Book Club

The Chair read for you : Something New Under the Sun from John R. McNeill

Published on 22 January 2019

For anyone interested in the environment, Something New Under the Sun [1] belongs to the category of the unavoidable. The original version was awarded a prize when it was released by the World Association of Historians. The French version was published about ten years later. In his preface, the author delivers an important message: “When I started working on this book in the early 1990s, I thought that the most significant element in the global environmental history of the 20th century had been population growth. When I finished this work, my opinion had changed, and it was the fossil energy system that I considered to be the essential variable. Now, ten years later, I think that if I had to do it again, I would insist even more on fossil fuels” (P.7). An introduction that arouses the curiosity of readers who are aware of the climate issue.

The book is divided into two parts of very unequal sizes. The first systematically addresses changes in the different components of the Earth system: the Earth’s crust, the atmosphere, the water cycle and the biosphere. The route is breathtaking. “Something New Under the Sun” was the quote from the Ecclesiastes whose title of the book is inspired. Well, if so: human activity profoundly transformed our environment in the 20th century. Demonstration of Mc Neill, concerning atmospheric pollution.

Before fire control, “people could hardly pollute the air except by kicking and kicking dust” (P.90). With fire control, air pollution enters the domestic space: “people lived at home in a cloud of smoke” (P.92). In the 20th century, it changed dimension by invading cities and then the world space with the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

The case of “coal cities”, such as London and Pittsburgh, which the historian has analysed with insight, is full of lessons. After the war, they were “the object of transformation that would have seemed impossible to the inhabitants of both cities between 1900 and 1930” (P.138). They drastically reduced the use of coal in favour of less polluting fuels (oil and gas) or by moving coal-fired industrial installations away from urban centres. In both cases, the triggering factor was the awareness of the population of the extent of the health damage caused by coal.

Let us look at London, the largest city in the world in 1900, at the end of the Victorian period (6.6 million inhabitants). Air pollution peaked between 1870 and 1900. The footprint of coal was reduced at the beginning of the 20th century in industry with efficiency gains, substitution by oil and “source dispersion”. But urban pollution remains terrible because of the persistence of coal stoves, which “were as sacrosanct for the English before 1950 as the automobile is for a contemporary American” (P.132). In December 1956, a fog episode lasts more than a week. Coal smoke causes the premature death of 4000 people. This health crisis is turning public opinion upside down. It leads the public authorities to quickly ban coal stoves by eradicating their harmful fumes.

In both London and Pittsburgh, coal was banned from urban centres because its smoke made them unbreathable. Some of this has been achieved by substituting oil and gas, while others have been achieved by moving coal installations away from city centres. This double movement did not slow down greenhouse gas emissions, which surged in the United States and the United Kingdom in the post-war period. How can we not think about the current situation in China or India when reading this part of the book?

Something New Under the Sun, reveals an outstanding narrator. Mc Neill paints portraits of colourful characters who influenced the environment in the 20th century. Let us follow the career of chemist Thomas Midgley (1889-1944). Midgley started in the 1920s at General Motors’ research centre. He develops a leaded additive that improves the performance of gasoline. From the start, the product is suspected of having harmful effects. Midgley is not afraid to inhale it in public to convince people that it is safe. Deception works quite well and lead pollution will become a major health problem with the development of the automobile.  

A few years later, Midgley worked for Frigidaire, another subsidiary of General Motors. The refrigerators of the time operated with gases that were inefficient, toxic and explosive. Our chemist then discovers the properties of HFCs, which are very stable gases, non-explosive and without direct health effects. CFCs quickly replace other gases in refrigerators and their use multiplies after wars with the spread of air conditioning and vaporizers. However, if CFCs are harmless to health, they are greenhouse gases and, once in the stratosphere, they destroy ozone molecules by chemical reaction. They were the main cause of the hole in the ozone layer detected in the 1970s.

In his inimitable style, John McNeill concludes that Thomas Midgley, with his two discoveries, had “more impact on the atmosphere than any living being in the history of the planet” (P.202). We can discuss this point. Other inventors, such as James Watt (1736-1819) with his steam engine or Rudolphe Diesel (1858-1917) with his internal combustion engine, also contributed quite a bit!

The second part of the book, which is shorter, deals with the drivers of change. The major role of urbanization is pointed out. Mc Neill also questions the ability of companies to respond to environmental issues. His judgment is nuanced. In the 20th century, societies reacted quite quickly, and often effectively, to local pollution such as coal fumes. They have shown much greater inertia in the face of global pollution such as global warming.

To his very simple and lively style, Mc Neill adds a rare quality: his great erudition. It is illustrated in its chapters with numerous literary references, much to the delight of the reader. Let us read again the one he included in the introduction to the chapter on coal cities: “The earth, this beautiful creation, seems to me to be a barren promontory; the air, this canopy so magnificent, you see, this splendid firmament that overhangs us, this majestic roof encrusted with golden fires, seems to me nothing more than an infected and pestilent assemblage of vapours. ” (Hamlet, act II, scene 2). Shakespeare, a great visionary of the environmental issue!

Christian de Perthuis, Climate Economics Chair’s founder, Professor at Paris-Dauphine University

[1] John R. Mc Neill: Something New Under the Sun, An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, The Global Centuries Series.