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.
Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet, these two Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker the CEO of social and opinion research firm Ipsos Public Affairs and John Ibbitson a journalist for Globe and Mail, contend exactly this.
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
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.
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.
Speaking of controversial. As mentioned in my previous review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition, concerns about human overpopulation go back to at least Malthus, a name that has become synonymous with this topic. How do you tackle this incredibly thorny issue? Malthus believed moral restraint where having children is concerned should be encouraged, which strikes me as starry-eyed and completely out of reach, especially in the individualized societies of today. Simultaneously, we have seen some pretty drastic population control measures with ugly side-effects, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. The cry of eugenics if never far away when this topic is tabled. Can we have any sensible discussion to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia? This small book does a serious attempt.
Overpopulation. Is there another topic more likely to bring about an uncomfortable silence during a dinner party? Possibly one of the last taboos even of our era, one name is intimately linked with this topic: Thomas Robert Malthus, author of the much-maligned An Essay on the Principle of Population. Originally published in 1798, Yale University Press here republishes the second edition of 1803, which is much expanded. As a bonus, they throw in five essays to place this work in context and discuss its relevance today. Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species – you cannot really properly discuss, let alone criticise a subject without reading its foundational text, now, can you?
If I asked you to propose solutions to some of the world’s problems and future challenges, things such as overpopulation, food production, hunger, soil erosion, resource depletion, energy production etc., what ideas would you put forth? Most likely, your proposals would build on the intellectual legacy of two men you have never heard of. Allow American journalist and writer Charles C. Mann to introduce you to ecologist William Vogt, father of the environmental movement, and Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, instigator of the agricultural Green Revolution.
The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise lays bare a conundrum of our times. How is it that so many of us loathe resource extraction (e.g. the cutting down of trees for timber, or the mining of ores to produce metals), yet we absolutely adore the products that are subsequently made from these resources? We are up in arms when our forests are under threat, or companies want to start fracking in protected areas (a current concern in the UK), and when we successfully halt these things, the results are invariably hailed as a victory for the environment. Except that they aren’t.
Not since I had to read D’Arcy Wentworth’s On Growth and Form for coursework have I read such a fascinating book that highlights the importance of mathematical laws in governing boundaries and patterns we observe in life. Geoffrey West is a polymath in the truest sense of the word: a theoretical physicist who, over the course of 20 years, applied complexity science to many questions in biology initially, and then extended his ideas to patterns seen in the organization and functioning of cities and companies. Scale is a wide-ranging intellectual foray with no equation in sight.