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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are we condemned to repeat history?
Ponting couldn't find a book that dealt to his satisfaction with the relationship between the environment and human history, so he wrote his own.
He starts off by solving the mystery of Easter Island. Those enormous statues and their abandonment all over the landscape do not need to be explained by alien spaceships. It is instead a story which will become...
Published on 29 Sept. 2000 by salter-duke@octa4.net.au

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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Humans are rubbish
To say Clive Ponting is the sort of man who says a glass is half-empty is an understatement. Cheerful Clive would also point out that the rim is crawling with germs and that if you were to drop the glass, you would get a razor-sharp weapon that could slice you to pieces. Who but the most determined pessimist would finish an account of the eradication of smallpox, one of...
Published on 14 April 2012 by Brian Whitby


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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are we condemned to repeat history?, 29 Sept. 2000
Ponting couldn't find a book that dealt to his satisfaction with the relationship between the environment and human history, so he wrote his own.
He starts off by solving the mystery of Easter Island. Those enormous statues and their abandonment all over the landscape do not need to be explained by alien spaceships. It is instead a story which will become depressingly familiar in the course of the book; a society with a more-than-adequate diet goes in for conspicuous display, eventually consumes all the resources necessary for that display (in this case, the trees that were needed for rollers to pull the gigantic statues), and collapses.
The same story happens again and again: humans find a new resource, over-exploit it, then face disaster if, like the Easter Islanders, they can't move on; or, like the fur trappers of North America and Siberia in the 19th century, they move on and over-exploit the next resource.
From the ecological point of view, major changes in human history are not so much the result of innovating genius but of response to self-inflicted disaster. Thus, the development of agriculture is not, "Ah-ha! I've just invented the plough!" but, "Oh dear, we've killed off all the large game animals, so we've got to do all that boring stuff with seeds."
Human history is not entirely depressing. Ingenuity has frequently - but not always - rescued a society from its own mistakes. Cities crammed with thousands of people needing to drink and defecate ensured both quantity and quality of water by creating drains and aqueducts. Overpopulated England, its forests cut down, turned to coal and started the Industrial Revolution.
But the solutions have created their own problems: the drains just shoved the shit downstream, and burning coal produced the infamous London fog. Ponting discusses only one society that lasted in more-or-less stability for long: Egypt. From the time of the earliest pharaohs to the mid-nineteenth century, about 7000 years, a substantial population lived by the gifts of the Nile and had enough left over to create a complex culture.
The book has all the advantages and disadvantages of cross-disciplinary work; specialists in each discipline can always pick holes. But more important is the way that new questions are generated, especially the ones that Ponting himself doesn't answer.
For example, it is clear from the book that tropical savannas, far from being pristine, are the environments which have undergone human intervention the longest. However, Ponting does not look at how humans have maintained this stability. Perhaps they wiped out the megafauna when they first arrived (and if they followed the usual pattern of human history they certainly did), but the indigenous people of Northern Australia afterwards developed systems of managing the environment that made the people of the Nile look like fly-by-night fur trappers.
Warning: this book can seriously damage your prejudices.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An epic overview challenging assumptions, 30 April 2011
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This review is from: A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (Paperback)
This is history on the grand scale - going back to the big idea and changing the way we look at the world. This is a refreshing re-telling of history - taking away the Whig legacy of history as progress and taking instead the perspective of what we have done to exploit the world, and of our capacity to drive civilisations to collapse.

"From one perspective, this invention of new techniques [clothing, housing, writing], the use of more complicated production processes and the use of more resources, can be viewed as progress - the increasing ability of human societies to modify the environment and utilise its resources in order to meet their growing needs. From an ecological perspective this process has a very different interpretation. Human history can be seen as a succession of ever more complex and environmentally damaging way of meeting the same basic human needs. There may not have been any alternative given the rise in human numbers and the impact of new technology but that does not alter the fact of the greater amount of environmental damage involved in all these processes."

It is extraordinary the sheer scale of what we as a species have done over a few millennia and in particular over the last 200 years:"Ecological constraints were broken by the development of agriculture.. the last 10,000 years of history have been shaped by an agriculture-based boom that has sustained a rise in numbers from four million to over six billion."

Ponting characterises most of human history as constrained by a shortage of access to energy, desperate for animal and human power, with human power often coming cheaper than draft animals: "Humans are more efficient energy converters than animals."

Then came the great transition, to energy plenty, with all its consequences for belching carbon into the atmosphere:"Until the early nineteenth century renewable resources - human, animal, water, wind - provided nearly all the world's energy. Now over 85% comes from non-renewable fossil fuels.. the transition to fossil fuels has been accompanied by a spectacular rise in energy consumption."

We are reminded how close society has often been to the vision of Malthus - constantly driving itself to the edge of population collapse:"The endemic level of inadequate diet and malnutrition for most of the people in the world was frequently turned into disaster by the outbreak of famine..In China in the two thousand years between 108 BCE and 1910 there were 1,828 years (over 90% of the total) in which famines involved at least one province in the country. In France between 970 and 1100 there were 60 years of famine at a time of expanding agricultural output..."

He points out that other civilisations must have thought they were sustainable, but over time collapsed:..."irrigation can badly degrade the land and lead to waterlogging and salinisation as the early societies in Sumer discovered over four thousand years ago. These effects are now found in half of the irrigated land in Syria and Iraq, a quarter of the irrigated land in the US and four fifths of the irrigated area in the Punjab."

We are reminded of the constant struggle to get beyond subsistence, bringing in energy and effort from the earth, of the practical limits to city and civilisation growth throughout much of human history:"Until the early nineteenth century nowhere in the world could more than about ten per cent of the population be employed in non agricultural activities because agricultural production was so low."

He brings you back to the norms of disease and death throughout most of human history - and the potential for a return to that as disease becomes resistant to antibiotics. The past is piled high in sewage and you can smell the stench from his stories (although some cities in India and China did it better).

We are reminded of the limits of agricultural efficiency and increased energy efficiency in a world of population growth, increasing inequality, and a constant drive to grow to maintain employment, electability and pursue western lifestyles:" so-called primitive agricultural systems are also highly energy-efficient producing about twenty times the energy they use. At best, modern cereal farming produces only about twice as much energy as it consumes in the form of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and machinery. Modern agriculture is also becoming less energy-efficient....Meat production in the industrialised world now consumes between two and three times the energy it produces...add the energy cost of processing and distributing food. This takes about three times as much energy as producing the food itself."

It is very hard to believe, by the end of the book, that Western lifestyles are anything but a dangerous, critically risky theft of the earth's resources.

Clive Ponting has a Victorian love of statistics in action. His is almost an hommage to Chadwick:"In 1853 when the Lambeth Water Company finally moved its source of water supply further upstream away from the most polluted area, the death rate in the area it supplied rapidly fell from 130 per thousand to 37 per thousand."

In a book aiming at such an authoritative sweep of history it seems a major failing that there are no footnotes - only a rather limited and dated reading list - and one is left wondering where some fascinating statistics come from:

The unsustainable dynamic of inequality - "The US contains about 5% of the world's population yet it consumes every year about 40% of the resources used in the world."

Growth faster than the world has ever before seen - "The world in the twentieth century..
World population x3.8..
World industrial output x35 ...
World energy use x12.5 ...
World water use x9 ...
World fertiliser use x342"

The evils of the car (and the importance of recycling your old car) - "Car production now consumes more resources than any other industry. It uses about 20% of world steel production, 35% of the zinc, 50% of the lead, 60% of all natural rubber and 10% of world aluminium production. In addition over a third of the world's oil consumption is accounted for by vehicles."

Climate change already clearly observable over the twentieth century - "Warmer air is able to hold more water vapour and rainfall has increased by just under 1% a decade in the mid to high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. The number of heavy storms has also increased - by about 4% over the twentieth century."
"Around Britain small marine animals and seaweeds have on average moved 150 km north in the last fifty years."

I longed for the references, even online, even if they were as long as the book itself.

But overall, I found myself convinced by his arguments, as he drew to a close in this updated 2007 version building on the IPCC report on climate change - change is happening faster than it ever did in the past, and there is no reason to believe we can keep up. The hidden message is that in an unequal way, across the world, we are heading for population crisis and collapse, as the huge build up of population growth, the limits of energy intensive farming and higher temperatures well above the `safe' two degrees coincide. Even if in our lifetimes we appear to cope, the change built up in the environment, from accumulated greenhouse gases, and the irreversibility of much change over a century or more, will result in mass human misery. There is no reason to believe, in the face of the evidence, that our governments and multinationals will be able to prevent it.

He rejects the two degrees centigrade rise talk of world governments.
"In its Energy Outlook for 2006 the International Energy Agency forecast that the most likely scenario was a 53% increase in world energy use by 2030 and that fossil fuels would make up over 80% of that increase...carbon dioxide concentrations... would rise to...two or three times above pre-industrial levels... continued growth in the world economy.. would imply an average temperature rise of at least 5 degrees C but perhaps twice that in high latitudes."
He reminds us that increased energy efficiency is not really the solution if it simply powers economic growth.

"Many societies in the past believed that they had a sustainable way of life only to find some time later that this was not the case. By the time they had to face the crisis, they were unable to make the social, economic and political changes necessary for survival."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We do not have other home, 30 Jun. 2012
This review is from: A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (Paperback)
I strongly recommend this book. Authors style is such that everyone, even people without basic environment education can easily understand main ideas about conservation of our environment since its represent main prerequisite of our wellbeing and our survival.
Author creates retrospective of human civilization and its relationship with the nature. Every human activity has significant impact on environment. Sometimes it is agriculture, sometimes forestry, sometimes it is resource exploitation. The book contains a lot of data and opinions about human adverse influence on our environment.
The main message of the book is that civilization which failed to achieve sustainable development and harmonized relationship with nature finally collapsed due lack of food, water, wood or mineral resources. Ruthless exploitation of nature resources resulted in downfall of many great societies: Mesopotamia, Roman Empire, Mayas, Eastern Islands etc.
Considering modern human civilization the Earth can be observed as an isolated system. Everything what we do on this planet stays here. We do not have other home.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For the general public, politicians and the philosophers, 17 Mar. 1999
By A Customer
Through examples the book makes a very clear point to why it is important to do something about the environmental problems of this planet. It also gives an alternative history which serves as example for what we have to avoid happening to our civilisation. This time we have the might to ruin any continuation of life on this planet. Read it, weep and tell your friends! This is a great book.
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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Humans are rubbish, 14 April 2012
By 
Brian Whitby (Luzern, Switzerland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (Paperback)
To say Clive Ponting is the sort of man who says a glass is half-empty is an understatement. Cheerful Clive would also point out that the rim is crawling with germs and that if you were to drop the glass, you would get a razor-sharp weapon that could slice you to pieces. Who but the most determined pessimist would finish an account of the eradication of smallpox, one of mankind's few genuine success stories, with the remark that the absence of the disease means that we are now losing whatever natural immunity we once had. Should the disease ever return we would be absolutely helpless, and billions would suffer agonising death, blindness or other disabilities. Well thanks for that thought, Clive.

I bought this book expecting a well-written piece of popular science, a la Bill Bryson. What I got was an extremely dry trudge through centuries of misery. You want interesting turns of phrases, engaging facts, a few anecdotes and pen-portraits of leading personalities? Sorry, not in this book.

Mr Ponting's chief point seems to be that humans are rubbish, and that it would be better if we had never existed. He paints a strangely rosy picture of the hunter-gatherer phase of human development. (Apparently everyone then lived in harmony with nature, was happy and well-fed. Imagine no possessions, maan.) However, even with only stone-age weapons and tools, mankind managed to wipe out most of Earth's large land-dwelling animals. Then came the invention of agriculture, which was an inmitigated disaster. As was everything that has happened since.

I cannot contest Mr Ponting's conclusions. Mankind surely faces huge challenges, and climatic change (which I agree is probably caused by human activities) is one of the most serious - along with, in my opinion, access to drinking-quality water. But every problem has a solution and it is Mr. Ponting's absolute refusal to discuss any sort of solution that made me finally lose patience with this book. Maybe he truly sees no way out, but in that case why bother to write a book? Why not just kill yourself? More likely, in my opinion, is that he didn't want to allow the slightest ray of light to fall upon this dark, depressed, self-hating and above all hopeless view of human history.
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