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Revolutions that Made the Earth Paperback – 11 Apr 2013
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Lenton and Watson have written a remarkable and timely book which is both entertaining and impeccably researched from the beginning I felt both engaged and enlightened... With its academic rigour and, at the same time, its accessibility, the authors have clearly succeeded in their aim of writing scholarly popular science. As such, it should inspire us to learn from how the Earth system has evolved in the past and face up to the final question: Are we as yet sufficiently grown up to take responsibility for a whole planet? One thing is for sure: Over the next century we will find out. (Peter Horton, Chemistry World)
Worth close study for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Earth sciences, from geology to climatology, and for anyone curious about why this planet is alive whilst all the other ones we know about are dead. (Mark Lynas)
Lenton and Watson's thought-provoking book is the latest in a distinguished line of works that have altered our perception of the planet. (Wolfgang Lucht, Nature)
This book is a stimulating read that involves its audience and challenges us to enlarge our awareness of many branches of human knowledge. It embraces the ethical question of how we can overcome our selfish genes to co-operate with our fellow human beings and recognise our symbiotic relationship with the Earth ecosystem that sustains us. (Susan Jappie, A World to Win)
An exciting, timely, scholarly, and innovative book. (Tyler Volk, New York University, author of CO² Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge)
[an] interesting and provocative read. (Meric Srokosz, Ocean Challenge)
About the Author
Tim Lenton is a Professor at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on understanding the behaviour of the Earth as a whole system, especially through the development and use of Earth system models. After gaining a BA in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, he investigated what regulates the nutrient balance of the ocean and the oxygen content of the atmosphere as a PhD student of Andrew Watson. He also worked closely with James Lovelock developing the Gaia theory and trying to reconcile it with evolutionary theory. Moving to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh, he focused on understanding the feedbacks between the carbon cycle and the Earth's climate. Having returned to the University of East Anglia in 2004, his work identifying climate tipping points won the Times Higher Education Award for Research Projects of the Year 2008. He holds a number of other awards and fellowships. Andrew Watson holds a Royal Society Research Professorship at the University of East Anglia. His career has spanned planetary and atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and climate, giving him a strong interest in the evolution of the Earth system as a whole. After obtaining a BSc in physics from Imperial College, he investigated the history of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere as a PhD student of James Lovelock. He worked on NASA's Pioneer Venus space mission at the University of Michigan. Returning to England and the marine research laboratories in Plymouth, he developed a new method of tracing large scale water movements. He became a professor at the University of East Anglia in 1996, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, and became a Royal Society Research Professor in 2009. He holds a number of other fellowships and awards.
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I compare this book with the waffly mush currently produced by the likes of Brian Cox. Okay, perhaps the intent and the audience are different, but no account of a scientific subject should forego structure and rigour. And here we have structure and rigour in abundance. Facts are clearly distinguished from theory, hypothesis and conjecture. An exemplary format and quality of science writing.
The godfather of the book is of course James Lovelock, who first published the idea that negative feedback systems have kept the planet within habitable limits. The authors describe these systems qualitatively: the technically literate reader would have welcomed more numbers, especially about the amounts of materials involved in the cycling systems of for example nitrogen and phosphorus. They nicely develop concepts about availability of resources, but don't say how many tonnes of carbon need to be buried. For me, it's the numbers which help me grasp what thinking on the planetary scale is all about.
Its basic message is that revolutions in the planetary system are sustainable only if they engender appropriate negative feedback systems. The past is excellently described, but if the book has a failing it is in its last two chapters: human society and what next. The proposition that recent human activity constitutes such a revolution is left sort of hanging. More, the examination of current ideas for dealing with the implications of our recent fossil use is a bit disappointing, given the excellent way that the previous 4.5 billion years are described. I would have loved to have seen comments from expert earth scientists about the various deliberate geoengineering hypes which make the papers so regularly. They are right about which energy systems to go for, selecting solar and nuclear for their high energy densities, a choice based on good eveidence. They are on less secure ground in their preferred options for agriculature. The "retreat" strategists are given short shrift, probably fairly for their political naiveté, but failing to do justice to the many ideas that have been developed for practical energy economy and for redefining quality of life. Lovelock influence again, I suspect, with his vision of megacities and megafarms, stirring thoughts of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
But from the point of view of the earth scientist what is important for a successful human experiment is, first, to use only energy and materials that can be harvested safely, and second, to recycle all waste. The book is a clear and readable statementof how we got here and puts our current problems in a beuatiful long term frame. perfect science. How our species works this out will be politics and engineering.
Through huge passages of time (billions of years) we are shown a number of dimensions, of geological, cosmic and micro biological events to name but few impacts that have brought the earth we know today. The authors' in this narrative have used a very reader-friendly approach; some of the more complex science is broken down in to more manageable chucks so that the lay person is not phased by the science of the material at hand.
In the title of this thesis is the term `revolution' and is used to symbolize the significance of the position that we Homo sapiens have the chance to make either a positive or negative impact on the future of our planet. We are given the prospect of three out comes to the way we choose to live and thus impact the planet.
1. We go on as we have been doing and see Global Warming, as well as other environmental disasters take hold.
2. Live a more `simple' life as well as adopting entirely local way of live and production of food.
3. Lastly to use our technology and wean ourselves off fossil fuels and adopt and draw upon the lessons from Gaia's earlier revolutions that encompasses three critical progressions: finding substitute sources of energy, recycling rare resources and augmenting the transmission of information.
The last choice being more akin to the `revolutions' that planet has under gone in its geological history.
There are problems with some of which they propose, if we take the change in opinion within some parts of the `green' movement who know advocate the use of nuclear power stations. The current situation in Japan and the tsunami and earthquake that wrecked a nuclear power plant there. There in is a very real challenge to us and the most advanced societies and their technologies will need to face to come up with long term workable solutions.
Whether the reader believes in their position or not - this book is a motivating read and challenges our awareness of the world we live in.
Can Mankind cooperate with each other or will our `selfish genes' ultimately lead us down a road of doom.
If we wish to maintain Earth's ecosystem that sustains us, then at this critical phase we need to have the inclination to take effective action, and supplement our ability to predict the outcomes of not taking that action.
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