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.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
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.
When it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these are dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.
Fossils fuels have powered civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and their consumption has exploded in the last few decades. But for all the prosperity that coal, gas, and oil have brought, there are many downsides, not least amongst these climate change. So how did we get here? Usual explanations point at individual consumption and population growth, and I would be quick to agree. With Burning Up, Simon Pirani, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, basically says “not so quick, things are not that simple” and provides a deeply researched history of fossil fuel consumption.
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.
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.
History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it is often said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. However, palaeo-oceanographer and climate scientist Eelco J. Rohling points out we know more than you might think. His new book, The Oceans: A Deep History, takes the reader through a 4.4-billion-year history of Earth’s oceans. Much more than just a book about water, this is foremost a book about the intimate link between our planet’s climate and its oceans, as they are far more intertwined than you might give them credit for.