, under the sub-heading ‘environmental ideas’. The detail is often vivid (like the lions in London Zoo dying of smog-induced bronchitis), and McNeill has a dry sense of humour, perhaps a prerequisite for anyone writing on this subject. He lays out scientific arguments lucidly and makes superb use of tabular material.

Something New under the Sun begins with chapters on the lithosphere and pedosphere (the rocky crust of the earth and its soil cover), the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, showing how each was modified by human intervention, which all too often meant that soil, air and water were degraded, eroded, polluted or exhausted. Two chapters follow on the biosphere: the space occupied by all living things, or biota. They serve as the fulcrum of the book and contain some of its strongest arguments. McNeill tells a story of increasing human mastery. He shows how the co-evolution of species gave way to a process of ‘unnatural’ selection that made the chances for survival of other species heavily dependent on their compatibility with humans. Some prospered, either through domestication (livestock, rice) or because they found niches in a human-dominated biosphere (rats, crabgrass, the tuberculosis bacillus). Others proved incapable of domestication (bison, the blue whale) or unable to adjust (the gorilla, the smallpox virus) and faced extinction. Reviewing the quickening pace of extinction rates in the 20th century, McNeill suggests that we may be in the early stages of a mass extinction on a par with the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But this mass extinction, if it is one, will have a known cause: the activities of a rogue mammal species.

Those activities are surveyed in the second part of the book, which is a little flatter than the first, many of its themes having already appeared under other headings. Most of what McNeill has to say about the ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, for example, comes in one of his chapters on the biosphere. He identifies three major ‘engines of change’: a steep increase in population prompting migration, urbanisation and the search for more resources; a new, fossil-fuel based energy regime; and a belief in economic growth that transcends the lines of political conflict – although the commitment to growth was reinforced by the ‘security anxiety’ of 20th-century regimes. Capitalism takes a beating in these pages, but so does the deep-rooted Marxist commitment to the exploitation of nature. McNeill quotes V. Zazurbin addressing the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1926: ‘Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armour of cities, armed with the stone muzzle of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railways. Let the taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled.’ (My own favourite, not quoted here, is Mayakovsky’s comment, wittier but no doubt equally reprehensible: ‘After seeing electricity I lost interest in nature. Not up to date enough.’) It was the Soviet determination to ‘correct nature’s mistakes’ that turned most of the Aral Sea into a life-threatening saltpan. The high environmental costs of imperialism are repeatedly noted (there is a chilling description of what happened after Italian soldiers carried the rinderpest to East Africa), but McNeill shows how little change decolonisation brought to the overcutting of forests or the commitment to unwise and often self-defeating hydrological projects. Whoever governed, short-sighted developmentalism ruled.

This is a critical book but not a polemic. McNeill is fair-minded in trying wherever possible to quantify his arguments, and is willing to ask what would have happened without the developments he describes. He acknowledges the benefits brought by industrialisation, just as he recognises that the high-yield crops of the Green Revolution enabled a growing population to be fed. He notes that in the absence of intensive irrigation regimes, humankind would have had to eat less, eat differently, or farm a third more of the earth’s surface. The assertion of human mastery has unquestionably eased historical constraints on population, food production, energy use and consumption. McNeill bluntly comments: ‘few who know anything about life with these constraints regret their passing.’ Yet the price has been enormous, whether we consider loss of biodiversity, habitat disturbance, pollution, or the prodigal use of finite resources. McNeill records these costs persuasively.

There are two environmental positions he does not adopt. His book is explicitly anthropocentric – he distances himself from the approach of Arnold Toynbee in ‘The Roman Revolution from the Flora’s Point of View’, where speaking roles were given to plants. By implication, at least, he would also reject the injunction of the American environmental historian Donald Worster that we learn to ‘think like a river’. Nor does he mount an aesthetic argument about the world we have lost. Nature and landscape are concepts almost wholly absent – neither word appears in the index. It is equally instructive to look at what McNeill says and does not say about cars. He tells you how much energy is used and how much waste is generated in building one, how much of the land surface they take up, how much they have contributed to air pollution, and how many people they kill over the whole world every year (around 400,000); but he does not see it as his job to talk about their impact on the quality of life, one way or the other.

This hard-headedness makes it difficult to argue that McNeill is dwelling sentimentally on the ‘costs of progress’, though he questions the benefits of that progress, certainly in the long term. Many of the policies that sail under the flag of ‘mastering nature’ have large risks attached. Straitjacketing rivers not only leads to loss of wetland habitats, it encourages human settlement within the former floodplain, placing more people at risk and making subsequent floods more dangerous. Straightening and thus increasing the flow of rivers often exacerbates the problem because floodwaters then arrive more quickly at a given point. McNeill refers to the Mississippi; he might equally well have mentioned the Rhine, where floods that used to happen once in a century are becoming a regular event.

Current agricultural practices have even more alarming implications. The salinisation and endemic schistosomiasis that now plague the Nile are not exceptional. Ten per cent of all the world’s irrigated land has problems with salinisation (it is twice that figure in India, Pakistan and the US), while waterborne diseases like malaria and typhoid have flourished in irrigation ditches around the globe. Meanwhile, the success of high-yield crops has been impressive, but the resulting monocultures are much more vulnerable to crop disease, with potentially disastrous results. As this book repeatedly demonstrates, it is the rural and urban poor of the Third World who usually suffer the harshest consequences of environmental problems.

McNeill reports the good news where he finds it, notably in efforts to control air and water pollution. Metal emissions have declined since 1980 and so has the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, the cause of acid rain. (As recently as 1982, rain was recorded in Wheeling, West Virginia with an acidity or pH level of 1.5, putting it somewhere between vinegar and battery acid.) There have been successful efforts to deal with industrial wastewater, especially in the advanced countries: the Great Lakes, the Rhine and the Thames are much cleaner now than they were two decades ago. These changes owe something to the changing character of industry and technology (British sulphur emissions declined after Margaret Thatcher destroyed the coal industry); they are also a result of more energy-efficient practices and political initiatives – again, especially in the developed nations. The watershed period politically was the 1970s – another reason to salute those much maligned years, the least low and dishonest postwar decade. But outlawing conspicuous industrial pollution is one thing: curbing the damage done by the toxic run-off of chemical fertilisers or the nitrous oxide emissions of motor vehicles is another. It also comes as no surprise that rich nations have a better record than poor ones, or that attempts to establish international accords have been less successful than many regional and national programmes. President Bush’s decision to break his campaign pledge on carbon dioxide emissions because of America’s energy ‘need’ will hardly encourage Third World leaders to exercise restraint.

The same is true of the recent US decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. The accumulation of greenhouse gases has raised temperatures on a scale and at a pace unknown since the 14th century and perhaps since the end of the last Ice Age. Climate modellers expect further warming in the future, causing more severe coastal floods as ocean levels rise and increasing the incidence of malaria as mosquitoes extend their range. This is one of the gravest legacies of the way we treated the environment in the 20th century. McNeill gives it particular emphasis, along with the long-term effects of loss of biodiversity (which has so far had little direct impact on humans), and the likely shortages of fresh clean water. What emerges repeatedly is how humankind has mortgaged the future for short-term gain. The Ogallala aquifer in the American High Plains, equal in volume to Lake Ontario, took millennia to fill: it is being drawn down at a rate that will have exhausted it in less than a century. A factory ship can reduce a 100-ton whale to oil and bonemeal inside an hour: whale populations will (with luck) take a century to return to their former numbers. Some nuclear waste will remain lethal for 24,000 years.

Environmental history has always attracted scholars comfortable with long time-scales. McNeill’s title might suggest that he has sacrificed temporal depth to global range. In fact, his book does a good job of contextualising the 20th-century experience, tracking back expertly to early modern Europe (pollution), Song China (deforestation), even as occasion demands to the Neolithic Revolution and pre-human history. It is his sure-footedness over the long sweep of history as well as the evidence contained in text and tables which persuades one that the ‘prodigal century’ truly was different. We were profligate with our resources and careless of our environment on an unsustainable scale. Perhaps, as McNeill suggests, we shall be able to postpone the reckoning by moving to a new but different kind of unsustainability. But the probability is that sharp adjustments will be necessary in the way we live now, and the sooner we start to make them the less wrenching they will be.