8-minute read keywords: climate change, environmental history
After writing two history bestsellers, The Silk Roads in 2015 and The New Silk Roads in 2018, professor of global history Peter Frankopan now turns his attention to environmental history. Bloomsbury is gunning for another bestseller and has thrown the full weight of its marketing machine behind it; you will have been hard-pressed to miss The Earth Transformed if you have visited a UK bookshop recently. Amidst all this, it is easy to overlook that another voluminous environmental history title was released almost simultaneously by the University of Pittsburgh Press: Frank Uekötter’s The Vortex. This, then, is the first of a two-part review of two brand-new behemoths that discuss the impact that humans and the environment have had on each other.
Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.
Long before we developed writing, humans communicated information across generations by telling stories. Professor of Oceanic Geoscience Patrick Nunn contends that some of these record actual environmental changes that impacted our ancestors. Scientists interested in the rather obscure discipline of geomythology argue that, when studied carefully, such oral histories can be an additional source of data to help us reconstruct past climates and understand their impact. Supremely absorbing, Worlds in Shadow covers a wider range of topics than Nunn’s previous books, making this of interest to a broader audience.
The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because—bonus detail—the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.
“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.
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 movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!
Volcanoes are some of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles on our planet. There is much more to them, though, than the stereotypical image of a conical fire-spitting mountain, and I have been keen to learn more. As I searched for serious introductory books on volcanology, this was one title that kept coming up. But wait, why is a biologist reviewing geology textbooks?
To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.
Planet Earth is a somewhat unpredictable landlord. Mostly, conditions here are benign and favourable to life, but sometimes its tenants are suddenly crushed in a violent outburst. For as long as humans have lived, we have been subjected to such natural catastrophes and have been trying to both understand and predict them. As marine scientist Dr Ellen Prager shows here, we have made great strides, but many questions and unknowns remain. Dangerous Earth is a fascinating tour to the cutting edge of the earth sciences to look at some of the complex problems for which we are still lacking answers.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is the provocative statement that Professor of Disasters and Health Ilan Kelman makes with Disaster by Choice. The title pretty much sums it up: Earth can be a violent place alright, but our actions, or lack thereof, turn these hazards into catastrophes that cause unnecessary death, damage, and destruction. So, what are we to do?