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World history, environmental history, comparative history: is the couple center/periphery useful as an analytical category? An interview with John Robert McNeill

Lo scorso 21 settembre John Robert McNeill ha tenuto a Bologna una lezione magistrale sulla Storia mondiale dell’ambiente dal 1900. Svolta nell’ambito dell’iniziativa “Storia e ambiente”, la lezione era incentrata sul tema della crisi ecologica innescata dall’inquinamento: tema che McNeill aveva affrontato in Something new under the sun, il saggio che gli è valso nel 2000 il premio della World History Association.
Tradotto da Einaudi nel 2002, quel libro ha consolidato in Italia la notorietà di McNeill come grande specialista della Environmental History. Professore alla Georgetown University, da diversi anni McNeill alterna corsi sulla storia dell’ambiente con altri sulla International History e sulla World History.
McNeill ha esordito nel 1985 con The Atlantic Empires of France and Spain: Louisbourg and Havana (1700-1763): un’analisi della funzione strategica svolta dai due siti nell’ambito dell’Impero coloniale borbonico fino alla guerra dei sette anni. Nel 2003 è apparso The human web. A bird’s-eye view of world history, scritto assieme al padre William Hardy, fondatore e autorevole portavoce della disciplina, autore di numerosissimi saggi tra cui il celebre The Rise of the West (1964).
Nel 1992 The mountains of Mediterranean World ha segnato l’esordio di J.R. McNeill nella storia mondiale dell’ambiente.
Direttore assieme a Shepard Krech e a Carolyn Merchant della Encyclopaedia of world environmental history, pubblicata da Routledge nel 2004, J.R. McNeill è inoltre tra i curatori di opere collettive sulla storia americana (Atlantic American Societies: from Columbus through abolition, 1492-1888, ed. con A.L. Karras nel 1992) e sulla storia ambientale dell’area del Pacifico (Environmental history in the Pacific, 2001). È da poco uscito il collettaneo Soils and societies: perspectives from environmental history, diretto assieme a Verena Winiwarter.

During the 1960s and the 1970s the world historians has bitterly fought against the euro-centric approaches which had hitherto prevailed in the mainstream historiography. In the 1980s, indeed, the world history itself has seemed to search an analytical renewal. William H. McNeill has then proposed a perspective which focused upon categories such as freedom and hierarchy. What has changed in that period about the couple center-periphery as an analytical category of world history?

I suspect the main influence bringing center-periphery analysis into world history, among Anglophone scholars, was Immanuel Wallerstein whose work started coming out in the middle of the 1970s. It probably reached its maximum influence in the 1980s. I think William McNeill's vision of freedom and hierarchy and world frontiers has proven much, much less influential. Wallerstein's work has the appeal of theory, which W. McNeill's does not. Although Wallerstein's work is perhaps overly economistic, that is, it places undue emphasis on economic matters.

In 1964 W.H. McNeill published a fundamental work on The Rise of the West. In 2003 you published with him The human web, another work concernìng the question of western hegemony after the 15th century. At present, which are the main responses given by world historians to this question?

There are countless responses to the question of western hegemony after the XV. The two most interesting recent ones are those of Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence) who argues that there was no real western hegemony until 1750 or even 1850. He compares parts of China with parts of Europe, and also India, to show that standards of living were similar in all these places until 1800 or so. He has less to say about military power, for which I do not think his argument could apply. The second current response that is highly interesting is that of Jared Diamond, who argues that western hegemony is mainly environmentally determined, a result of the uneven distribution of potentially domesticable species (Guns, Germs, and Steel). It is an argument I find sensible as an explanation for Eurasian dominance in world history, but not for that of Europe and the West in recent centuries. Other authors prefer other emphases, such as institutions, unique demographic characteristics, greater freedom of information, etc. Of course none is satisfactory alone, and we have no rigorous way to decide which factors are more important than others. So there will never be any consensus on these matters.

Some Italian world historians have created a Center for comparative history (CISCOM). They have also substituted the category of the “unique time” with a method of comparative enquiry among the different periods during which different countries has reached the same degree of development. What are World History Association’s main opinions concerning the comparative approach?

I can't claim to speak for the World History Association, although I am a member of it. My impression, formed by attending WHA conferences and by reading the Journal of World History, is that comparative history is very much in vogue, especially cross-continental comparisons. Comparisons that cross time periods, let us say modern and ancient history, are less popular and one rarely sees them in the pages of the JWH or at WHA conferences.

In your work concerning The human web you demonstrate that the virtual pattern created by internet is to affirm itself as the dominant one of the 21st century. In your opinion, is internet actually going to reduce the gap between the centers and peripheries of the world? What about the digital divide?

I wrote a little about the digital divide in the latter pages of The Human Web. I regard it as important in 21st century affairs, and in general a source of expanding inequality. That might well change in the decades to come, if electrification, computers, and sufficient education reaches more people – which I think is probable. But it will take decades if indeed this does happen.

In 2003 you were appointed at the Cinco Hermanos chair of Environmental and International Affairs, which concerns fields of enquiry such as main ecological matters of the modern history. Also in Italy environmental history is growing as an academic discipline. How much has this discipline increased in American Universities? Which are the most studied subjects by American environmental historians? And what are their attitudes towards the lobbies that influence U.S. conduct in international affairs such as the Kyoto accord?

I had to surrender the Cinco Hermanos chair in September, because I have been appointed University Professor, but I of course remain no less interested in environmental history. In the US environmental history is a rapidly growing specialization. There are more than 1,000 members of the American Society for Environmental History. The ASEH has a youthful membership; at age 52 I am one of the elders. Not all these people are trained as historians, although they all have historical interests. I would guess that about half are, formally speaking, historians. The rest are geographers, anthropologists, archeologists, ecologists, lawyers, and so forth. As for subjects, there is endless variety. The most popular themes concern U.S. history: wilderness, parks, cultural 'construction' of nature, environmentalism and environmental regulation. Lastly, the great majority of ASEH members and environmental historians generally are fairly 'green' in their politics and unhappy with the current administration's environmental policies, and with most of the lobbies that influence environmental policy. I include myself in that.

You have cultivated for several years, both as professor and historian, international history and environmental history at the same time. In your opinion, how much is the category of state involved with the historical approach to the ecological phenomena?

I took part at last year's ASEH conference in a panel devoted to this question. My view is that for some kinds of environmental history, such as climate change, the nation and state are very insignificant factors. For others, such as the history of whaling regulation, the state is a crucial matter. In general, I see three main types of environmental history: material, cultural/intellectual, and political. For the last category the state is normally very important; for the first, often unimportant (but not always so). The only reliable conclusions is: it all depends on the specific topic one has in mind.

Your work Something new under the sun concerns the ecological crisis which is menacing our planet as a consequence of the 20th-century productive strategies. In your opinion, how useful is the analytical couple center-periphery in order to estimate the historical features of the crisis? In other words, is the ‘traditional’ opposition between the industrialised areas and the underdeveloped ones to be absolutely replaced by the global perspective?

I did not do much with centre/periphery analysis in that book, at least not formally. But I think one could present modern environmental history as a reflection of center/periphery, or perhaps better expressed, urban-industrial vs. rural regions. To date, this way of presenting things has not had much appeal to environmental historians; I think environmental sociologists find it more useful. As for the global perspective, I think many environmental issues require a global perspective (e,.g. climate change), but that does not mean there is no room within that for center/periphery analysis. My general sense is that since the onset of industrialization some 200 years ago, the world economy and its ecology have been re-ordered with a few real centers of industrial production, economic power, and acute pollution; and a growing periphery of mines and plantations with a different order of ecological effects. That is to say, the organization of ecological center/periphery relations I think is more apparent in the industrial age than before. But I also suspect this particular format of ecological organization is eroding in the present day because of the declining importance of industrial production, which is drifting to peripheral areas and away from the economic centers.