The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age is part of the History for a Sustainable Future series, edited by Michael Egan. Translated from French, the book offers a social and political history of industrial pollution, mapping out its trajectory over three centuries. As an environmental history, the book brings together the research of modern history with government documents and scientific studies to demonstrate the growth of pollution throughout the modern age. It stretches further than an analysis of the Industrial Revolution to include the impacts of imperialism and the world wars. It also reaches beyond the West to provide a more global analysis and traces, with precision, the treatment of pollutants from the early modern age to the 1970s. The analysis includes both rural and urban treatment of pollutants, making it a comprehensive history on the topic.
Jarrige and Le Roux provide an analysis of industrialization and liberalization of environments that began in the 1700s, taking us through to the “Toxic Age” of 1914–1973. The work concludes in the 1970s, on the basis that the geographic and neoliberal distribution of the production system from that period onward deserves a volume of its own to do it justice. The authors discuss such important topics as the industrial wars, a high energy-consuming world, mass consumption, and the politics of mass contamination. They argue that, while pollutions are frequently regarded as a recent problem or one that began with industrialization, they have been a historical constant. The authors acknowledge, however, that the reach, scale, and severity of pollutants have achieved unprecedented levels with the advent of the industrial age. Pollutions have become one of the principal concerns of our time; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that millions of people die annually as a result of air pollution. The book also discusses how plastic has become the “seventh continent” and “our bodies have become unwitting consumers of contamination” due the use of digital products.
In the chapter “Sketches: An Ancien Régime of Pollution,” Jarrige and Le Roux compare the modern age, beginning in the eighteenth century, to the preindustrial period. They note that, historically, pollutants were largely restricted to areas in close proximity to their source, in both urban and rural areas. Citizens were reluctant to live in industrial areas because of odors, fumes, and contaminated waters. Such problems were dealt with largely through nuisance laws that privileged health over economic development. New forms of pollution began to appear as manufacturing and urbanization grew. The nineteenth century brought the pressure of economic development, and as attitudes changed, they argue, so did policies. They maintain that “the only option was for the great industrial transformation: in a period of revolutions, legal and political evolutions rendered pollution acceptable, and even desirable” (62). This framing provides a more contextual analysis than previous works on this topic.
The authors effectively make the case that mining expanded substantially during the second half of the eighteenth century. “Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico dominated the world’s silver market, while Brazil produced 80 percent of the world’s gold extraction” (39). As part of the nineteenth-century focus on progress, industrializing nations welcomed polluting industries. During the period, industrialization was a symbol of wealth, prosperity, and the rise of a nation’s importance in the world. Common law was largely ineffective at imposing control. Nevertheless, pollutants diminished in some place as industry began to move to more suitable locations. This movement was made possible by the revolutions in rail and maritime transport. Not unlike in the contemporary age, leaders hoped that technical solutions would solve the problem of pollution. In reality, the legacy of that century is that it was a period that “accelerated and exacerbated the rebound effects and further dispersal of pollution” (176).
Jarrige and Le Roux also discuss the important topic of “Industrial Wars and Pollution.” They note that “in war, environmental protection and public health were relegated to the background as the theatre of combat—and its imperatives—took centre stage” (185). They describe how “the Great War was the first highly polluting energy and chemical conflict. The war propelled oil production from 40 million metric tons in 1910 to 100 million metric tons in 1921, while Royal Dutch Shell’s dividends multiplied fourfold between 1914 and 1919” (187). The demand for oil forced the major powers to increase their influence over the resources of the Middle East.
Ultimately, The Contamination of the Earth adds to the expanding debate about our global ecological crisis and our awareness of the influence that politics and economics have over that crisis. The book demonstrates that the history of pollution should be viewed at least partially through political and economic lenses. Thus, the work offers many lessons for the coming decades in which government policies on greenhouse gases, in particular, will be critically important to the fate of humanity. Jarrige and Le Roux remind us that “pollution is above all a social and political fact, that relies on the ideas of progress that must be discussed at the time of mass contaminations” (331).