Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World by J.R. McNeill

OCTOBER 17, 2007

8/10. Well-written, very interesting, often provocative (verging at points on the polemical) and with lots of fascinating detail this is definitely worth the read.

Complexity, Productivity and Vulnerability

From the conclusion of “The Biosphere: Eat and Be Eaten” p.227 (all emphasis added both here and in all other extracts):

The general transformation of farming after 1940, of which mechanization and the Green Revolution were parts, both shaped the twentieth century and reflected its dominant trends. It was energy- and knowledge-intensive. It replaced simpler systems with more complex ones, involving distant inputs and multiple social and economic linkages. It reduced family and regional autonomy, enmeshing farmers in a world of banks, seed banks, plant genetics, fertilizer manufacturers, extensions agents, and water bureaucrats. It transplanted what worked in the West and Japan to other societies. It sought to harness nature tightly, to make it perform to the utmost, to make it maximally subservient to humankind or at least some portion thereof. And it sharply increased output, making us dependent upon its perpetuation. As of 1996, to feed ourselves without these changes, we would have needed to find additional prime farmland equal in area to North America.

Lacking such a spare continent, the human race ended the twentieth century in an uneasy bond with modern agriculture. Our recast agroecosystems depended on social and international stability to safeguard required flows of inputs. Our social and political systems required the perpetuation of these agroecosystems.

The modern agricultural revolution was nearly as important as the new regime in human-microbial relations in shaping the twentieth century. Both fundamentally affected the well-being, health, and security of life for billions of people. Both helped govern the ongoing redistributions of power and wealth among classes and nations. Both represented a drift toward ever greater complexity – and potential vulnerability to disruption – in the systems that underpin modern life.

The fact that we are not more often food for microbes depends on the precarious balances of modern public health; that we in turn have as much to eat as we do (questions of distribution aside), depends on the no less precarious balances of modern agriculture. “Though you drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet it will always return.” So thought the Roman poet Horace. Is his wisdom now out of date? [From Epistles 10:24 Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret]

Whaling: More Than the Tragedy of the Commons

The Biosphere: Forests, Fish and Invasions (p. 243):

In the Southern Ocean, Svend Foyn’s legacy killed 1.5 million whales and lowered the whale biomass from about 43 million tons to about 6 million between 1904 and 1985. …

Whalers in the twentieth century, as in the centuries before, killed the goose that laid their golden eggs because it made economic sense to do so. Whales reproduce slowly, so it was uneconomic to milk the resource and preserve it. Economic rationality required killing all the whales as fast as possible and investing the proceeds in something that grew faster: stocks, bonds, even savings accounts. Even if problems of an open-access resource are solved, whales will never be far from extinction whenever pure economic logic [i.e. pure financial logic] takes precedence.

Aristotle Onassis’ Pirate Whaling (p.242)

… Among the great pirate whalers in the 1950s was Aristotle Onassis, whose ships used helicopters to find whales and who hired blacklisted Norwegian Nazi collaborators to kill them.[fn 26]

[fn 26] In the early 1950s, Onassis financed and organized whaling in the Pacific in violation of the IWC system, using flags of convenience from nations that were not IWC members.

Getting More Bang for the Buck: Production and Energy Efficiency Over the XXth Century

Fuels, Tools and Economics p. 315-316:

Like urbanization, industrialization changed the structure and pace of energy and material flows. … First, industrialization everywhere and at all times increased resource use and pollution. … The 40-fold increase in industrial output in the twentieth century implied a vast rise in raw material use and industrial pollution. Vast but not 40-fold.

Second, and less obviously, industries over time grew less dirty and less demanding. Their energy efficiency improved, and so they emitted less carbon into the atmosphere per unit of production, allowing industrial economies to “decarbonize”. Industries also learned to use less raw material per unit of output, permitting “dematerialization”. The energy intensity (ratio of energy to GDP) of the British economy peaked around 1850 to 1880; it was probably the most inefficient, energy guzzling economy in world history. Energy intensity in Canada declined after about 1910, in the United States and Germany after about 1918, in Japan after 1970, in China after 1980 and Brazil 1985. The United States used half as much energy an emitted less than half as much carbon per (constant) dollar of industrial output in 1988 as in 1958. South Korea achieved the same efficiency gains in half the time, between 1972 and 1986. In the world as a whole, energy intensity peaked around 1925 and by 1990 had fallen by nearly half. This meant far less pollution (and resource use) than would otherwise have been the case in the twentieth century. But this happy trend was masked by the strong overall expansion of the scale of industry.

Growth as Ideology (or even Religion)

Ideas and Politics pp. 335-336:

Communism aspired to become the universal creed of the twentieth century, but a more flexible and seductive religion succeeded where Communisum failed: the quest for economic growth. … Social, moral, and ecological ills were sustained in the interest of economic growth; indeed, adherents to the faith proposed that only more growth could resolve such ills. Economic growth became the indispensable ideology of the state nearly everywhere. How?

This state religion had deep roots in earlier centuries, at least in imperial China and mercantilist Europe. But it succeeded fully only after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like an exotic intruder invading disturbed ecosystems, the growth fetish colonized ideological fields around the world after the dislocations of the Depression: it was the intellectual equivalent of the European rabbit. After the Depression, economic rationality trumped all other concerns except security. Those who promised to deliver the holy grail became high priests.

These were economists, mostly Anglo-American economists. …

As with much ‘good’ (as in good to read writing) this is something of an exaggeration (and in so being something of a distortion). Here, economic growth is equated with simple growth in material ‘output’ without accounting for resource use, pollution or non-material goods and services (leisure, beauty etc) – i.e. a very crude GDP. While this indeed a common meaning of the term, perhaps surprisingly, it is not one economists would use. In fact, it was economists who were among the earliest to consider non-renewable resources, pollution (Pigouvian taxes etc), distributional issues, etc etc.

Even more important, economists have also long been clear that utility, and hence social welfare, can be about much more than material goods as well as that it is up to individuals (and society) to determine what matters in that utility function: normative and positive questions are very different beasts! (That is, economics as discipline cannot tell you what you should want but if you know what you ‘want’ it can help decide how best to achieve it given constraints – time, money, resources etc – that exist).

Thus, while it is true that economics as a discipline does dedicate much of its effort to analyzing prices, markets, production, employment etc, in short ‘economic’ (i.e. money/market oriented) questions, this does not mean that this is (solely) what economists think is ‘valuable’. Just like Wilde’s cynic practically the first thing economic students learn is the distinction between price and value as illustrated on a standard demand curve by the distinction drawn between revenue and surplus (producer plus consumer).

Hence, if “economic rationality [meaning here concern for maximizing crude output] trumped all other concerns”, this was the choice, not of economists, but of voters and policy-makers – a choice informed no doubt by the devastating experience of the Depression and the major disruption to the ‘economic’ system (production, employment etc) associated with it.

Nuclear Weapons Pollution: Casually Irresponsible

Ideas and Politics pp. 342-343:

By far the largest environmental effect of security anxiety came via the construction of military-industrial complexes. After World War I it became clear that, aside from plenty of young men, the main ingredient of military power was heavy industry. Horses and heroism were obsolete. All of the great powers of the twentieth century adopted policies to encourage the production of munitions, ships, trucks, aircraft – and nuclear weapons.

No component of military-industrial complexes enjoyed greater subsidy, protection from public scrutiny, and latitude in its environmental impact than the nuclear weapons business. …

The American weapons complex involved some 3,000 sites in all. The United States built tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and tested more than a thousand of them. The jewel in the crown was the Hanford Engineering Works, a sprawling bomb factory on the Columbia River in the bone-dry expanse expanse of south-central Washington state. It opened during World War II and built the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Over the next 50 years, Hanford released billions of gallons of radioactive wastes in to the Columbia and accidentally leaked some more into groundwater. In 1949, shortly after the Soviets had exploded their first atomic bomb, the Americans conducted a secret experiment at Hanford. The fallout detected from the Soviet test had prompted questions about how quickly the Soviets were to able to process plutonium. In response, American officials decided to use “green” uranium, less than 20 days out of the reactor to test their hypotheses about Soviet activities. The Green Run, as it was known to those in on the secrete, released nearly 8,000 curies of iodine-131, dousing the downwind region with radiation at levels varying between 80 and 1,000 times the limit then thought tolerable. The local populace learned of these events in 1986, when Hanford became the first of the U.S. nuclear weapons complexes to release documents concerning the environmental effects of weapons production. The Green Run shows the environmental [ed: and civil/social!] liberties the Americans took under the influence of the Cold War security anxiety.