Ingenious, insightful, and disturbing.

GRAND TRANSITIONS

HOW THE MODERN WORLD WAS MADE

An intense exploration of the fundamental transformations that led to the modern world.

Historian Smil begins with population transitions before moving on to agriculture, energy, economics, and environments. All premodern societies had high birth and death rates and slow population growth. Improved food production in the 18th century and sanitary and medical advances reduced death rates, but birth rates remained high until entire societies felt secure. The result was a period of hyperbolic growth after World War II that peaked in the 1960s. Today, except for Pakistan, Yemen, Bolivia, and sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is low, and some nations, such as Japan and Russia, are shrinking. Though modern agriculture has become massively efficient, it depends far more on fossil fuel and chemicals than sunlight and rain. Smil maintains that the greatest economic impact on human life is the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine. By 1929, it provided 88% of America’s mechanical power. “Electrification,” writes the author, “has…been partially a transition within a transition (from direct uses to an indirect exploitation of fossil fuels)” and is “perhaps the most important of all transformative processes originating from technical innovations: ‘electric’ might be the single most important adjective used to describe the functioning of modern societies.” Readers will encounter the usual bad news about the environment—e.g., the burning of fossil fuels provided 91% of Earth’s energy in 1992; by 2017, it was…91%)—but Smil’s focus on facts and recent history situates him in a moderate position between catastrophists and those who tout a future of “general and unstoppable improvement.” The author mostly (but not entirely) avoids turgid academic prose, and he isn’t shy about delivering information, often overwhelming readers with facts, statistics, and analyses. The result is an expert portrait of spectacular technical and economic advances that many in the 21st century enjoy but which exclude large segments of the population and are creating problems that may or may not be solvable.

Ingenious, insightful, and disturbing.

Pub Date: March 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-19-006066-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

Did you like this book?

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES' HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Did you like this book?

more