On March 10, 2020, Southwestern University’s History Department will welcome John R. McNeill, renowned scholar of global environmental history, as the featured guest during its annual History Colloquium. University Professor at the School of Foreign Service and the Department of History at Georgetown University, McNeill will deliver a public lecture on his latest book project, “A Global Environmental History of the Industrial Revolution.” The book traces the ecological effects of the dramatic increase in the extraction and transportation of the ores, fibers, lubricants, and other materials necessary for industrial production from 1780 to 1914. Although others have examined these changes at the local, regional, and national levels, to date, no single volume has attempted to grapple with the implications of these new patterns of land use on a global scale. 

This year’s event is being organized by Joseph Hower, an assistant professor of history at Southwestern who specializes in the history of labor, politics, and civil rights in the U.S. He shares that although the choice of the colloquium’s guest speaker is usually keyed to the faculty organizer’s individual research interests, the History Department has been hoping to host McNeill—a former president of the American Historical Association, the largest and oldest organization for historians in the country—for years. “We’re really quite grateful,” Hower says, “and [McNeill’s research] matches so well with other things the University does and cares about, touching on topics that are matters of concern and weight. It’s something we are really excited about.”

In addition to previewing parts of his forthcoming book, McNeill will discuss some of the challenges and choices that come with embarking on this kind of scholarship—a different kind of historical work from what many Southwestern history students might be familiar with. McNeill’s approach, Hower explains, “is fundamentally different: it exists outside of what we think of as the usual—predominantly textual or oral—sources of history that we normally work with, so it’s really interesting.” That is, historians often rely on evidence from primary documents (e.g., letters, diaries, and photographs), artifacts (e.g., clothing, weapons, and tools), secondary sources (e.g., biographies and scholarly papers), and oral histories (i.e., stories and memories that have been passed down through generations or recorded for posterity). McNeill’s research relies on these more traditional sources, but it also entails finding and interpreting scientific measurements of the physical manifestations of industrialization, such as the chemical composition of the soil, the width and color of tree rings, and the concentration of methane or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even more challenging, McNeill is synthesizing such empirical data on a global scale. “In the colloquium,” Hower reflects, “we’re encouraging students to ask and think about the challenges that come with doing different types of history.”

Hower also hopes to engage McNeill about his work with the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of the Geological Sciences (IUGS), an interdisciplinary organization of 121 member nations and more than one million geoscientists who are investigating whether geologists should recognize the Anthropocene as a new and distinctive era in the history of the Earth. Since the turn of the millennium, many experts have argued that humans have so significantly changed the planet—through urbanization, industrialization, and overconsumption of natural resources—that the current epoch should be called the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans. McNeill’s historical insights will help the IUGS working group make its recommendations. Southwestern audiences are likely to be interested in how the historian’s scholarship fuses multiple disciplines—from history, ecology, and environmental science to urban studies, geology, and economics—but also how McNeill translates his scholarly research for the public. “He writes for broader audiences, but that’s what’s unusual for a historian: it involves all kinds of interesting questions about what counts as evidence and what counts as certainty,” Hower says.

About the speaker

McNeill earned his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University. Since 1985, he has world history, environmental history, and international history at Georgetown University, where he served as the Cinco Hermano Chair in Environmental and International Affairs at Georgetown University from 2003 to 2006. He has also held visiting appointments at the University of Oslo, L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France, and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. A Fulbright, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Wilson scholar, McNeill is the author of six books and more than 130 articles and book chapters as well as the editor of 12 volumes. His most recent book is The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Harvard, 2016; coauthored by Peter Engelke). His other recent books include Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World (Norton, 2000) and Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Event details

Date: Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Time: 4:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Locations: Mood–Bridwell Atrium
Sponsors: History Department, with support from the Global Citizens Fund

This lecture is free and open to the public.

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