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A New Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations Kindle Edition
Like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Clive Ponting's book studies the relationship between the environment and human history. It examines world civilisations from Sumeria to ancient Egypt, from Easter Island to the Roman Empire and it argues that human beings have repeatedly built societies that have grown and prospered by exploiting the Earth's resources, only to expand to the point where those resources could no longer sustain the societies' populations and cause subsequent collapse.
This new edition of Clive Ponting's international bestseller has been revised, expanded and updated. It provides not only a compelling story of how we have damaged the environment for thousands of years but also an up-to-the-minute assessment of the crisis facing the world today - and the problems that have to be addressed in the search for solutions.
About the Author
- ASIN : B0046H96ZS
- Publisher : Vintage Digital (15 February 2011)
- Language : English
- File size : 2135 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 466 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0099516683
- Best Sellers Rank: 211,731 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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"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."