Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

Cataclysms

Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity, written by Laurent Testot, published by The University of Chicago Press in November 2020 (hardback, 452 pages)

To be frank, Testot deals with the first 2,988,000 years in the first two chapters. Understandably, as the pace of progress was initially slow, and comparatively little information is available to us from the palaeontological and archaeological records. Thus, he starts his history proper with the agricultural revolution ~12,000 years ago. Given the synthesizing nature of this book, Cataclysms will be a feast of recognition for readers that are familiar with the literature.

Some examples include the near-simultaneous rise of agriculture in several places, with geography playing an important role in which plants and animals were available to domesticate, or the fall of the Late-Bronze Age civilizations in the 12th century BCE. The myth of virgin rainforests and the long history of agriculture practised in the jungle. The microbiological onslaught that accompanied the Columbian exchange when Christopher Columbus and other explorers brought new epidemics to the Americas, or the scourge of mosquito-borne diseases that later decimated European colonialists overseas. The medieval Little Ice Age and the global crises it precipitated, or the worldwide impact of the Tambora volcanic eruption. The Great Acceleration in the 20th century and the recognition of the Anthropocene. All of these have been chronicled at length in books and other publications.

“Given the synthesizing nature of this book, Cataclysms will be a feast of recognition for readers that are familiar with the literature.”

Testot also mentions episodes that I was barely familiar with; partially, I suspect, because he can draw on the French history literature. For example the eruption of the Samalas volcano that seems to have served as a transition between the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. Or the 15th-century mining for silver in the Andes and the immense pollution that caused. Or the environmental roots of the expression “mad as a hatter” (it involves the 17th-century beaver trade). Cataclysms sometimes seems to forget it is an environmental history book. Thus, the environment takes a backseat when he describes the Axial Age, the period between 800-300 BCE that saw the birth of universal religions and philosophies in both Asia and Europe that are still with us today. Similarly, the chapter charting the rise of money, empires, and trade in Europe and Asia before the Common Era only at the very end examines the environmental impact of it all.

The book’s style might divide opinions. Testot throws all his eggs in the proverbial narrative basket. The book is clearly deeply researched, but the notes section at the end encompasses a mere 16 pages. Testot must have decided that supporting every claim and fact with a footnote would have distracted from the story he tells. Although the references contain many interesting books and publications, those wishing to check up on certain claims will have to do their own research. Furthermore, the book is strikingly devoid of photos, maps, graphs, and tables, bar a single chart of the human world population through time in the appendix. As such, I felt Cataclysms did not deliver on the dustjacket’s promise of providing “the full tally” the way e.g. Vaclav Smil did in Harvesting the Biosphere. Those wanting a more data-driven overview will probably want to check out Cataclysms‘s big contender for 2020, Daniel R. Headrick’s Humans versus Nature. I had the chance to rifle through a copy, though not yet read it in full. At 604 pages with a 100-page notes section (and some illustrations), it promises to be a denser read.

“[The book] will undoubtedly charm newcomers to the field with its narrative style and ambitious scope […] but I suspect that seasoned readers will crave something more dense and data-heavy.”

Testot’s outlook for the future is bleak, though his concluding chapter wanders somewhat aimlessly. Rather than offering an overview of which planetary boundaries we have breached and how far in overshoot we are, Testot focuses on what he calls the upcoming Evolutive Revolution before turning to some likely consequences of climate change. This final revolution could either pan out as the pipe-dream of transhumanism where nano-, bio-, and information technologies converge into the singularity that would make humans immortal / obsolete as Artificial Intelligence takes over (something Testot is critical of), or we may end up as mutants in the chemical cesspit that we are making of our planet. Throw in a conclusion and an epilogue to the English edition that both reiterate main points from the book, and it starts to feel a little bit like Tolkien’s struggle to let the reader go in the last book of The Lord of the Rings.

Environmental history has become a rather crowded subject and opinions will probably be divided on whether Cataclysms stands out from the crowd sufficiently. It will undoubtedly charm newcomers to the field with its narrative style and ambitious scope – Testot knows how to spin a fine yarn and provides an entry point to many fascinating chapters in world history that readers will want to explore further. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but I suspect that seasoned readers will crave something more dense and data-heavy.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Cataclysms

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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