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

By John Robert McNeill
W. W. Norton, 2000
421 pp. $29.95
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The last century was truly prodigal. Total population quadrupled, while urban population increased by a factor of 13, world output by 14, energy use by 16, and industrial production by 40. All this activity generated a tremendous amount of waste, including agricultural residue, mine tailings, and emissions into the atmosphere, rivers, lakes, and seas. Wetlands have been drained or filled and highways and cities built. For the first time, humankind is influencing ecology on a global scale. McNeill catalogues the impact of all this activity, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, and finds the results are not all bad. For example, the automobile replaced the horse, which required more land to feed and whose waste products and carcasses were sources of urban stench and disease. Public attitudes changed in the 1950s and 1960s as cities such as London, Pittsburgh, and Osaka grew so polluted that they became almost unlivable. Major selective cleanups have proceeded even as global waste has grown in volume and cities and rivers have deteriorated. An informative, dispassionate treatment that recounts the last century's environmental history with admirable impartiality.

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