India

Book review – How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

8-minute read

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.

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Book review – Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green

8-minute read

The problems created by humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels are widely appreciated, and governments and businesses are now pursuing renewable energy and electric vehicles as the solution. Less appreciated is that this new infrastructure will require the mining of vast amounts of metals, creating different problems. In Volt Rush, Financial Times journalist Henry Sanderson gives a well-rounded and thought-provoking exposé of the companies and characters behind the supply chain of foremost the batteries that will power the vehicles of the future. If you think a greener and cleaner world awaits us, Volt Rush makes it clear that this is far from a given.

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Book review – The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe

8-minute read

The medieval bubonic plague pandemic was a major historical event. But what happened next? To give myself some grounding on this topic, I previously reviewed The Complete History of the Black Death. This provided detailed insights into the spread and mortality caused by the Black Death, which was only the first strike of the Second Plague Pandemic. With that month-long homework exercise in my pocket, I was ready to turn back to the book that send me down this plague-infested rabbit hole in the first place: The World the Plague Made by historian James Belich. One way to characterise this book is that it retells the history of Europe from 1350 onwards as if the plague mattered.

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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 – 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 – A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane

7-minute read

Students of genetics and evolution might be familiar with the name of J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), particularly for his contributions to population genetics. What I did not realise before reading A Dominant Character was that he had many more strings to his bow and was a larger-than-life character. In a fascinating biography that never seeks to downplay his complicated character, journalist Samanth Subramanian effortlessly switches back and forth between Haldane’s personal life and his many scientific contributions.

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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 – 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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