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J. R. McNeill
John Robert McNeill

(1954-10-06) October 6, 1954 (age 69)
Alma mater Swarthmore College
Duke University
Notable work
Something New Under the Sun (2000)
Parent(s) William H. McNeill
Awards Heineken Prize (2018)
Scientific career
Institutions Georgetown University

John Robert McNeill (born October 6, 1954) is an American environmental historian, author, and professor at Georgetown University. He is best known for "pioneering the study of environmental history". In 2000 he published Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, which argues that human activity during the 20th century led to environmental changes on an unprecedented scale, primarily due to the energy system built around fossil fuels.

Life and career

McNeill was born on October 6, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois. His father was the noted University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill, with whom he published a book, The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History, in 2003. He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

McNeill received his BA from Swarthmore College in 1975, then went on to Duke University where he completed his MA in 1977 and his PhD in 1981.

In 1985 he became a faculty member at Georgetown University, where he serves in both the History Department and the Walsh School of Foreign Service. From 2003 he held the Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environmental History and International Affairs, until he was appointed a University Professor in 2006. He has written 7 books and edited or co-edited 17. He has held two Fulbright Awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, a MacArthur Grant, and a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He was president of the American Society for Environmental History (2011–13) and headed the Research Division of the American Historical Association, as one of its three Vice Presidents (2012–15). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017, awarded the Heineken Prize in History in 2018, and served as president of the American Historical Association in 2019.


McNeill focuses on environmental history, a field in which he has been recognized as a pioneer. In 2000, he published his best-known book, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, which argues that human activity during the 20th century led to environmental change on an unprecedented scale. He notes that before 1900, human activity did change environments, but not on the scale witnessed in the 20th century. His analysis of the reasons behind the scale of modern environmental change foregrounds fossil fuels, population growth, technological changes, and the pressures of international politics. His tone has been praised for being dispassionate, impartial, and lacking the moral outrage that often accompanies books about the environment.

In 2010, he published Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914, where he argues that ecological changes brought by a transition to a sugar plantation economy increased the scope for mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever and malaria, and that "differential resistance" between local and European populations shaped the arc of Caribbean history. Specifically, he says that it helps explain how Spain was able to protect its Caribbean colonies from its European rivals for so long and also why imperial Spain, France, and Britain ultimately lost their mainland empires in revolutionary wars in the Americas late 18th and early 19th centuries. The book won the Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association, a PROSE award from the Association of American Publishers, and was listed by the Wall Street Journal among the best books in early American history.

In 2016 McNeill and co-author Peter Engelke published The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945. The "Great Acceleration" of the title refers to the initial decades of the Anthropocene, which is a proposed era of greater human interference in the Earth's ecology. McNeill has also written a world history textbook, The Webs of Humankind (2020). He is working on an environmental history of the Industrial Revolution.

Awards and honors

  • 2001: World History Association Book Prize, Something New Under The Sun
  • 2001: Forest Society Book Prize, Something New Under The Sun
  • 2010: Toynbee Prize, for "academic and public contributions to humanity"
  • 2010: AHA Beveridge Award, Mosquito Empires
  • 2010: Association of American Publishers PROSE award for European & World History, Mosquito Empires
  • 2014 World History Association, Pioneer in World History Award
  • 2017: elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2018: Dr A.H. Heineken Prize, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 2019 American Society for Environmental History, Distinguished Scholar Award
  • 2021 elected to the Academia Europaea
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