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Posted January 20, 2001
Comprehensive, imaginative survey of environmental history of the world
This is a remarkable book for its level of detail, imaginative analysis, and straightforward presentation. It is also a very important book. [NEW PARAGRAPH] Repeatedly, I found myself reading McNeill's footnotes and considering the vast amount of research that McNeill performed prior to writing this book. [NEW PARAGRAPH] This book is very readable. Each sentence delivers a new piece of information. McNeill never bogs down in any single area, and his brisk pacing facilitates the presentation of his material. [NEW PARAGRAPH] Good, succinct writing allows McNeill to cover plenty of material in 362 pages of text. I can only think of one topic that McNeill neglected: the risks to water posed by cryptosporidium, giardia, and pfisteria. [NEW PARAGRAPH] McNeill's intellectual integrity is prominent throughout the book. He consistently resists the temptation to force correlations. His analyses of population growth and the Green Revolution in agriculture, for example, are sensitive and faithful to the data, even where they may not establish environmental degradation. [NEW PARAGRAPH] My favorite moment is at pages 265-66. Taking the long-term perspective, as McNeill typically does in the book, he likens humanity in our post-1820 high-energy phase to the cyanobacteria of 2 billion years ago. These predecessors to blue-green algae have, like us, 'pioneered new metabolic paths . . . and refashioned the world in the process'--in their case, by using hydrogen from water and excreting oxygen, so as to raise the oxygen concentration in the air from one part per trillion to 20 percent. Explaining that this process 'conveniently' poisoned most other bacteria, to which oxygen was toxic, McNeill observes that the cyanobacteria thus made more room for itself and other oxygen-tolerant creatures. Showing customary restraint, McNeill leaves it to the reader to recall our place among such creatures. Noting that humans have used more than oxygen poisoning to transform the biosphere, McNeill cautions that we have not chosen the characteristics of the transformed biosphere, 'as we are scarcely more conscious of the process than were cyanobacteria.' [NEW PARAGRAPH] This is McNeill's theme, and it is repeated in the closing lines of the book. He ends on a cautiously optimistic note. If we collect and analyze the data, we can consciously choose a sustainable world, rather than merely cross our fingers. By doing so, we would then distinguish ourselves from the cyanobacteria.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 23, 2001
Winner of 2001 World History Association Book Award
The Book Award Committee is pleased to announce that this book is co-winner of its 2001 prize, along with Ken Pomeranz' The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Jurors praised both books with words like brilliant, superb, tour de force, and 'a classic.' Congratulations for an outstanding contribution to 'history from a global perspective' in the field of the environment. The prize will be presented at the June meeting of the WHA in Salt Lake City.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.