By Frank Armstrong

I interviewed environmental historian John Robert McNeill, a professor in Georgetown University, best known for his 2000 book, ‘Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World’, shortly after his recent lecture on global environmental history in Dublin. Chicago-based McNeill is also author of ‘Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914’ (2010) in which he demonstrates how yellow fever and malaria attacked newcomers to the region, helping to keep the Spanish Empire Spanish, in the face of predatory rivals in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; and ‘The Human Web’ (2003) co-written  with his father which shows how human webs are a key component of world history and a revealing framework of analysis (if not actually determinants).

McNeill wrote in his ‘Environmental History’ about the ‘Anthropocene’ age which  he says has various definitions: “I like to see it as that time period in which human action has had deep impacts on the basic systems of the Earth. Those systems include such things as climate and biogeochemical cycles.  Notice I am not saying it is an epoch or an era – the geologists will decide on that”.

He says it began only in the mid-twentieth century:

“But many scientists argue for various earlier Anthropocenes, some preferring 1800, some 5,000 BCE, some even earlier.  A great deal depends on which sorts of evidence one prefers. Palaeo-ecologists often like to cite evidence of large animal extinctions in the late Pleistocene as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene. That would be roughly 13,000 years ago and earlier.  But for me, that is not enough: one needs the multiple interventions of the last 75 years to justify the term”.

The impact of human beings on planet earth are, he believes, too numerous and profound to list concisely: “I tried to take stock in ‘Something New Under the Sun’, but that exercise took more than 350 pages. However, among the more significant impacts, from the human point of view, are ongoing changes to the climate, changes to vegetation, especially the reduction in forests, acceleration of soil erosion, the reduction in infectious disease, especially waterborne disease, the advent of intense urban air pollution (and its eventual reduction in some places, including Dublin!)”.

Though broadly pessimistic, he does advocate certain imperatives. These include  “changing the energy system away from fossil fuels to something else that does not entail greenhouse gas emissions on any scale; supporting formal female education as a benign way to encourage lower fertility and slower population growth; and more efficient urban design, since in the future ever more of us will live in and around cities”.

One of his books confronts the subject of malaria and he does not think there is any prospect of eliminating this killer: “The etiology of malaria is devilishly complex and the plasmodia responsible for infection are capable of evolving so as to sidestep efforts to check their proliferation. The best bet is mosquito control, but it is not a very good bet because dozens of anopheles species (like mosquitoes) are competent to transmit malaria”.

He considers it is hard to predict what other contagious diseases will pose a significant challenge to human beings in the future.

“At the moment it is hard to ignore the outbreak of Ebola, now raging in parts of West Africa and making an appearance in Madrid and Dallas. Whether that yet counts as a significant challenge probably depends on where you sit.  Influenza is always a threat of sorts, because the virus in question mutates rapidly and could conceivably break loose once again as it did in 1918, when roughly 50 million people died of influenza.  As a category, breath-borne viruses are probably the most worrisome”.

He believes our dominance confers obligations to our natural environment and other species, though he is circumspect. “Everyone has a different opinion on this matter, and mine is no wiser than the next. That said, I take the (common) view that it confers upon us the obligation of stewardship: our power means we need to take responsibility for the survival of other species (however I’d make an exception for certain mosquito species that spread human disease, even if they too are God’s creatures)”.

A recent WWF report claimed that 50% of the world’s species have become extinct in the past 40 years and I ask McNeill about diversity. “In the first instance, if one accepts the notion that human power confers the responsibility of stewardship of the biosphere, then biodiversity has value in and of itself: we do not have the moral right to exterminate species.  In the second instance, biodiversity is useful for ecological stability.  When it is reduced, the probability rises of dramatic alterations of ecosystems, including ones we rely on. Third, many species are extremely valuable to us, as sources of medicines, or as pollinators for crops we depend on.  There are probably unknown species that potentially offer us unknown medicines, if they are not first driven to extinction”.

I draw his attention to a Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang Earthwatch article in 2009 claiming that animal agriculture accounted for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions but he won’t comment on its credibility since he hasn’t seen it.

More generally, he accepts that human beings cannot feed themselves without fossil fuels  at least at the moment.

He believes that agricultural subsidies in the US and EU are “perverse” and “most should probably go”. He could live with the consequences. He’d favour policies that make livestock farming more expensive; wasting water more expensive; intensive use of antibiotics on feedlots more expensive; intensive use of nitrogenous fertilisers more expensive. “All this would make food more expensive, which would be unpopular and is not likely to happen any time soon!”, he says circumspectly.

“As a matter of human health” Mc Neill states that governments in Western countries should be encouraging widespread adoption of plant-based diets. “I’d do it by adopting policies that gradually change the prices of various foods”.

Nuclear power, he accepts, is tempting because the only greenhouse gases it produced come in the creation and destruction of power plants, not in their operation.  However,in fact he says “ I am not quite in favour of it, due to the risk of accident (viz. Chernobyl, Fukushima, among others), the risk of the wrong people getting their hands on fissionable material, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste. Maybe in future some of these matters will be resolves so that nuclear power becomes a useful possibility”. Not, he considers, at the moment, however.

Like most Americans he believes that the innovative spirit of capitalism can provide the technological solutions for our dependence on fossil fuels. “I would do it by a carbon tax, one that escalates annually. And by prize money for useful innovation in the energy field”. Still, he notes that “it may be too slow to forestall disagreeable climate change”.

And he cannot imagine that the acquisitive tendencies inherent in capitalism can really be restrained “without some highly improbable ideological/religious transformation of societies”.

As to whether human beings can reach a point of equilibrium on the planet, he looks to history not science: “More or less”, he believes. Equilibria don’t generally endure for long, and upsets of one sort or another normally come along every so often. But it is plausible to imagine a human population much less ecologically disruptive than what we have at present, and indeed more or less in equilibrium with the biosphere. That could theoretically happen over centuries by a radical reduction in human population, although I regard that as unlikely. It could also happen through technological changes, the most important of which is to revolutionise the  energy system – that make it easier for a few billion – maybe not 10 or 12 billion – to live much less disruptively on Earth”.

McNeill’s “plausible scenario” of “a less ecologically disruptive humanity” is still difficult to envisage. It seems more likely that the innovative spirit of capitalism which McNeill identifies as offering technological solutions is itself part of the real threat to our survival. How do we curb what Rene Girard referred to as the “acquisitive mimesis” which drives the excesses of consumerism?

A return to primitive ways of life is unrealistic at this stage. We live in an age of information that should be used for our universal benefit and that of the wider planet. A compassionate society (and veganism) could still reward innovation, but not necessarily in purely individualistic terms. Whether such a society could still be called capitalism is another question.

For this and other reasons the Anthropocene confers great responsibilities on humanity – and greater challenges than we have ever faced, or contemplated. •