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A Conversation with John McNeill

Tom Laichas


Figure 1


     Writing "Big History" is impossible without putting environmental history at its center.  The bigger the time scale, the more that the relevant processes are geological, biological, or chemical – not only (or even largely) cultural or political.

     At smaller time scales, however, environmental history can drop right out of the narrative.  As Edmund Burke III recently observed, "most world history textbooks relegate environmental history to a polite few paragraphs."1 Yet environmental perspectives have extraordinary capacity to alter student understanding of political, economic or cultural events. The one environmental issue which textbooks and world history courses address most reliably – the "Columbian Exchange" – has radically transformed the telling of the old conquest story.2

     For nearly three decades, Georgetown University's John R. McNeill has worked to integrate environmental history into histories "big" and small.  From his early work for the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory through books like The Mountains of the Mediterranean World (1993) and Mosquito Empires (in press), McNeill has demonstrated that environmental history illuminates every corner of the human experience. Nor has he neglected big history itself, as The Human Web (2003), written with his father William McNeill, demonstrates.3

     2010 will mark the tenth anniversary of John McNeill's Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World.  As much as any recent work of history, Something New demonstrates that priorities so important to understanding "big history" can as well serve powerfully to illuminate recent events.

     McNeill has won praise for rejecting polemics typical of much politically engaged environmental work preferring instead to let his meticulous research speak for itself. 

     John McNeill spoke with WHC's Tom Laichas in August 2009.

Tom Laichas: You grew up with in the house of historian William McNeill.  Did he influence your decision to study history, or did you take a more circuitous path?

John R. McNeill: When I was an undergraduate, I thought I wanted to study mathematics and physics, and indeed I did.  But I eventually concluded that my skills in those departments weren't good enough to warrant continuing.  So I switched to history and anthropology in my junior year.  I suppose that was the extent of my deviation. 

     Although, when I went to graduate school in history, the things I began to do initially were things that my father had paid comparatively little attention to, such as Latin American history and African history.  And I stay interested in those things, although nowadays I don't teach either one of them.

Laichas: Your earliest work focused on the 17th-18th century Atlantic and Caribbean, particularly in The Atlantic Empires of France and Spain. The switch towards environmental history seems to have taken place in the late 80s and early 90s – is that right?

McNeill:  That's correct. The path to environmental history was one that, like many things in life, had a large quotient of accident in it.  When I finished my Ph.D. in 1981, I was, as I sometimes put it, flamboyantly unsuccessful in the academic job market.  But I managed to get some work as a researcher for a group of ecologists working out of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.  They were interested in global climate change way back then, and they needed information about past patterns of vegetation.  They really didn't know how to get this sort of information, particularly for Latin America.

     My qualifications for the job were that I could read Spanish and, with some difficulty, Portuguese.   So I worked for them for about eighteen months. 

     Rubbing shoulders with people trained in ecology was a novel and interesting experience for me.  Doing that, more than anything else, helped me migrate into environmental history.  I published some papers about Brazil and one particular forest in South America. 

     Then I decided that I could use the same perspective on the Mediterranean world, where I had a little first-hand experience and knowledge of the languages.  So in the mid to late 80s, I worked on a book which eventually became The Mountains of the Mediterranean World.  By that time I was a confirmed environmental historian.

Laichas: Your first academic work, then, was in environmental history. Were you hired into a history department as the resident environmental historian? 

McNeill: No – far from it!  My first tenurable job was at Goucher College, where I was hired to teach European and Russian history.  I taught a Modern Europe survey, I taught Modern Germany, I taught Modern Russia.

Laichas: Did you incorporate some of your research into the classroom?

McNeill: No.  At that point, they were totally separate worlds.  And then when I moved to Georgetown, I was hired to teach a particular course in the School of Foreign Service, then called "Intersocietal History". 

     I didn't know what that was, and I didn't even apply for that job.  I actually applied for a different job at Georgetown, in Early Modern European History, for which I was not competitive.  But the chairman of the History Department asked if I would mind being considered for this other job.  So I said sure – and I was hired. They also needed someone to teach African history, and I did that for four or five years, quite happily.

Laichas:  How do you teach? 

McNeill:  In a mechanical sense, I'm pretty traditional.  If I've got a survey course, that means I've got at least seventy students in my class, which is a major constraint upon what I can do.  So I will do fairly traditional things, i.e., lecture, use a textbook, use auxiliary readings, try to run discussion sections once a week, lecture sessions twice a week, ask students to writequestions for short papers or long papers – they get to choose, about 15 pages total in any case.  Very traditional in that regard. 

     I do try to bring my own interests into a world history course when I teach it, which I might add I used to do every year until I started taking on administrative responsibilities at my university, but the moment I lay those down, I'll be teaching world history again.  And I look forward to that. 

Laichas: How long did it take before you were able to create curriculum around environmental history? 

McNeill: I didn't really start doing that until around 1990 or 1991, by which time I was a tenured professor, and I had a little bit more leeway in deciding what it was I taught.  Before that I actually had zero leeway.  Not just because I was untenured, but because I was teaching courses that had to be taught every year – required courses with large enrollments.  So there was no wiggle room.  I couldn't change my portfolio at all. 

     But in 1990, Georgetown hired a genuine Africanist, someone who had been trained specifically in that field.  From that point on, I no longer taught the history of Africa 1 and 2, and was able to devise some of my own courses.  At that point I started teaching environmental history. 

Laichas: You taught under the aegis of the History Department or the School of Foreign Service?

McNeill: Both.

Laichas: Do most of your School of Foreign Service students end up in foreign service? Do they go to the private sector, or…?

McNeill: All of the above.  It's both an undergraduate and a masters-level institution. There's a perception in the outside world that this prepares people for careers in the foreign service, and to some extent it does: that is, Georgetown puts more people into the foreign service than any other university – than any two other universities. 

     Nonetheless, fewer than three percent of our graduates go into the foreign service. So in effect what they're getting is an internationally oriented liberal arts curriculum on the undergraduate level, and a professionally oriented international affairs curriculum on the masters level.   It is suited for students whof you want to be a cosmopolitan and who haves some background in languages, for the most part. 

Laichas: Robert Stone's documentary "Earth Days" argues that for a while, in the early 1970s, environmental thinking won wide support – it was, after all, Richard Nixon who signed legislation creating the EPA and the Endangered Species Act. 

     But the environmentalist rhetoric, influenced by Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb and the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth, became increasingly hostile to expectations of growing consumption. 

     Meanwhile, free market conservatives ridiculed environmental concerns, arguing that, if left to itself, the market would respond appropriately to scarcities without endangering American abundance.  As a result, bipartisan environmental cooperation broke down.  Does this story resonate with your own findings about the late 20th century environmental movement? 

McNeill:  I'd say it breaks down that way in the United States and to a lesser degree in Canada and Western Europe. 

     Elsewhere, though, the complexion of environmental politics is usually quite different.

Laichas: In what ways?  

McNeill: Well, in places like India and Peru, for example, there are tremendous class-based differences.  There is something that would look reasonably familiar to Americans, a sort of middle class environmentalism that's concerned in India, for instance, with saving the tiger. 

     But demographically and probably politically more significant, is a peasant environmentalism concerned with access to natural resources, access to forest lands, access and control of river water.   These are social, economic and political struggles fought out in an environmental arena. 

     Sometimes this is called "the environmentalism of the poor".  That's a phrase that isn't often used in the United States, but scholars of environmentalism elsewhere have adopted it to refer to these peasant-based movements that often adopt an environmentalist rhetoric and are concerned with natural resources, but in a different way, a way that's immediately connected to the livelihoods of Indian and Peruvian peasants rather than to more abstract goals such as biodiversity or conservation or balance of nature.

Laichas: You're talking, then, about India's Chipko movement, for example?

McNeill: Yes.  That's a fine example.

Laichas: I know that you've stressed issues of gender in understanding these movements.  Can you talk about that a bit?

McNeill: I've stressed gender rather less than many people might wish.  It does seem to me that the case that different people connect to the environment in different ways, particularly in peasant village settings, where there are usually very sharply defined gender roles.  The way that people interact with and experience environmental change and environmental scarcity is different, depending on whether they happen to be men or women, children or adults, because their expected roles are different. 

     So one of the examples I often refer to is who is affected when, for example, fresh water becomes scarce?  It's people whose social role it is to go and fetch water.  And that usually means women and children.  So an environmental change that makes fresh water scarcer, that requires a longer trip to collect it, is one that actually doesn't affect adult men all that much.  They may not be concerned about it.  But it does affect women and children because they have to go get it.

Laichas: When we call 20th century peasant movements "environmental movements", are we saying that they differ fundamentally from peasant movements of a hundred or two hundred years ago?  Or have we simply relabeled them to match contemporary sensibilities?

McNeill: That's a good question.  I would say that these kinds of movements have existed, at least off and on, for a very long time, centuries. 

     But struggles over access to natural resources are more frequent nowadays because resource competition hasthose struggles have intensified.   There's less in the way of buffers.  In Northern India three hundred years ago, if your village's forest was clearcut, it might not have made all that much difference: there's another forest on the other side of the village where you could get your wood for fuel and all the other things you gather there. 

     Nowadays, with those buffers frequently gone, the intensity and frequency of these kinds of social struggles has increased.  So the proportion of peasant movements that are concerned about environmental matters has increased. 

     Two hundred years ago, [peasant grievances] would more likely be about issues such as sharecropping arrangements – what percentage of the harvest went to landowners and what percentage to people who worked the land.  Those kinds of disputes still go on.  But the proportion that pertain to environmental access has increased.  And will continue to increase, I think we can be sure.

Laichas: You've recently focused a lot of your historical work on soil.  You write that "soil is the foundation of life, and yet it is almost completely neglected by historians, even environmental historians."  Well, if that's true of historians, I would say it's even truer of introductory world history courses.  What makes soil central to the grand narrative?

McNeill: Well, I have claimed and would continue to claim that soil is unjustly neglected by historians. Whether we can truly say it's central or not, that's a somewhat different proposition, and I'm not sure I would vote for it. 

     The reason I say it's neglected is simply that ninety-nine plus percent of histories and ninety-eight percent of environmental histories give it no mention whatsoever.  And it's not an easy thing to understand. There are many different variables that determine the productivity of soils.  You have to know a little bit of history and a little bit of chemistry and physics, a little bit of biology to have a grasp of what soils are.  So it's not something that comes naturally to historians or to social scientists. 

     But honestly, you don't have to be an expert to appreciate the significance of soils.  Now: as to how central it might be, the most obvious respect is that some soils are or can easily be made far more fertile than others, which help to determine who is rich and who is poor.  And they help determine what states, polities, kings and emperors feel is worth fighting for.  They're always after the rich agricultural lands.  That's the first and most obvious way. 

     The second way is more historical, because soils change. Their nutrient qualities change over time as they are used.  In particular, agriculture irrevocably draws down certain nutrients, so soils that were once good become less good over time. This has tremendous economic importance.  On top of their chemical evolutions, soils also erode. This too carries tremendous economic consequences and, through that, political ones. 

     So soils are a substrate to human affairs. Soil is not a constant, it is always in flux, and deserves attention. I'm  not going to argue that it's central.  But it's something historians ought to have their eyes on.

Laichas: If you were to teach an introductory world history course now, where would you highlight that?  

McNeill: Well, in the course of a semester, I would probably come back to it fifteen or twenty times, trying to explain what the soil situation was in various settings.

     Let's take, for example, the emergence of civilization in north China.  That happened in the context of a very distinctive soil situation, the so-called loess soils.  Very productive and fertile, these are not widely replicated elsewhere on the earth.  I'd emphasize that it's probably no accident that Chinese culture emerged in a particularly rich soil environment. 

     I would certainly bring it up in the case of ancient Egypt: how the Nile, with its flood, provides a thin film of silt, which makes Egyptian agriculture possible over almost the last 6,000 years.  That too is a unique soil situation. 

     I'd talk about the emergence of the United States over the last 150 years, and how that depended in part on the enormous fertility of prairie soils put there over thousands of years, mainly by the winds.  I would talk about how those soils have been drawn down over the last hundred years, but have made United States agriculture the most productive in the world.

     So there are many points along the trajectory of a world history course where I would bring it up.  I would not segregate it out.  I'd try to weave it in. 

Laichas: You would not be talking about river valley civilizations without distinguishing among their soil regimes.  

McNeill: Yes – that is a context where I would be sure to bring it up and try to explain some of the differences in the soil conditions.  In discussion of Mesopotamia, for instance, I would certainly bring up the idea – which is controversial – that soil salinization played some role in weakening Mesopotamian states and societies after, perhaps, their first millennium of civilized existence. 

     There is some evidence for this in the archaeological record, particularly in the substitution of more salt-tolerant crops: barley for wheat, for example.  Whether [the theory is] true, nobody knows for sure, but it's an interesting idea.

Laichas: Let me ask you about your upcoming book Epidemics and Geopolitics in the American TropicMosquito Empiress [due February 2010].  I read the Cambridge University Press announcement, and it looks like your approach to thinking about disease in history differs quite a bit from the standard world history textbook account.

     The diseases that make it into our courses are catastrophic events: Justinian's plague, the Bubonic Plague, the post-conquest decimation of indigenous Americans. You're talking more about an endemic disease regime which shaped geopolitics for several centuries.  Can you elaborate on that?

McNeill: I can elaborate at almost endless length: I just sent the copy-edited manuscripts back to Cambridge this morning, so I have been immersed in [the book] this summer. 

     The argument is that once yellow fever and malaria became established in what I call the "Greater Caribbean", which extends from northeastern Brazil to the Chesapeake, they exercised a powerful governing influence over who could survive, who could settle, and who could mount successful military expeditions. 

     The reason for that was differential immunity or resistance.  Yellow fever in particular is extremely dangerous to people who have never encountered it, but if you have encountered it and lived through it, you are immune for life.  And if you get it as a little kid, your chances of surviving are excellent. 

     So people who were born and raised in places such as West Africa, where yellow fever wasis common (and and it is still present there) or the Caribbean before 1900, are likely to have encountered the disease in childhood, to have lived through it, and to have acquired lifelong immunity.  However, people born and raised in higher latitudes and in cooler climates, where the vector mosquito doesn't exist, are susceptible.  For them, yellow fever is extremely dangerous historically, killing 30, 50, or 80% of susceptibles. 

     This meant that after the middle of the 17th century, it was almost impossible for large-scale European settlement schemes to succeed.  It was virtually impossible for military expeditions to succeed if they didn't complete their business within about four weeks. 

     I'm arguing in this book that yellow fever and, to a lesser extent, malaria helped keep the Spanish Empire Spanish because [other European powers] who attempted military conquest of Spanish territory fell afoul of yellow fever particularly and, to a lesser degree, malaria. 

     After the 1770s, when populations in the Americas started organizing themselves and agitating for their own independence in what became the United States, Haiti, Venezuela and Colombia and, at the end of the 19th century, Cuba, differential immunity materially assisted their wars for independence.  Again: people born in the Americas were resistant, and those sent out from Europe to try to prevent independence were highly susceptible.  Several tens of thousands of unhappy soldiers died from yellow fever and malaria while failing to prevent independence in the United States, in Cuba, in Haiti, in Venezuela, and in Colombia.

Laichas:  Some of that story gets told when we look at the French failure to halt Haitian independence. You're making a broader argument: this is a big part of the story of independence throughout the entire region.

McNeill:  Yeah.  The Haitian case is the one that, I would say, most often is appreciated by historians and the broader public, partly because it was the largest example.  As many as 40,000 troops may have died during yellow fever epidemics in San Domingue. 

     The scale was somewhat smaller in other instances.  But there is, I would maintain, a systematic pattern at play here that helped a handful of wars of independence. That includes the war for United States independence.  In that case, it wasn't yellow fever, it was malaria which dogged Cornwallis's army in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.  This seems to me something historians of the American Revolution have not properly recognized. 

Laichas: You seem to be saying as well that this disease regime – and the political protections it afforded the Greater Caribbean in the 19th century – came to an end at the turn of the 20th century. 

McNeill:  Well, there's a final chapter to this book that explains the process by which yellow fever and malaria became trivial in the Americas.  That happened quite quickly between 1898 and 1910. 

     It happened because people figured out how these two diseases were transmitted – they were both mosquito-borne diseases – and then how to control mosquito populations, keep infected mosquitoes from susceptible human beings, and keep infected human beings from mosquitoes.  That's what broke transmission cycles.  It's not all that complicated once you understand that mosquitoes are the bearers of yellow fever and malaria – and which mosquitoes.  The yellow fever mosquito in particular is the easiest mosquito in the world to control because it has very fussy habits. 

     This was sorted out intellectually in the 1890s.  By 1910, everybody knew how to do it. There were no major outbreaks of yellow fever or malaria in the Americas after that, and never again in the Americas has either of those diseases carried any political significance. 

     Now, malaria remained important in other places, and still is today.  It had some bearing on the course of the Second World War in the southwestern Pacific. Far more men were killed by malaria than by the enemy in places like the Solomons and New Guinea. But in the American hemisphere, the political significance of these diseases was over with by 19140.  The last time it really mattered was in the building of the Panama Canal.

Laichas:  Let me ask you about the style of your writing.  The Economist praised Something New Under the Sun for being "admirably objective" while Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said he admired you for having written it "without a line of hyperbole, eco-freakery or environmental millennialism." 

     Clearly, you're passionate about environmental issues.   Yet you keep gloomy prognostication to a minimum.  Throughout much of the book, you let aphorisms do the talking, as in Horace's warning "if you drive out nature with a pitchfork, it will always return".

     In writing Something New, did you consciously wrestle with tone?  

McNeill:  I have thought about that, particularly when writing Something New Under the Sun. I thought beforehand that I would aim to adopt a dispassionate tone, a more or less Olympian detachment.  I did this partly because it suits my phlegmatic personality, but also because I thought it was probably a more effective – and honest – tone to adopt.  Honest in the sense that there are a lot of things we don't know.  I don't think it does any good to pretend we do know them, although there are many environmental activists who would disagree with that proposition and feel that maximally disconcerting rhetoric is required to galvanize action. 

     My own view is that in the long run, that's self-defeating, particularly when there are uncertainties involved.  One is sure to say things that will easily be proven wrong in time.  When things are easily proven wrong, this redounds to the discredit of every and all suggestions about environmental prudence. 

     And this has happened, of course.  Critics of environmentalism can easily find dubious pronouncements and predictions, hold them up to ridicule, and use them to try to discredit the entirety of environmentalism.  So I thought it would be a better idea to aim for Olympian detachment – although there are a few passages, particularly ones concerning the discipline of economics, where I seem to have abandoned all ambition for objectivity and cut loose. 

Laichas: You write, at the end of the book that "The future – even the fairly near future, is not merely unknowable; it is inherently uncertain… [The future] is more volatile than ever before: a greater number of radically different possibilities exist because ideas spread so rapidly and because reproductive behavior is in rapid flux."  We're now living in its "fairly near future".  Have you been struck more by its volatility or its continuity?

McNeill:  In environmental terms, more by its continuity: business-as-usual and inertial drift have characterized recent environmental affairs. By "environmental affairs" I mean both what's happening on the ground in biophysical, chemical and environmental change, and also the sustained commitments of states and societies.  The volatility I imagined doesn't seem to be prevalentmanifesting.  We see inertia more than disruption.

     But in other regards, the last ten years seem pretty interesting for discontinuities.  The depth of the current economic downturn was, ten years ago, was hard to imagine.  The extraordinary rise of Chinese economic power was foreseeable in 1999, but I find the scale and pace impressive, more than I would have expected.  From the parochial American point of view, the elevation of anxieties about terrorism was, I think, unforeseeable in 1999, and US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan were very hard to foresee.   Those are, as I say, parochial American issues, of smaller consequence to people in Argentina and New Guinea. But in those respects I think that, environmental history notwithstanding, the last decade has been pretty volatile.

Laichas:  Have recent events made you more optimistic or more pessimistic?

McNeill:  I would say no to both: I'm a middle-aged guy, and I don't shift off of my equilibrium all that easily.  I remain a pessimist of the brain and an optimist of the heart. 


1 Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz, The Environment and World History (University of California Press, 2009), xi. 

2 Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood Press, 1972).  Columbian Exchange is now in its "anniversary edition" (Praeger, 2003) with a new preface by John R. McNeill.

3 John R. McNeill, The Mountains of the Mediterranean World: An Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 1992); John R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (W. W. Norton, 2000); John R. McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History (W. W. Norton, 2003); John R. McNeill and Verena Winiwarter (eds.), Soils and Societies: Perspectives from Environmental History (White Horse Press, 2006);  McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology, Epidemics, and Revolutions in the Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).



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