The complexity of modern civilization is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It has brought great advances in human health and well-being, yet a full understanding of the sum-total of our knowledge of how the world works is now far beyond any single person. Consequently, getting people to agree on how to tackle complex problems becomes this much harder. In How The World Really Works, energy expert and policy analyst Vaclav Smil provides the big picture of the material and energetic basis undergirding human civilization, and what this means for attempts at addressing climate change. Rich in eye-opening facts and not a little bit opinionated, this is a much-needed reality check that purposefully avoids extreme views of both the techno-optimist and catastrophist kind.
8-minute read keywords: environmental history, fire
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.
Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard—with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.
Not two weeks before I started reading this book, our neighbourhood was hit by a short power cut. It was a potent reminder of how we take electricity for granted and are utterly dependent on it. Author and journalist Robert Bryce has been writing about electricity and power for the last 30 years, publishing numerous articles and several books, and hosting the Power Hungry podcast. A Question of Power is part-history of electrification, part-reportage on current patterns of global electricity consumption, and part-outlook on the future of electricity generation, with Bryce coming out against renewables and in favour of nuclear energy. This proved to be a thought-provoking book and I disagree with some of his ideas, though not for the reasons you might think.
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.
Deep time is one of the most mind-boggling yet underappreciated concepts to come out of the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the earth sciences. As an editor with Nature for over three decades, Henry Gee has had a front-row seat to numerous exciting scientific developments that have enriched our understanding of Earth’s vast 4.6-billion-year history. This high-octane popular science book is his take on the genre of the “earth biography”.
From the food we eat and the fuel we burn to the materials that make up our everyday objects—we live in a material world. The traders who get these commodities from producers to consumers are key players in the world economy, yet also some of the most secretive and least scrutinised. Javier Blas and Jack Farchy are two journalists who report on energy and natural resources for Bloomberg News. In The World for Sale, they rip the veil off this sector, exposing the often dubious and amoral ways in which some trading houses have amassed staggering fortunes. I expect that this eye-popping exposé, which sometimes reads more like a crime novel, will be warmly welcomed by both seasoned readers of business books and inquisitive passers-by.
Writing a book about climate change is challenging due to the scale and many facets of the problem. With Our Biggest Experiment, climate campaigner, writer, and lecturer in science communication Alice Bell delivers a large book that tightly focuses on the history of both climate change research and our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. Driven largely by her curiosity about the people behind the data on climate change, this well-structured and easily readable book is full of remarkable stories. Bell excels in drawing your attention to the individual strands that make up the complex texture and weave of this huge history. As such, this is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the backstory of how we arrived at our current predicament.
Marine biologist Helen Scales returns for her third book with Bloomsbury’s popular science imprint Bloomsbury Sigma. After shells and fish, she now drags the reader down into the darkest depths of the deep sea. Both a beautifully written exploration of the ocean’s otherworldly wonders and a searing exposé of the many threats they face, The Brilliant Abyss is Scales’s most strident book to date.
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.