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Book review – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

7-minute read

I will happily shoehorn a Monty Python reference into any conversation, but in this case historian Walter Scheidel beat me to it. What did the Roman Empire ever do for us? It fell and never returned – and with it, it paved the way for modernity. That, in one sentence, is the bold idea Scheidel puts forth here. And rather than ask why Rome fell, he has far more interesting questions for you. Why did nothing like it arise ever again in Europe? Why did it arise in the first place? And how did this influence the way Europe came to dominate the world much later? Escape from Rome is a brilliantly subversive book that offers a refreshingly novel look at how Europe got to where it is now.

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Book review – Earth Wars: The Battle for Global Resources

7-minute read

When it comes to environmental issues, certain topics steal the limelight, with climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss being prominent examples. However, humans have only so much time and energy available, meaning that other, potentially more pressing problems might not get the attention they deserve. Resource depletion, specifically all the materials we dig up from the Earth’s crust, has always struck me as one of them. It is easy to underestimate just how thoroughly dependent modern civilization is on a vast range of very basic substances. As we continue to extract these at ever-accelerating rates, competition and conflict seem inevitable. Guessing by the title of this book, Australian business journalist Geoff Hiscock seems to think so too. Yet this book was not quite what I was expecting.

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Book review – The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945

7-minute read

Something happened to the world sometime after 1945. Something that included the end of World War II and post-war recovery, but was far more fundamental than that.

Humanity went into overdrive.

In my reading on the Anthropocene, this book and this phrase keep cropping up. The Great Acceleration gives a bird’s-eye view of the environmental history of our world since the 1950s. A period when multiple factors – technological, medical, and demographical – converged to propel the human species onto a trajectory of unprecedented growth.

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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.

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Book review – A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

8-minute read

The legendary British broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough needs almost no introduction. From his first appearance on our television screens in 1954, he has gone on to a long and distinguished career presenting and narrating groundbreaking nature documentaries. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His voice and style have become so iconic that he has been dubbed the voice of nature. Over the years, he has increasingly expressed concern over the state of the natural world, and in A Life on Our Planet Attenborough fully engages with this topic. However, when you turn to the title page you will notice the name of a co-author, Jonnie Hughes, who directed the Netflix documentary tying in with this book. As Attenborough explains in his acknowledgements, Hughes has been particularly instrumental in the writing of the third part of the book, together with substantial assistance of the Science Team at WWF. This is Attenborough’s witness statement, yes, but whose vision of the future is it?

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Book review – Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

6-minute read

One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.

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Book review – Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

8-minute read

Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.

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Book review – More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – And What Happens Next

8-minute read

More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.

I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.

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Book review – Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything

Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.

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Book review – The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them

Judging by the title of this book, you might expect it to talk of 25 remarkable kinds of rocks and minerals. But in the preface, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero makes clear that his book looks as much at famous outcrops and geological phenomena. Bringing together 25 readable and short chapters, he gives a wide-ranging tour through the history of geology, celebrating the many researchers who contributed to this discipline.

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