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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 – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

10-minute read

Every few years, it seems, there is a new bestselling Big History book. And not infrequently, they have rather grandiose titles. Who does not remember Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind? But equally often, these books rapidly show their age and are criticized for oversimplifying matters. And so I found myself with The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a 692-page brick with an equally grandiose title. In what follows, I hope to convince you why I think this book will stand the test of time better.

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Book review – Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet

8-minute read

Do you eat? Then you might wish to consider that farming is destroying the planet. Or so argues Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who is never one to shirk controversy. I have a lot of time for Monbiot. I might not agree with everything he has written over the years, but I find his ideas to be driven by sound logic and appropriate scepticism. He is neither afraid to admit his mistakes nor to piss people off by saying things they do not want to hear. In that sense, Regenesis is a necessary provocation.

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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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Book review – A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations

8-minute read

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.

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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 World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources

8-minute read

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.

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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 Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

7-minute read

Tantalum, tellurium, indium, niobium, germanium, dysprosium, rhenium, yttrium, neodymium, titanium, lithium, tungsten, cobalt. These are but some of the many chemical elements that are collectively known as rare metals. You will probably recognize only a few of them, but trace quantities are in products and structures all around you, making things stronger, faster, and lighter. They are used to make smartphones, laptops, and fibre-optic cables; but also cars, airplanes, and military weapon systems; and even photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. We live in the Rare Metal Age, writes natural resources strategist David S. Abraham here.

I have been meaning to read this book for ages. With the recent publication of Guillaume Pitron’s The Rare Metals War, now is the right time. Thus, this is the first of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

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