history

Book review – The Science of Middle-Earth: A New Understanding of Tolkien and His World

7-minute read

I will make no secret of my love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Equally, I am always entertained by books looking at the science behind fictional worlds depicted in books, movies, and TV series. The Science of Middle Earth is a remarkable undertaking, with three editors bringing together contributions on a wide range of topics, from humanities such as sociology and philosophy, to natural sciences such as geomorphology, chemistry, and evolutionary biology. Tying it together are Arnaud Rafaelian’s beautiful drawings that immediately draw your attention. Both a serious appreciation of Tolkien’s world and an entertaining work of popular science, this book hit the sweet spot.

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Book review – The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies

7-minute read

Normally the sight of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines fills me with hope, but I have my doubts after reading this book. Many politicians, business leaders, and environmental organisations argue that we need to invest in renewables to transition away from fossil fuels and the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. What is rarely mentioned is that these technologies require the mining of rare metals: chemical elements such as rhenium, lithium, antimony, neodymium, tantalum, and many others that most people have barely heard of. In The Rare Metals War, French investigative journalist Guillaume Pitron sounds the alarm, showing both the environmental impact and China’s chokehold on the market.

I read this book in tandem with David S. Abraham’s slightly older The Elements of Power which I had been meaning to read for ages. Thus, this is the second of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

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Book review – The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis

8-minute read

This review is a case of one book leading to another. When I read Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trap, one argument he raised as to why the Industrial Revolution arrived as late as it did, was the resistance to innovation by guilds. But beyond certain vague and probably romantic notions, what do I really know about medieval guilds? And thus I found myself sitting down with The European Guilds, a hefty 645-page book by economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie, published in The Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. This meticulously argued book crushes the idea that guilds served the common good. Instead, argues Ogilvie, through their profiteering they held Europe in an economic stranglehold that lasted for centuries.

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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 – 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 – Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment

9-minute read

The best way to introduce this book is to quote the first sentence of the blurb: “Techno-Fix challenges the pervasive belief that technological innovation will save us from the dire consequences of the 300-year fossil-fuelled binge known as modern industrial civilization“. Stinging, provocative, and radical, Techno-Fix puts its fingers on many a sore spot with its searing critique.

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Book review – Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World

7-minute read

There is a vast, arterial power humming all around us, hiding in plain sight” (p. 320). With these words, geographer Laurence C. Smith concludes his engaging and impressive book on the environmental history of rivers. Touching on a multitude of topics, some of which I did not even know I cared about, I found my jaw dropping more than once.

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Book review – The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future

6-minute read

We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction.” (p. 2)

There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!

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Book review – Science in Black and White: How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide

6-minute read

Some time after I reviewed Angela Saini’s book Superior, I was contacted by medical anthropologist and science writer Alondra Oubré, offering me the opportunity to review her new book. The overall aim of Science in Black and White might be the same – the debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist thinking – but Oubré shows there is more than one approach to get there.

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