Updated: Nov 3, 2021
weMORI Book Review
The title is simple and self-explanatory, yet the book will shake you. The surgical and detached glance of Ponting describes and hints at an interpretation of the issues without the need to preach: the facts, plain and dry, speak for themselves.
My copy of the book - the cover shows it was used a lot
A.N. Whitehead once claimed that all western philosophy is footnotes to Plato. In the same way, Clive Ponting opens his book with the case of the collapse of Easter Island, and from there on, all chapters follow as variations on the theme: “The cause of the collapse and the key to understanding the ‘mysteries’ of Easter Island was massive environmental degradation brought on [by humans].”
This may sound like an over generalisation about the causes behind the rise and fall of empires throughout history, yet as you read, you will be struck by how pithy the simple recurring message is, and no wonder - it takes no stretch of the imagination that overexploitation of natural resources heavily compromises an ecosystem and its inhabitants.
The 400-something pages present the effects that humans have had and still have now on the environment they live in, and thereby the history of the world from the point of view of an ecologist.
Starting with the first interactions of Paleolithic homo sapiens with the nature surrounding him, the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and farming, the domestication of animals and plants, and human migrations, the book then describes the first cities and societies with the management of their land and resources, the strain that other species had to face - sometimes until their very extinction - and the emergence of the dreaded zoonoses. It finally concentrates on the beginnings of the modern era with industrialisation and the globalised economy bearing the root of climate change, the issues related to extensive deforestation and overhunting, until the present day, when the resilience of our “system Earth” is in distress as never before, even though the knowledge for a solution is at our hand’s reach.
With all this and so much more, A New Green History of the World pours a cascade of information, notions, and data on the reader in a way that is nevertheless digestible and absorbable. Also, general trends that emerge throughout the history of man and nature are carefully illustrated with an abundance of macro-level contextualisation and practical, specific examples.
Here is one: just as the Sumerians thrived because of the good soil their dominion was blessed with, a preponderant reason for their decline is that they reduced their fields to the dire condition due to the lack of a proper crop rotation method and a responsible irrigation system. Sic transit gloria mundi: in a few centuries, the once prosperous and sensual civilization that displayed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon found itself starving as the last portion of barren land they possessed yielded harvest no more, and once weakened, they got conquered by invaders.
Another one is the heartbreaking Chapter 8, describing four of the 19th-century phenomena led by blind economic interests, which brought ruin to the animal kingdom. These are the hunting and extinction of the passenger pigeon, the overfishing that produced such damage to marine ecosystems to the point that fishermen had to find new routes, whaling that brought to the brink of extinction a number of species of cetaceans, and the fur trade in northern Europe, Russia and North America, which caused a chain of animal hunting and slaughtering of unimaginable levels.
I personally internalised two priceless lessons from this book.
As reading and studying do make the difference in the way we conceive the world and make our decisions, through the repeated data and numbers I obtained a much better vision of how vast our planet is, how extraordinarily resilient its manifold ecosystems are, and how much we have squeezed them dry. It is not the knowledge of the “what” that changed me but the “how much.”
Consequently, the second lesson I brought home is related to the shortsightedness of humanity about the use and misuse of the resources available, and the seemingly endless list of “lost occasions”. When we could have managed this and that better when we could have adopted a sustainable system that would have been good for us and our surrounding nature, why did we behave otherwise? Until very recent years, humanity never had an environmentally holistic vision, and we still do not have a perfect one. Yet through science, we indeed know more than the poor Sumerians did - that is why they are not to be blamed for their own demise. The point is, we now understand as much as we need to contrast the environmental crisis that is upon us, and this book offers us a precious tool of knowledge.
A New Green History of the World explores how for centuries humans have been negatively impacting their ecosystems. Is it a pleasant, entertaining book? No, it is not. The first thing that I thought, though, after reading only its first chapter about Easter Island - and that feeling is still here after reading the last page - is: we should study this in school since our childhood.
This is because such knowledge empowers us, and at the same time, it also casts a responsibility on its readers, since what is seen can’t be unseen. Ponting’s message inspires us not to make the same avoidable mistakes again. For we really cannot afford it any longer.
A.N. Whitehead, 1881-1947 British philosopher and mathematician; Plato, 428-348 BC, Athenian philosopher.