The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.
Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.
When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.
I cannot deny that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing this book was Leslie Nielsen’s slightly smutty beaver joke in Naked Gun. Shame on me, as environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb presents a serious, incisive book that shows just how important beavers and their dams are for biodiversity, ecosystem health, and hydrology. If humans are now said to be a geological force to be reckoned with, birthing the term Anthropocene, our persecution of beavers led to the loss of another geological force.
When I read the brief for The Edge of Memory, my first thought was: “Really, Bloomsbury is publishing a book on flood geology?” This creationist take on geology tries to interpret geological features in accordance with the Biblical account of a worldwide flood described in Genesis. If you haven’t read your Bible verses today, don’t worry, if I say “Noah” and “ark”, you probably know which one I mean. My guess was close, but not quite on the ball. Patrick Nunn, a professor of Oceanic Geoscience, here argues that ancient stories and myths hold within them descriptions of geological catastrophes and climatic changes. Welcome to the obscure academic discipline of geomythology.
Human civilisation is hungry for many resources, and I feel that there is a general awareness that we are taking more than the planet can provide. Deforestation, overfishing, fossil fuel exploitation – I’d like to think these are all familiar concepts. But who knew that we have a sand crisis looming in our near future? Journalist Vince Beiser has written a hard-hitting reportage that convinces that, despite its ubiquity, even humble grains of sand are a finite resource.
From the Giza-pyramid-complex-shaped mountains of dried yeast, to the visual joke on the spine (I see what you did there), The Rise of Yeast is an amusing read about fungus. In case you find that hard to believe, Nicholas P. Money, mycologist and professor of Botany, has been waxing lyrically about micro-organisms for years. Here, he highlights the humble yeast and how it has shaped human history. For without yeast there would be neither bread nor booze.
Brian Fagan is a celebrated archaeologist and author who has written many books on the topic of environmental history. Several of these sit on my shelves, though I admit this is the first book by his hand that I have read. With Fishing, Fagan presents a deep history of fishing from the time of our human ancestors up to the present day, highlighting its overlooked role in the history of human civilization. His story spans the globe and pieces together a fragmented and complicated puzzle.
Somewhere in chapter 2, Kyle Harper remarks how historians have become unintentional beneficiaries of ongoing climate change, as scientists turn to palaeoclimatic records such as ice cores, tree rings, and sediments to understand fluctuations in earth’s climate. This bonanza of data allows historians a new way to look at past events. And thus was born the discipline of environmental history, which emphasizes the active role the natural environment can have on human affairs. In The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper looks at one of those defining moments in human history, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, and the role of climate change and pandemics.