Book review – The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945

7-minute read

Something happened to the world sometime after 1945. Something that included the end of World War II and post-war recovery, but was far more fundamental than that.

Humanity went into overdrive.

In my reading on the Anthropocene, this book and this phrase keep cropping up. The Great Acceleration gives a bird’s-eye view of the environmental history of our world since the 1950s. A period when multiple factors – technological, medical, and demographical – converged to propel the human species onto a trajectory of unprecedented growth.

The Great Acceleration

The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945, written by John R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, published by Belknap Press (a Harvard University Press imprint) in April 2016 (paperback, 275 pages)

Let me begin with two pieces of background information to set the scene. First, this book. It was originally published in 2014 as chapter 3 of the book Global Interdependence. This, in turn, is the sixth volume of Harvard University Press’s ambitious book series A History of the World which is almost complete (only the second volume remains in preparation as of this moment). At well over 1,000 pages per volume, these books are no lightweights and notable contributions have been reissued in paperback, as happened for this book in 2016.

Second, the term “Anthropocene”. Coined in the year 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, it describes the most recent period in human history in which our activities, and especially their unintended consequences, have started significantly impacting, even overwhelming, Earth’s natural biogeochemical cycles. I have previously reviewed The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit which makes the geological case for this term (McNeill contributed to this book). The Great Acceleration draws on environmental history to make the case that the Anthropocene started around the 1950s. In four large chapters, the authors touch on a range of topics to show how this has been “[…] the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in [our] 200,000-year-long history […]” (p. 5).

The Great Acceleration gives a bird’s-eye view of the environmental history of our world since the 1950s. […] “certainly the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in [our] 200,000-year-long history […]“”

First they turn to two of the biggest drivers of the many Anthropocene signatures: energy and population. Fossil fuels unlocked plentiful energy, with the coal-driven Industrial Revolution just a warm-up exercise. In the decades after World War II, several factors converged (the rise of consumer culture, the desire for affluence going global, oil overtaking coal) to explode energy consumption. Of all the quoted numbers I will just mention one: “our species has probably used more energy since 1920 than in all of our prior human history” (p. 9). Cheap energy expanded the scope of what was economically rewarding, bringing into existence new energy-intensive activities, e.g. the Haber-Bosch process to produce artificial fertiliser. Another contributing factor was, of course, population growth, with our numbers more than tripling from 2.3 to 7.2 billion between 1945 and 2015. Of note, though, is McNeill and Engelke’s nuanced attitude on this topic. Through a range of examples they show that the axiom of modern environmentalism, that more people means more environmental damage, “is not true always and everywhere. When and where it is true, the degree to which it is true is extremely variable” (p. 50). That said, our hunger for energy causes environmental problems at every step: during extraction (mining and drilling), refinement, transportation (particularly oil spills), and burning (air pollution).

Closest to home for me was the second chapter which covered climate and biodiversity. Some of the topics discussed here are the rise in atmospheric CO2, the history of climate science, and its entry into the political arena. But also biodiversity loss, global deforestation, and overfishing. When you plot these in graphs, many of them, though not deforestation, show a clear upward inflection point around the 1950s.

“”The entire life experience of almost everyone now living has taken place within the eccentric historical moment of the Great Acceleration“. […] We take this to be the new normal, but this “brief blip in human history” cannot last.”

Less familiar ground for me was the chapter covering cities and the economy. This discusses urbanisation and its discontents (poverty and slums, and the effect of the car on suburbs) and experiments with green(er) cities. Economic growth was enabled by, again, abundant energy, population growth (more people means more economic activity), and technological inventions. Two particularly influential inventions are highlighted here. First, the humble shipping container that, since its invention in 1956, “did more to promote international trade than all free trade agreements put together” (p. 136). Second, the explosion around WWII in mass production of many new variants of that miracle material: plastic; though that love affair quickly soured when we discovered most of it ends up in the ocean. McNeill and Engelke furthermore consider both global economic patterns (former colonies and socialist countries being brought into the capitalist fold) and regional economic shifts in Asia and Russia, plus the dissenting views of ecological economics and sustainable development that have nevertheless not been able to stem economic growth.

The most interesting chapter for me was the last one on the Cold War and the rise of environmentalism. Noteworthy highlights here are the environmental cost of nuclear weapons production and testing, and how it spawned much of the environmental movement. The insanity of China’s Great Leap Forward that, through failed grain production and Mao Zedong’s fetish for steel production, took a staggering toll on both humans and the environment. Or the environmental legacy of the Cold War in Southern Africa and Vietnam – we all know Agent Orange, but look up Rome plows. When McNeill and Engelke chart the rise of the environmental movement, they look well beyond the cliché of young hippies and the idea that only wealthy Westerners, no longer worried about meeting their basic needs, have environmental concerns. Environmentalism became wedded to social justice movements for many of the world’s poor who found themselves at the receiving end of what Rob Nixon has called the “slow violence” of pollution and climate change. And it became wedded to political dissent in socialist Russia and China where environmentalism was long suppressed.

“”[…] to date, the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration coincide. But they will not for long” […]. Their disentangling heralds a new transition […] for which we are woefully unprepared.”

The most frightening and simultaneously eye-opening insight this book offers is that of shifting baselines: “Only one in twelve persons now alive can remember anything before 1945. The entire life experience of almost everyone now living has taken place within the eccentric historical moment of the Great Acceleration” (p. 5). We take this to be the new normal, but this “brief blip in human history” cannot last. The authors remain agnostic on whether the future holds sustainability or collapse, whether our environmental legacy will haunt us for generations to come or outlive us. However, “[…] to date, the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration coincide. But they will not for long” (p. 208). Their disentangling heralds a new transition, whether to collapse or a steady-state economy, for which we are woefully unprepared.

The range of countries and historical episodes included make The Great Acceleration a deeply informed and refreshingly broad work. If you want to understand how the whole world veered onto a radically new trajectory post-1950s, this compact book is a fascinating and quick read that offers a bird’s-eye view.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Great Acceleration

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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Harvard University Press’s A History of the World series:

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