Golden Spikes and The Great Acceleration: A Conversation with J.R. McNeill

Posted by on Sep 15, 2016
Golden Spikes and The Great Acceleration: A Conversation with J.R. McNeill


J. R. McNeill has been a prominent voice within the field of environmental history for many years, and his intellectual contributions have significantly shaped the discipline. McNeill is a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, a collection of scientists and scholars who formally recommended recognizing the Anthropocene—a new geological epoch in which human activity can be registered by stratigraphic measurements as a significant geological force—to the International Union of the Geological Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa early this month. He is University Professor at Georgetown University in the Department of History, as well as the School of Foreign Service. McNeill has authored and edited numerous books, collections, and articles on environmental history, from both regional and global perspectives, and across a range of time periods. He is perhaps best known for his book Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), which has been translated into several different languages, and his most recent book is The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), which he co-authored with Peter Engelke.


Kevin MacDonnell: The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is made up of a couple of dozen scholars from across the natural and human sciences, ranging from atmospheric chemists to geologists to historians like yourself. What do you think led the AWG to seek out an interdisciplinary collective? The work of identifying a so-called ‘golden spike’ could presumably be carried out by a team of geologists or paleobiologists, yet the AWG is nonetheless a mixed bag of scholars from numerous fields. Why do you think that is?

J. R. McNeill: I have never been consulted about who should be invited to take part and it has never been clear to me how it is one is chosen. In my own case, the chair of the AWG (Jan Zalaciewicz) asked me personally to join, but I did not ask him why he did so. It happened after we met at a conference some years ago. And he was aware I had co-authored some pieces with Crutzen. Whether he consulted anyone before asking me to join, I do not know. I am aware only of the following: the core of the group are stratigraphers and geologists, mainly from Britain. By the time I joined, it already included a handful of archeologists, soil scientists, and even one lawyer.  No other social scientists so far as I know, but I could easily be wrong (I haven’t bothered charting the evolution of the membership). Not too long after I joined, another historian (Naomi Oreskes) also joined.  At some point the AWG leadership decided to seek out members from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and to seek out women who might join. That expanded the membership a fair bit, although I couldn’t tell you by how much. And then, it could be said, there are members and there are members. Some of them never take part in the email discussions; some are commenting on every issue that comes up. The center of gravity of the group, however, is firmly in Britain and in stratigraphy/geology.


KM: I haven’t seen anything on the news/web about the meetings. The exception to this has been the media’s tendency over the past few weeks to make much of the very fact that the AWG is proposing the Anthropocene as a new epoch, but as you mentioned prior to our interview, the only thing that was decided by the IUGS this past week was whether or not to kill the concept. Have you heard any updates that you can share?

International Union of the Geological Sciences

International Union of the Geological Sciences

JRM: Regarding the Cape Town meetings, all I know is that a presentation was made by a British geologist. Reports from AWG members who were at Cape Town suggest the presentation was received with great interest and a mixture of approbation and skepticism. My guess is that the International Union of the Geological Sciences (IUGS) will say, in effect, go do some more homework and find us some candidates as ‘golden spikes,’ because for many stratigraphers you can’t have a time interval without good GSSPs (Global Stratotype Section and Point). Not all stratigraphers see it that way, and some of the older intervals don’t have GSSPs at all yet; that is true of about a quarter of them still, although the hunt is on.  I am pretty sure the AWG’s work in the months and years ahead will feature a GSSP focus.  If so, that will mean stratigraphers are even more in the forefront of its labors.

So the entire process will still take years (reports in the popular press to the effect that a decision had been made, which I’ve been told about but have not seen myself, are wrong).  My best guess, and it’s not a well-informed guess, is that the geology profession will not vote for the Anthropocene any time soon.  But I am often wrong when predicting the future (and other times too!).


KM: What contribution do you think can be made by environmental history specifically, but the humanities more generally, when it comes to considering the implications of such a significant geological turning point? In other words, where do we in the humanities fit in this conversation?

JRM: The vast majority of articles using ‘Anthropocene’ in the title nowadays come out of the humanities. It has become an alternative way of saying ‘nowadays’. So the first thing to say is that the humanities have done a lot to publicize the term, but also make it more vague. That will probably continue, for better and for worse. So far I see little evidence that the humanities are offering much of direct use to the decision-making process within the various bodies of the IUGS. Some pointed critiques of the term and concept have emerged, especially from anthropologists, which I find interesting to read. The AWG is aware of these, and open in principle to abandoning the term ‘Anthropocene’, but so far has not found a better one. Most AWG members are much more concerned about the critiques from within geology, especially right now in the immediate aftermath of the Cape Town presentation.


KM: Then I’d like to get your take on the flip side of this question; that is, if the disciplines within the humanities have little to contribute to the formal decision-making process, then how do you see the process of naming the Anthropocene influencing the work being done in the human sciences? You mentioned the popularity of the Anthropocene concept, and this trend is certainly evident in the explosion of books, collections, and articles appropriating the term over the past several years. Do you see the prevalence of the concept as signaling a possible shift towards a greater incorporation of the natural sciences into the humanities and social sciences, or has the Anthropocene merely become a popular buzzword that allows certain disciplines to play out their own concerns on new terrain?

JRM: The formal process within the discipline of geology of naming (or choosing not to recognize) the Anthropocene in the long run probably won’t matter much to the humanities or social sciences. They are using the term and will not stop even if the IUGS in the end decides against adopting the term (which I guess is more likely than not). The impact, if the IUGS does adopt it, will be to constrain the meaning of the term, to give it formal definition. If the IUGS does not adopt it, that will allow scholars and scientists to continue to use it loosely, as is happening now. The use of the term, and the controversies surrounding it, might have the effect of drawing more attention to global environmental change than it would otherwise get, although I can’t be sure.

I don’t know that it has anything to do with the Anthropocene debates, but I do sense a growing turn towards the natural sciences within the social sciences and humanities. More willingness to take things seriously as things, with properties that matter for human affairs. For 70+ years such thinking has typically been quickly dismissed as environmental determinism. But it seems to be making a small comeback. I do not see that as strongly connected to the Anthropocene debates, but rather to new sorts of evidence that bears upon human experience coming from places such as genetics and climatology.


KM: So to move a bit towards a more concrete version of this question, how has the decision-making process, as well as the Anthropocene concept more broadly, influenced your own work? You have been a significant voice in the field of environmental history for a couple of decades now, and your own shift towards environmental thought occurred long before Crutzen and Stoermer coined the term in 2000. Has the introduction and evolution of the concept influenced or mobilized anything in your own work, or do you feel that the multifarious ways in which the term has been interpreted and deployed are in themselves more telling and interesting to consider?

JRM: I got interested in environmental stuff in the last year or two of my graduate career, while writing a dissertation. I grew interested in global environmental change as a result of teaching in the early 1990s. Then in the late 90s I wrote a book on 20th century global environmental history, only because I was asked to do so. While doing that, I came to see the 20th century as particularly anomalous, and within that the period since the 1940s as truly bizarre. I found Christian Pfister’s ideas on the ‘1950s syndrome’ persuasive, and relevant beyond the scope that Pfister gives them, and came to think that in global environmental history the period since 1950 or so is a coherent one, marked off from what came before mainly by rates of increase in energy use and population growth. Then, about 2005 or so, I met Steffen and Crutzen, and started using the term Anthropocene to refer either to the period since 1800 or the period since 1950. After some years of inconsistency, I decided the latter period made more sense as the Anthropocene, so that’s the sense I use the term in now. Perhaps my acquaintance with the term since 2005 (or so) has helped confirm my sense of the eccentricity of the post-1950 period. But even had I never encountered the term, I’d guess that I would be doing the same work, albeit with a different vocabulary, as I do now. But I can’t be sure.


KM: I’m glad you mentioned your own inconsistency in dating the Anthropocene. A common criticism of the debate over the date is that it’s really quite insignificant in the grand scheme of geological time. I’m actually thinking of a line in your recent essay for Eighteenth Century Studies in which you ask whether it matters if the Jurassic period started 206,000,000 years ago or 206,000,150 years ago. You go on to say that what makes the date debate necessary is the importance in determining what ‘constitutes’ the Anthropocene. Aside from the typical constituting factors that we think of when extinctiondiscussing The Great Acceleration—nuclear testing, along with an unprecedented rate of increase in energy use, population growth, and species extinction—are there any less discussed trends or underlying factors in the post-1950 period that contributed to your gravitation towards that date? For example, does the heightened influence of many more nations across the globe after WWII make it a better alternative to 1800, which generally implies a British origin of the Anthropocene due to the predominantly British roots of industrialization?

JRM: There are a few further things that the geologists point to that argue for a 1950 start date. Most of them I did not know much about until getting involved in the AWG. These things include fly ash, which shows up nicely in sediments and will survive, more or less, forever; plastics, which are now embedded in ocean sediments, mostly as micro-plastics, and are sure to endure for millennia, although there is some uncertainty about the longer-term ‘preservation potential’ (to use the jargon); and the redistribution of aquatic species, which will show up in the paleontological record for as long as bones survive, which can be tens of millions of years. Lots of land species were redistributed among the continents after 1492, but very few aquatic species until the routine use of ballast water in shipping, which means about 1960. These are all signs of the Anthropocene, and some of them could be part of a ‘golden spike’. None are causes—that remains the realm of energy use, population, and new technologies. I wasn’t thinking about any of these in any significant way when I wrote Something New under the Sun, although I may have mentioned plastics (and did mention aquatic bio-invasions). But they now seem to me additional reasons to prefer the ~1950 date if one needs to specify, which for IUGS purposes will be required.


KM: How does spatial scale factor into the work you do? As someone who has written books on environmental history from both regional and global perspectives, does either point of view feel more appropriate when writing about the Anthropocene? It is certainly a phenomenon defined by its global impact, but its effects often manifest on the local level. How do you negotiate the distinction between the local and the global, and do you prefer one over the other? Is this even a concern of yours?

JRM: My principle is that historians and other scholars too should, collectively, work on all scales. That does not mean that each individual must do so, although mainly by accident I have done roughly that. In The Mountains of the Mediterranean World there is some very local, village-sized analysis. In other works the scale is regional; in others global, or as global as I could make it. For discussions of the Anthropocene, I’d say one has to keep the global scale firmly in mind and probably in the forefront except when using the term (as is often done) to mean ‘nowadays’. So many authors will do the equivalent of entitling an article “Peoria Poetry in the Anthropocene,” and make virtually no reference to global matters. But that is not really writing or thinking about the Anthropocene. When actually doing so, I think one has to operate at least partly on the global scale if not mainly on the global scale.

The reason for that is connected to my understanding of the Anthropocene. It is distinguished by the human alteration of governing biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, H2O) and these are global even if their terrestrial components may be approached locally. If one used a different definition of the Anthropocene, it might be easier to depart further from a global vision. And so for many folks, for whom the term means something different, the implications for scale will be different.


KM: Your latest book The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, which you co-authored with Peter Engelke, has unsurprisingly drawn some comparisons with Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. Both books tackle the environmental history of the 20th century on a global scale, and while they are certainly operating with different vocabularies as a result of the 15+ year gap between their respective publications, the methodological and historical commitments feel similar. I’d like to hear how you situate these two books within your own intellectual development. What compelled you to revisit such a (monumental) project? Was there things you were unable to formulate or say in the earlier book that the interim period allowed you to work through? Did you feel like you were writing a sequel of sorts, or was this book wrestling with an entirely different set of concerns?

JRM: Yes, there’s a lot of overlap. Here’s the explanation. I did not set out to write The Great Acceleration but was asked to write it by Akira Iriye, a historian I’ve known for two decades and who is such an admirable person it was hard to say no to him. I agreed on the condition that I could enlist Peter Engelke, who was then a PhD student at Georgetown. My reasoning was that this would create a credential that would help Peter in the job market, which I thought he might need because he camegreatacceleration to grad school already middle-aged and despite the illegality of age discrimination in this country, it happens all the time. I also knew that Peter was a fluent writer, thoughtful, and careful about details. The Great Acceleration takes a closer look at climate change and the politics of that, something that in Something New Under the Sun I said was not important to the 20th century but would likely be in the 21st. It also emphasizes cities a bit more, which is one of Peter’s areas of expertise (he was an urban planner before he decided to study history). Additionally, it says a bit more about environmentalism than I did in Something New Under the Sun.

By beginning mid-century, The Great Acceleration fits (my preferred version of) the Anthropocene tidily. There are plenty of other differences too, and many things that Something New Under the Sun gets into that The Great Acceleration doesn’t since the former is a longer book. It’s also possibly true that if I had done a second edition of Something New Under the Sun I would have declined to write The Great Acceleration (although as I explained, that would have been tough). The publisher of Something New Under the Sun wanted a second edition, but formatted in a way that I did not think was right, so I didn’t do it.




Kevin MacDonnell is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, Diana Hobby editorial fellow, and PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the ways in which 17th and 18th century literature and philosophy contributed to the development of early theories of energy and the environment.