environmental history

Book review – When the Sahara Was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be

7-minute read

When seeing the world through a deep-time lens, no landscape feature is permanent. The Sahara, for example, “only” came into existence some 7 million years ago. In that time, it has not always been the parched desert it is now but has been green and verdant numerous times, crisscrossed by rivers and home to hippos, turtles, fish and other animals and plants typical of wetter climes. In this book, retired earth scientist Martin Williams draws on a long lifetime of research and desert expeditions to give a very accessible introduction to the surprisingly complex geography of the Sahara, answering some very basic questions.

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Book review – The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

8-minute read

Fire can be considered one of our oldest tools, long used to shape whole landscapes. But our burning of fossil fuels presents a clear break from what has come before. Riffing on the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne calls ours the Pyrocene: an age of fire. Drawing on a long career writing about and working with fire, The Pyrocene is a short book that overflows with interesting ideas.

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Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature

7-minute read

Whenever war breaks out, our concern is understandably first and foremost with the human casualties. The tremendous environmental toll tends to take a backseat. However, environmental destruction can and has long been an effective military strategy. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike surveys four centuries of environmental warfare around the globe to show it is neither uniquely Western nor the unwanted love child of modern science and technology.

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Year list – The Inquisitive Biologist’s top 5 reads of 2021

3-minute read

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing pandemic, 2021 was a phenomenal year for publishing. Though I did not get to nearly as many books as I would have liked, I read and reviewed 67 books this year. 

What follows is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2021.

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – The Contamination of the Earth: A History of Pollutions in the Industrial Age

8-minute read

The Industrial Revolution has been a mixed blessing. Although it improved living standards and brought material prosperity to many, humanity and the environment have paid a high price, not least in the form of pollution. The Contamination of the Earth catalogues the many forms of past pollution but also examines the social and political aspects of it. In other words, how people were affected by it and responded to it, and how legislation and politics allowed it to happen, to persist, and to only grow with time. This sprawling and information-dense environmental history work does full justice to this large and serious topic, but be prepared for a read that is neither light nor uplifting.

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Book review – The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

7-minute read

Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.

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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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