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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Contamination of the Earth A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age

By: François Jarrige(Author), Thomas Le Roux(Author), Janice Egan(Translated by), Michael Egan(Translated by)
459 pages, 27 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
From the toxic waste of early tanneries to the poisonous effects of pesticides in the twentieth century, this book charts the trajectories of pollution in relation to global capitalism.
The Contamination of the Earth
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  • The Contamination of the Earth ISBN: 9780262542739 Paperback Nov 2021 In stock
Price: £17.99
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About this book

Through the centuries, the march of economic progress has been accompanied by the spread of industrial pollution. As our capacities for production and our aptitude for consumption have increased, so have their byproducts – chemical contamination from fertilizers and pesticides, diesel emissions, oil spills, a vast "plastic continent" found floating in the ocean. The Contamination of the Earth offers a social and political history of industrial pollution, mapping its trajectories over three centuries, from the toxic wastes of early tanneries to the fossil fuel energy regime of the twentieth century.

The authors describe how, from 1750 onward, in contrast to the early modern period, polluted water and air came to be seen as inevitable side effects of industrialization, which was universally regarded as beneficial. By the nineteenth century, pollutants became constituent elements of modernity. The authors trace the evolution of these various pollutions, and describe the ways in which they were simultaneously denounced and permitted. The twentieth century saw new and massive scales of pollution: chemicals that resisted biodegradation, including napalm and other defoliants used as weapons of war; the ascendancy of oil; and a lifestyle defined by consumption. In the 1970s, pollution became a political issue, but efforts – local, national, and global – to regulate it often fell short. Viewing the history of pollution though a political lens, the authors also offer lessons for the future of the industrial world.

This book was originally published in French in 2017 as La Contamination du Monde: Une Histoire des Pollutions à l'Âge Industriel.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A sprawling and information-dense environmental history book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 2 Dec 2021 Written for Paperback

    The Industrial Revolution has been a mixed blessing. Although it improved living standards and brought material prosperity to many, humanity and the environment have paid a high price, not least in the form of pollution. The Contamination of the Earth catalogues the many forms of past pollution but also examines the social and political aspects of it. In other words, how people were affected by it and responded to it, and how legislation and politics allowed it to happen, to persist, and to only grow with time. This sprawling and information-dense environmental history work does full justice to this large and serious topic, but be prepared for a read that is neither light nor uplifting.

    This book was originally written in French by historians François Jarrige and Thomas le Roux. MIT Press publishes the English translation by husband-and-wife duo Janice and Michael Egan. In his foreword, the latter mentions their decision to adhere to the French plural "pollutions" throughout the book to stress the many forms they take and the many origins they have. To an English audience, some writing might come across as rather convoluted and descriptive. To me, this suggests that the translation never strays far from the original, capturing that certain je ne sais quoi of the French language.

    In my reading, this book presents two faces to its reader. The first is already implied by the subtitle: a historical overview of pollutions during the industrial age. Though not encyclopaedic, it gives a very good feel for the sometimes literally breathtaking diversity of pollutions, especially the many now-forgotten ones. It serves as a healthy corrective to the idea that the past was a green and pleasant land, describing the pollutions from early factories and the environmental legacy of the early mining industry in South America. The story of the Industrial Revolution is normally one of coal, steel, and steam engines, but also saw the rise of a chemical industry that used increasingly toxic heavy metals and concentrated acids to refine ingredients and produce a wide array of everyday objects. Petroleum gave us motorised transport and the 20th century added plastics, nuclear waste, new pesticides, the Green Revolution, planned obsolescence, and, from the 1950s onwards, the Great Acceleration.

    Several noteworthy themes emerge from this catalogue of waste. Despite their promises, many technologies only add more forms of pollution rather than displacing old ones – we burn more coal than ever. Technological inventions reduce pollutions and increase efficiency, but the rebound effect means we inevitably consume and pollute more. Ore grades have declined, meaning we need to mine and refine more of it for the same quantity of metals, while metal consumption has increased, multiplying pollutions dramatically. Finally, some processes result in many more pollutions than is first apparent. Good examples from this book are wars (add mobilization and larger-post war industries to the immediate destruction) and cars (add production, maintenance, disposal, and infrastructure to tailpipe emissions).

    However, the real value of this book, and the one I think will be much appreciated by historians and other scholars, is the second face this book presents: the social and political history. Through numerous examples, Jarrige and Le Roux show that "between fatalism, resignation, complaints, and insurrections, pollutions were hardly accepted in tacit silence" (p. 143), and this is true throughout the history of industry. These concerns were expressed as much by the well-heeled as by the labourers on the factory floors. Simultaneously, some developments, such as electricity and industries setting up shop overseas, have created a divide between consumers and producers, rendering "almost imperceptible to the public the increase in emissions of toxic substances in the environment" (p. 237), at least in developed nations.

    What I found particularly enlightening is how the authors show that today's failed attempts at curbing and regulating pollution have a long history. This takes you through some bizarre episodes such as the French hygienist movement that "was unmistakably a form of industrialism" (p. 119) and turned to chemistry to e.g. praise the antiseptic and health benefits of polluting fumes. Despite the different laws in Anglo-American and European countries, the outcome was the same: fines and financial settlements that just became another line on company budgets. It shows the long history of industries denying and obfuscating evidence of pollutions and sock-puppet scientists willing to sow doubt. How industry experts have dominated the conversation around solving pollutions, promoting recycling, dilution (think smokestacks), and the hollow promise of technofixes, but never questioning production itself. And how politicians, influenced by generations of industry lobbies and economic theories, have shown remain committed to economic growth, treating pollutions as an acceptable price.

    The historical survey ends in 1973, just as the environmental movement gathered pace. The developments since then would require a separate book, though an extensive epilogue takes a first stab at this. As we know, what looked like a turn for the better was but a diversion. The same forces and dynamics outlined throughout the book are still at work, with techno-optimism and economic prosperity dominating the narrative and marginalizing the few voices who argue otherwise. Of note, they criticize the birth of the "paralyzing oxymoron" of sustainable development: "A propaganda tool for companies engaged in greenwashing [that] resembles more and more an empty promise used to maintain the status quo" (p. 297-98). And they highlight how globalization, supported by the shipping industry, has allowed developed nations to smugly clean up their act at home by offshoring polluting forms of extraction and production to other continents. "The problem of environmental injustice has been renewed on a global scale" (p. 310), effectively reaching its logical endpoint.

    The 80+ pages of notes give an entry point to a huge field of literature, French and otherwise. Only one factor that has contributed to the continued increase in pollutions seem to be missing to me: that of shifting baselines, the idea that each generation takes the state of their environment as the new normal, leading to a form of generational amnesia. This, of course, highlights exactly why this book is worth your time. Overall, The Contamination of the Earth is an ambitious book that offers a global overview of the history of industrial pollution. I found that reading it weighed on my mind, but I take that as a good sign: if a book on industrial pollution does not cause you some anxiety it is not doing its job properly.
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François Jarrige is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Burgundy's Georges Chevrier Centre. Thomas Le Roux is a tenured Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at the Centre for Historical Research in the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (CRH-EHESS) in Paris. Michael Egan is Associate Professor of History at McMaster University and Director of the Sustainable Future History Project.

By: François Jarrige(Author), Thomas Le Roux(Author), Janice Egan(Translated by), Michael Egan(Translated by)
459 pages, 27 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
From the toxic waste of early tanneries to the poisonous effects of pesticides in the twentieth century, this book charts the trajectories of pollution in relation to global capitalism.
Media reviews

"Scholarly rather than polemical and of interest to students of environmental and economic history."
Kirkus Reviews

"How well do we need to understand industrial pollution and the public health sacrifices that are made by allowing it to continue before we stop it? Francois Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux broach that question in this superb history. With Contamination of the Earth they challenge once again the Faustian bargain humanity is making with 'progress.'"
– Mark Dowie, investigative historian and Lecturer Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century

"Jarrige and Le Roux's magisterial global history of pollutions delivers on its promise. Spanning time, geography, and industry, their account synthesizes a vast historical archive with a sharp focus on the political and economic factors that explain how, why, and where global environmental contamination developed."
– Julie Sze,  University of California, Davis, and author of Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

"The Contamination of the Earth is an essential corrective to how pollution(s) – fittingly pluralized – have been studied age by age, case by case, sector by sector. Few have attempted such a sweeping synthesis of pollutions' myriad drivers and consequences."
– Rebecca Gasior Altman, writer and environmental sociologist

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