on 18 December 2013
Here is my review published in Geoscientist, the monthly magazine of the Geological Society of London: [...]
How will it all end? Detailing the numerous ways humans are impacting the natural environment - with many scary graphs - that is the Big Question with which this book leaves the reader. It covers all impacts you could think of, and some you might not - including "desecration of cave formations by speleologists".
The historical context is nicely set, explaining how humans moulded landscapes over millennia - from the first use of fire, to tree-cutting, domestication of animals, and modification of water bodies. Impacts were not at forst necessarily negative, with many societies living in sustainable harmony with nature. The big change now is our unprecedentedly growing population, affluence and industrialisation.
Chapter 1 provides a short history of our growing concerns. From the 1700s, the impact of European colonisation on uninhabited lands was observed. Gradually, a better understanding of the impact of deforestation, on water flows, recharge and erosion, emerged. In the mid 1800s, Mary Somerville deduced that every species played an important role, and destroying even one upsets nature's balance. In the 1900s, the sustainability of relentless development began to be questioned, and recently, we "have begun to ponder whether the world is entering a spasm of unparalleled human-induced modification".
The main part of the book reports on observed impacts, with chapters on each key subject area: vegetation, animals, soil, water, geomorphology and climate. A second part focuses on the future, principally projections of climate change impacts. This approach seems out of line with a concluding observation that "global warming is not the only big global issue we face. Of immense and in many cases more immediate importance are other aspects of global change", mentioning land use, biodiversity, water shortage and quality, soil, erosion, salinisation, and pollution. While it is good to see them acknowledged, an opportunity to provide more detail and emphasis on future trends in these other critical areas seems to have been missed.
Solutions will not be easily found or applied, and some may themselves generate negative impacts, with biofuels cited as an example. The author offers little by way of solutions, and even the question of whether to be pessimistic or optimistic - where, indeed, it all may end - are left (perhaps unsurprisingly) open.
Now in its seventh edition since 1981, it is up-to-date with 2013 data and references. Overall, it is an excellent and well illustrated reference that helps counter the risk of single-issue fixation by virtue of its measured, broad and yet also detailed approach.