A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations Rev Upd Edition

26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0143038986
ISBN-10: 0143038982
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

British historian Ponting provides a fascinating and comprehensive environmental perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, including the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Mayans. Beginning with hunting-and-gathering societies, settled societies, and the industrialized societies of today, he describes how each has had greater effects on the environment than the last. Settled societies use more resources to support larger populations, often overextending the resources available. "Since the rise of settled societies . . . the majority of the world's population have lived in conditions of grinding poverty." Ponting's forecast for the future based on current population trends and available resources is equally bleak. "To feed the whole world on the diet enjoyed by the average American, using the same level of inputs into agriculture, would require all the world's current oil production and exhaust known reserves within not much more than a decade." A significant contribution that needs to be available and promoted in every public library.
- Mary J. Nickum, Fish and Wildlife Reference Svce., Bethesda, Md.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A comprehensive assessment of humanity's assault on the environment across the centuries, by British historian Ponting (University College, Swansea). Examining the interaction between societies and their surroundings from the earliest hunter-gatherer groups on, Ponting describes the first great leap of civilization--the development of crops and agriculture--as the start of a systematic environmental transformation. As groups settled near their fields and as populations grew, the burden on the land increased, and at times the ecological pressure grew too great. Crop irrigation, the author says, led to increased salination and diminished yields, while a loss of forest cover brought erosion and the destruction of precious arable land. The Sumerian civilization in the Middle East and the Mayans of Central America, among others, fell victim to these limits to growth, with the collapse in some cases being precipitous. Other societies survived, however, to participate in the more recent great transition involving the use of fossil fuels for energy. With this step, Ponting says, environmental degradation increased exponentially through pollution at all stages of the industrialization process--and, in addition, the industrialized societies, by their exploitation of others less advanced, created the Third World, with its Pandora's Box of poverty, overpopulation, and other social ills that continue to worsen today. Ponting suggests no solutions, marking instead the devastating course of human progress and the ruins that serve as its milestones. Few colorful anecdotes, but an impressive accumulation of evidence culled from the annals of recorded history: a sobering view of a planet deeply in peril. (Maps and charts.) -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Rev Upd edition (December 18, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143038982
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143038986
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #158,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 76 people found the following review helpful By RootlessAgrarian on November 30, 2000
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If you are politically active in any sphere -- environmental, feminist, race, labour issues -- and as a result you do a lifetime of research and reading and discussion, you often feel a sense of despair when attempting to explain your point of view to anyone who hasn't covered the same ground. Waving a booklist several pages long doesn't seem like a good way to win hearts and minds. So you wish for a book you could recommend that would really provide the broad overview, the minimal foundation of your own understanding.
For the automobile critic it's probably "Asphalt Nation." For the media critic it might be "Manufacturing Consent". Environmental economists have various basic texts to draw on, but at present I nominate Ponting as the best compromise between accessibility and comprehensiveness.
In one fairly brief volume he manages to summarize the technological and economic history of the human race, the central importance of food production throughout that history, and the implications of prior human experience for today's human experience. Ponting's chapter on the age of European expansion might be the best concise survey essay on colonialism that I've read. That one chapter alone is worth the price of admission, and offers a capable answer to the frequently asked question "Why can't the Third World make capitalism work?"
Without ranting, without apparent passion, Ponting calmly documents the astonishingly consistent historical record of blundering, self-deception, short-sightedness, and deliberate criminality that has led the G7 nations to the peak of world power. He has been criticized by some readers for insufficient attention to political or social-justice issues, or for insufficient outrage at some of the crimes he documents.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Richard Middleton on May 3, 2010
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In an age of specialization, the author provides a much-needed (and brilliant) general overview of man's impact on the planet. It is hard to imagine anyone, after reading this book, seriously arguing that the western lifestyle (and especially the American lifestyle) can be sustained much longer. We may succeed in hanging on for a few more years (especially if we manage to keep developing countries from attaining our own living standards), but it seems unlikely that our nationalistic political systems will be able to agree and implement the necessary global solutions (whatever those may be - it is not clear that there are any) in time.

This is an immensely valuable analysis, but I think that it is a 5-star topic hiding within a 3-star book. Let me give two reasons:
1. It is virtually impossible to substantiate his arguments without reading the extensive bibliography, a daunting task. For example, when he states that, in energy efficiency, "The United States is still 60 per cent less efficient than Italy and Japan", he needs a citation to support the statement. This applies throughout the book. My own writing has been concerned with global water and sanitation issues, and I know how easy it is to have a document which is more footnotes than text, but without references I cannot really make use of or defend any of his important statements.
2. As another reviewer has commented, the book needed a strong editor. I have not read the earlier (1991) version of this book, and so cannot make comparisons, but much of the book is so well written, and other parts so badly, that it feels as if the earlier version was very well edited, and then the updates were inserted on a word processor.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 19, 2002
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Clive Ponting's subtitle is slightly misleading, as this book is less about the history of civilization's collapse than a history of civilization's influence on the environment. This is a thorough and interesting study of how humans have changed or damaged their natural surroundings from the earliest hunter-gatherer days through the modern post-Industrial world. It seems that any modification of the environment has unintended and unexpected consequences down the road. Of course in the past few had the time or the vision to anticipate these consequences, and we are now living with the results of centuries of pollution, salinization, and general degradation. This is not a polemic but a well-argued study which asks us to consider whether our effect on the natural world has been more for good or ill. It is a good precursor to ideas later developed further in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, among others.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Cecil Bothwell VINE VOICE on November 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
At last! I have stumbled on an explanation of human history that makes sense of the rises and falls, the wars, the conquerors, the plagues and the shopping habits of our specie. This is a grand overview of our impact on the planetary environment since the rise of agricultural societies about 12,000 years ago. Seeing the past through a green lens fills in missing pieces in the picture painted by standard historical texts. Starting with the microcosm of Easter Island where Polynesian settlers created one of the most advanced cultures of its day, only to devolve to cannibalism and failure after deforestation destroyed their soil, Ponting step-by-steps through the collapse of one society after another. He has assembled the archaeological data amassed in the modern era to establish his case that agriculture has been a disaster for humans and the planet. Consider that a Bushman, forced to live on the African desert, works less than half the hours of his agricultural counterpart, and enjoys a higher nutritional level than half of the world today. Or the reality that every agricultural economy in the past has crashed, repeatedly, with food production devastated by depleted, eroded soil, or salinization and waterlogging after irrigation. The author clearly establishes that fertile soil is the most critical and least replaceable resource in our tool kit. When one lays Ponting's assessment beside a current picture of world agriculture, with topsoil disappearing at one hundred times the rate of recovery, our future looks iffy. After this reading I am left wondering how we can ever achieve a meaningful "balance" given our past record. The planet supported about 4 million humans when we were all gatherer/hunters. Note that this puts us almost 6 billion over the top today, supported on a raft of petrochemical soil amendments. Perhaps we should beat our plowshares into swords?
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