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. McNeill’s 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 emergence of agriculture, the relationship between humankind and the ecosystem took a sharp turn onto a bumpy bloody unsustainable road. There are a few places where agriculture wrecks the land at a slower pace. A region spanning from Poland to Ireland typically receives adequate rain in gentle showers, the lay of the land is not steep, and the heavy soils are not easily eroded. When the farming methods from this region were exported to North America, where heavy rains are common, it resulted in severe erosion.
Many agricultural systems flamed out and vanished long ago. China has beat the odds, and remained in the farm business for over 3,000 years. This is often cited as proof that sustainable agriculture is possible. But McNeill points out that their longevity is the result of sequentially replacing one unsustainable mode with a different unsustainable mode. They will eventually run out of tricks and flame out. A process that regularly pulverizes soils and depletes nutrients cannot have a long-term future, and irrigated systems usually flame out faster.
Food is one thing that humans actually need. McNeill describes how agriculture has become far more destructive in the last hundred years. It produces more food, degrades more land, and spurs population growth, seriously worsening many other problems. Readers learn about erosion, heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, salinization, pesticides, herbicides, water mining, and so on. Our ability to continue feeding a massive herd will face huge challenges in the coming years.
In addition to troublesome agriculture, we stirred fossil energy and industrialization into the pot, and it exploded. The twentieth century was like an asteroid strike — a tumultuous pandemonium never seen before, that can never be repeated. Tragically, this era of roaring helter-skelter is what most people today perceive to be “normal.” Life has always been like this, we think, because this is how it’s been since grandma was born. History Deficiency Syndrome leads to a life of vivid hallucinations. There is a highly effective antidote: learning.
The “normal” mindset is trained to focus on the benefits, and ignore the costs. With a bright torch, McNeill leads his readers down into a sacred cave, where the walls are covered with images of our culture’s darkest secrets. In this vast grotto, we record the many, many things that are never mentioned in the daylight world above, because they clash with our myths of progress and human superiority — similar to the way that dinosaur bones make creationists twitch and squirm. The bones contradict the myths, an embarrassing dilemma.
So, with the swish of a magic wand, we’ve made the bones invisible in our schools, workplaces, newsrooms, churches, and homes. We keep them in the cave. In the normal daylight world, we are constantly blasted by a fire hose of frivolous information, ridiculous balderdash, and titillating rubbish. The myths are safe. The world was made for humans. We are the greatest.
McNeill points out that a major cause of twentieth century mass hysteria was that millions of people were enslaved by “big ideas.” Some ideas are absorbed by cultures and never excreted, even stupid ideas, like the obsession with perpetual economic growth, our insatiable hunger for stuff and status, our stunning disregard for the generations yet-to-be-born.
“The overarching priority of economic growth was easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.” We created a monster that we could not control — it controlled us. Economists became the nutjob gurus of the wacky cult of growth, and society guzzled their toxic Kool-Aid. Crazy economists, who preached that society could get along without natural resources, won Nobel Prizes. They became respected advisors to world leaders. In every newscast, you repeatedly hear the words “growth” and “recovery.” These are the yowls and howls of an insane asylum.
Environmentalists often sneer at the multitudes who fail to be enraged by the catastrophe of the week. They assume that the herd understands the issues. But the daily info-streams that deluge the mainstream world have almost nothing in common with McNeill’s model of reality. Few people in our society have a well-rounded understanding of our eco-predicaments, including most environmentalists. This world would be a much different place if McNeill’s perception of history became the mainstream, and folks could readily comprehend the harms caused by our lifestyles. Ignorance is enormously costly.
One wee bright spot in the twentieth century was the emergence of Deep Ecology, a small group of renegade thinkers that enthusiastically denounced the dead end path of anthropocentricism. For the first time in 300 years, Western people were spray-painting naughty insults on the cathedrals of Cartesian thinking — “We do not live in a machine world of soulless dead matter!” Deep Ecology succeeded in channeling bits of wisdom from the spirits of our wild ancestors.
On the final pages, McNeill does not offer an intoxicating punch bowl of magical thinking. Our future is highly volatile, even the near future is uncertain. History has little to say about sudden mass enlightenment and miraculous intelligent change. “The reason I expect formidable ecological and societal problems in the future is because of what I see in the past.”
The book is thoroughly researched, well written, and hard to put down. Readers are taken on a sobering voyage of discovery, where there are thrills and chills around every turn — mercury poisoning, radiation nightmares, soil mining, deforestation, and on and on. It’s fascinating to observe the spectacular ways that brilliant innovations backfire. Human cleverness is amazing, but it is dwarfed by our amazing un-cleverness. We weren’t made to live like this.
At the same time, human genes are about 98 to 99.4 percent the same as the genes of chimps and bonobos, our cousins who have never lost their path. They’ve been healthy, happy, and sustainable for over a million years. Circle the superior species in this picture. We have a sick culture, but our genes are probably OK. Cultures can be changed. We need to become aware of reality. We need to turn off our glowing screens, open the door, and rediscover our home and our identity. Happy trails!
* Ecclesiastes 1:9 “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
McNeill, J. R., Something New Under the Sun — An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.