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Global Environmental History in the Age of Fossil Fuels

J.R. McNeill
Georgetown University

IV. Ecological Changes

To feed, shelter, warm, and clothe the burgeoning human population after 1800 required intensified mobilisation of the earth’s resources. New patterns emerged, mainly a consequence of industrialisation, fossil-fuel powered transport, and population growth.

Best known among these new patterns is the giant plough-up of the world’s grasslands. Between 1800 and 1950, about 17 million km2 (an area equivalent to today’s Russia) of the world’s grasslands were converted to other uses, mainly crops. Another 9 million km2 (equivalent to China) followed after 1950.12


The prairies of North America, the Argentine pampas, the Russian and Ukrainian steppe, big chunks of northern China, southeastern Australia, West African Sahel, and much grassland elsewhere was turned to cultivation, sometimes permanently, sometimes only briefly. The last big push in this global frontier process came in 1955-63 with the Soviet Virgin Lands scheme, in which wheat replaced steppe grasses over an area the size of Sweden.

The process from the outset was intimately linked with the trends in fossil fuels and demography: growing populations required the grain that these former grasslands gave; railroads and steamships allowed the grain to get to markets cheaply enough to allow poor people to eat it; and, beginning in 1920 or so, oil-powered farm machinery (e.g. tractors) made it much more economical to plough up the densely rooted grasslands and to harvest the resulting grains.

The second new pattern was an enormous expansion of the world’s tropical and subtropical plantations. Plantations – large-scale agricultural enterprises geared toward the market and usually worked by coerced labour gangs if not outright slaves – had existed for millennia, and in the 16th-18th centuries had become the standard means by which to produce sugar and sundry other crops.13

Steam-powered machinery could transform cotton into clothes very cheaply after 1840 (as water-powered mills had done in the decades prior to 1840). This ratcheted up the demand for raw cotton, inspiring a cotton frontier at the expense of forest in the American south, and new efforts to raise cotton in India, Egypt, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, French Polynesia, and scattered locations in southeast Asia and Latin America.

But cotton was only part of a new plantation complex. Tea, coffee, tobacco, jute, palm oil, copra, and various other stimulants, lubricants, foods, and fibres made the industrial revolution hum as smoothly as it did. Most of these new plantations were carved out of former forest lands, often as a form of shifting cultivation, because the crops and production methods wore out soils quickly.

Tobacco and coffee, in particular, depleted soil nutrients rapidly, and without the use of expensive conservation measures, constantly required new soils, enriched by the ash of freshly burned forests, in order to be profitable.

cotton field

Keeping the growing populations of the new industrial cities fed, clothed, and caffeinated thus led armies of slaves in Virginia, Cuba, and Brazil, and legions of labourers elsewhere, to burn off millions of hectares of old-growth forest.14 Chinese cities helped drive parallel changes in southeast Asia; in Thailand a traveller in 1822 noted plantations of cotton, indigo, sugar, tobacco among other crops, all of which were built with Chinese labour, organised by Chinese entrepreneurs, and geared to Chinese markets.15

This, I should point out, had nothing to do with fossil fuels, at least not until steamships took over long-distance trade in southeast Asian waters. In any case, the scale of reorganisation of land use occasioned by Chinese demand probably remained modest compared to the effects of European and North American cities in the years between 1800 and 1950.

Food and fibre frontiers formed only a part of the impact on the land in the age of fossil fuels. Cheap transport made mining ores in remote locations more practical, and the industrial cities could buy all the copper, tin, iron, bauxite and other ores that Chile, Malaysia, Australia, and Jamaica could yield.

Industrial methods, such as steam-powered hydraulic hoses, made mining worthwhile in alluvia that otherwise would have been left untouched in the 19th century. These methods were first used in the gold strikes around the Pacific basin that began in the Californian Sierra in 1849 and shifted to Australia, New Zealand, and the Klondike.16

Hard rock mining, whether for South African gold and diamonds or Chilean copper, also required fossil-fuel powered machinery and transport. It inevitably pockmarked landscapes and occasionally, through surface collapses, altered topography.

Late in the 20th century, huge oil-powered machines chewed their way through mountains and valleys, extracting coal in West Virginia or gold in Western Australia. These environmental changes could not have happened without cheap energy: no amount of slaves with pickaxes could have done the work economically.


Furthermore, cheap energy created transportation networks that made intercontinental migrations on the part of tens of millions feasible. Between 1830 and 1913, some 60 million Europeans crossed oceans in search of better lives, and many of them ended up staffing the farms and mines of the Americas and Antipodes (and a few million more in Siberia).

Another 20 or 40 million Indians and Chinese migrated to the world’s economic peripheries, to the mines and plantations of oceanic islands such as Fiji, Trinidad, and Mauritius and of Malaya, Thailand, Burma, Guyana, Natal, and Queensland. Without these millions of strong backs and skilled hands, far less forest could have been cleared, far less slurry dumped, far less soil eroded, and far less prairie ploughed.

Fossil fuels, population growth, and urbanisation worked their transformative magic not only in the world’s far-flung grain frontiers, plantation zones, and mining camps, but also in and around the cities themselves. Early in the age of fossil fuels, the most conspicuous changes arose where industrial cities sprang up from former villages or small towns, as at Manchester, Berlin, or Chicago.

Shanghai, which amounted to little before 1800, might be a similar case. These were the ‘shock cities’ of the industrial revolution, the places where water power or coal came together with uprooted peasantries and raw cotton or iron ore in a profitable mix. In parts of the carboniferous crescent, such as the Ruhr or Silesia, former farming landscapes almost overnight sprouted iron mills and coal mines, metallurgical plants and railroad yards, in, around, and between cities.

These cityscapes and industrial belts became the most polluted and unhealthy habitats of the 19th century. Their rivers and canals hosted all manner of industrial chemicals and biological wastes. A British royal commission found that one English river’s water made a ‘tolerably good ink,’ and demonstrated the point by writing part of its 1866 report in Calder river water.17

Rivers and lakes acquired a frothy foam cover and often became toxic to almost all aquatic life. Some rivers and canals frequently caught fire. Meanwhile, chimneys spewed out ash, dust, smoke, soot, sulphur dioxide and all manner of hydrocarbon compounds, blanketing homes, gardens, streets, pastures and fields – and filling lungs – with toxins.

Environmental battles took shape within and around the cities, as victims of these ‘nuisances’ tried to stop, or win compensation, for the harm done them. For many decades they lost more than they won.

trainAs industrialisation and urbanisation spread, so did intense pollution of water and air. Cities dependent on high-sulphur coal and those situated so as to experience frequent temperature inversions (trapping the air of the lower atmosphere) developed especially dangerous environments. Tens of millions of lives were shortened by urban air pollution after 1800, maybe more than a hundred million.

Veteran newspaper editors in Britain knew to leave extra space for obituaries when winds died down or fog settled on their city. The air in cities of north China today gives some idea of likely conditions a hundred years ago in Glasgow or St. Louis.18

After 1950, urban air and water pollution got worse and then got better. With the arrival of the motor car (1920s in the US, 1950s in Western Europe) as a routine middle-class possession, urban air acquired a new source of pollution. Tailpipes competed with smokestacks and chimneys in fouling the air, and introduced photochemical smog as a new ingredient in the toxic stew.

Where strong sunshine and millions of cars combined, as in Los Angeles, smog occasionally fooled residents into thinking they were under attack with chemical weapons. Meanwhile the rise of petrochemical industries added a new tang to the brew of polluted waters, and the rise of organic chemicals – often persistent in the environment for years or decades – further raised the risks to health and life in those landscapes within reach of industrial processes.

continue to: V. Environmentalism

                  VI. Conclusion

or return to index

12Figures from McNeill, Something New, 213.

13Philip Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (Cambridge, 1990)

14Lynn Nelson, Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880 (Athens GA, 2007); Reinaldo Funes Monzote, De bosque a sabana: azúcar, deforestación y medio embiente en Cuba, 1492-1926 (Mexico City, 2004); Warren Dean, With Broadaxe and Firebrand (Berkeley, 1995).

15John Crawfurd, Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China (Singapore, 1828) cited in Baas Terwiel, “The Physical Transformation of the Central Thai Region in Premodern Times.” In: Greg Bankoff and Peter Boomgaard, eds., A History of Natural Resource Use in Asia (London, 2007), 53-4. Chinese cities also imported raw cotton from India in the early 19th century.

16The most ecologically aware of the gold-mining histories is Andrew Isenberg, Mining California (New York, 2005). Equally aware, although not in a Pacific landscape, is George Vrtis’ study of the Colorado gold rush of 1859 in The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains: An Environmental History, 1700-1900 (Ph.D. dissertation, Georgetown University, 2005).

17B.W. Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain (London, 1994), 74-5.

18Chinese cities routinely dominate the World Health Organization’s lists of the world’s most polluted urban environments.

Date posted: 30/11/07


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