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Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate Hardcover – August 21, 2005


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 21, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691121648
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691121642
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #515,218 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

Winner of the 2006 Book Award in Science, Phi Beta Kappa

"The activities of Stone Age farmers may have altered Earth's climate. This is the exciting but controversial theory conveyed by palaeoclimatologist William Ruddiman in his well-written book Plows, Plagues and Petroleum. . . . [A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming."--Nature

"If you're not familiar with Ruddiman's hypothesis, you should be. . . . At a time when some scientist seem to fear that open criticism will give the public the impression that we disagree about the facts on climate change--that it is real, caused in part by humans, and increasingly unavoidable--it is good to read of Ruddiman's faith in the scientific method and his willingness to let the process unfold as it should. . . . Plows, Plagues and Petroleum is excellent reading for scientist and nonscientist alike."--James White, Science

"What William Ruddiman has done in Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, an attractive, well-written new book aimed at a popular audience, is to explore the geochemical and climatological implications of worldwide deforestation over the past several thousand years. . . . Ruddiman's argument makes it clear that there is no 'natural' baseline of climate in the late Holocene from which to reckon the human impact of the past two centuries."--Wolfgang H. Berger, American Scientist

"William Ruddiman's provocative but plausible conclusion is that the economic behavior of humans began to profoundly influence global climate roughly 8000 years ago. . . . Ruddiman's book has already begun to spark an important debate--a debate which economic historians should be eager to follow and join."--Robert Whaples, EH.net

"This well-written book does a great job of summarizing complex topics through simple calculations and examples, and provides the right balance of cultural background and scientific data."--Matthew S. Lachniet, Geotimes

"The book by Ruddiman is very enjoyable and easy to read. It also takes quite a unique perspective on the relationship between human societies and climate. For Ruddiman, rather than the climate being a determinant of the course of human events, the argument is turned on its head making human economic behavior a cause of climate change, even well into distant antiquity."--Arlene Miller Rosen, Nature and Culture

"Ruddiman's short book is an excellent primer on the various influences on global climate. He explains scientific concepts clearly and accessibly, and his melding of climate science and human history is fascinating. For these reasons alone, the book is worth reading."--Erik M. Conway, Journal of the History of Biology

"Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum is a primer on natural variations in Earth's climate and on how human activity is having even more of an impact. While some readers might find it disturbing that people have been influencing the planet's climate for millennia, others may be even more alarmed to think about climate changes yet to come."--S. Perkins, Science News

"[Ruddiman] reviews the ongoing debate about future climate change and provides a balanced and judicious assessment of the challenges ahead. This book offers valuable new insights into one of the world's most demanding environmental challenges."--Population and Development Review

"The book is instructive and refreshingly non-technical in its prose. It also offers insight to historians as to how they might think about scientific and environmental processes . . . and draw on these materials to write history. . . . Given our contemporary industrial capacity, it rises some serious questions and concerns over the fragility of the physical environment and our relationship with it."--Michael Egan, Left History

From the Inside Flap

"Bill Ruddiman's provocative suggestion of early human influence on the atmosphere will draw fire. But I stand with Ruddiman: the simultaneous upward departures of CO2 and CH4 from climate indicators, unique in 420,000 years, is probably an early footprint of humankind."--James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies

"First came Rats, Lice and History--next, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Now we have Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, a book sure to inspire further thinking about the nature of anthropogenic climate change. Even those who question Ruddiman's central thesis--that pre-industrial humans caused enough climate change to head off a minor glaciation--will find that it serves as a great organizing principle for a thoroughly delightful and accessible romp through the physics of climate."--Ray Pierrehumbert, Professor of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago

"Bill Ruddiman has long been considered one of the world's top paleoclimatologists. In Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, he caps a career at the cutting edge with a great new scientific debate. The book makes for good reading, too. Humans have a long record of altering their climate system and are now changing the climate system like never before. What's more, we're doing it knowingly."--Jonathan T. Overpeck, Director, Institute for the Study of Planet Earth and Professor of Geosciences, University of Arizona

"Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum boldly and creatively revisits the role of humans in climate change. Progress in science requires innovation, and when dealing with science, Ruddiman is world-class. This book is certain to be controversial, but even if all the bold new ideas presented here don't survive intact, it will have substantially moved our dialogue on the Earth forward and focused a bright light on the role of humans--for better or for worse--in taking control over our planet."--Stephen H. Schneider, Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and Co-Director, Center for Environmental Science & Policy at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University

"Bill Ruddiman, one of the giants of climate history, presents a controversial hypothesis for early human influence on Earth. Our ancestors clearly altered their environment in many ways, and Ruddiman proposes that humans even affected the composition of the atmosphere. Vigorous research is testing this new idea, and should lead to an improved understanding of the world, and of ourselves."--Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, author of The Two-Mile Time Machine

"This book represents a major and welcome endeavor to bridge the gap between the sciences and history. The two are brought together to achieve a greater understanding of climate change, which seems to be of increasing importance to our species. Few persons could accomplish these goals, but Ruddiman does so, and he does it well."--David C. Smith, Professor Emeritus of History at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, author of H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal


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Customer Reviews

Never the less, Ruddiman has presented an intriguing hypothesis as well as produced a very well written book.
Jay Gregg
He makes a compelling case that small additional inputs of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmospheric system will eventually create large global warming effects.
Glenn Gallagher
What I found most interesting, however, was the adherence to scientific rigor in the debate and test of the hypothesis.
M. Staggs

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 64 people found the following review helpful By John Mashey on September 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Bruce Trinque's review said much of it, but here is more support. Ruddiman's work offers possible hypotheses to explain many puzzling effects. It is clearly written, accessible to non-experts, and of my 3-feet-wide bookshelf on climate issues, if somebody wanted one book, this is what I would recommend.

Ruddiman offers two basic hypotheses. The first, as Bruce described, is that humans have been modifying climate for 8000 years via forest-clearing and agriculture. This inhibited the otherwise-natural temperature decline back into an overdue glaciation, as compared with past inter-glacial periods. That's the good news.

The bad news, of course, is the current warming that will take us to levels of CO2 and temperature unprecedented for millions of years, and will do so even if we all stopped using oil/gas/coal tomorrow, and he discusses why.

The second hypothesis is the most plausible explanation I've seen for some of the puzzling short-term temperature/CO2 gyrations of the last 2000 years. He proposes that major plague pandemics have caused sufficient die-offs, abandoment of farms, and reforestration to temporarily lower CO2 and temperature. This could explain the later-Roman/Dark Ages lower temperatures, followed by the relatively disease-free Medieval Warming Period, in which Greenland was settled, and UK vineyards spread again to current levels, if not quite as far as early Roman. He ascribes the Little Ice Age drop to Bubonic plagues in Europe, and especially, to the death of estimated 50 million native Americans from smallpox and other European diseases. He does enough math to make these claims at least worth further study.
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88 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Trinque VINE VOICE on August 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is NOT about global warming. At least, not directly about the global warming of the Industrial Age over which extremists from both environmental and industry/government groups loudly wrangle about. Ruddiman's theme is global warming beginning far earlier -- 8000 years earlier. His expertise is in paleoclimatology, study of the climate in long-past eras. He presents a very persuasive case that starting about 8000 years ago, an increased "unnatural" output of carbon dioxide from early human agricultural endeavors began to measurably effect the earth's climate (with the effect intensified a few thousand years later by increased methane emissions from rice farming). It is Ruddiman's conclusion, very clearly presented and well supported with evidence, that this "extra" carbon dioxide has offset the "normal" global cooling that otherwise would have ended the present comfortable "interglacial" period and plunged us once again into an era of heavy glaciation. In short, into yet another Ice Age.

Ruddiman's work challenges us to jettison many comfortable myths, among them being that "Mother Earth" is naturally a stable benign guardian and that pre-industrial humans lived in some idyllic, low impact manner.

Like "Guns, Germs and Steel", this is a book that has fundamentally changed my perception of the distant past. It is both an important book and a book that makes for fascinating reading. I can scarcely recommend it too much. My advice: Buy it. Read it. Think about it.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Lazlo's Other on April 9, 2008
Format: Paperback
Ruddiman presents an interesting hypothesis, but his reasoning leaves out too many factors, and does not give enough weight to unknown factors.

Milankovitch cycles are explained extremely well, and Ruddiman attributes ice ages and glaciation periods almost exclusively to these cycles. It is true that ice age/glaciations line up with the Milankovitch cycles, but... we know that further back in planetary history there were Milankovitch cylces that did not result in ice ages. This would indicate that other factors may be required to set off such a radical change in global climate. Ruddiman does not address this, to the detriment of his hypothesis.

Ruddiman also states that orbital changes control monsoon cycles, yet research has shown that monsoon cycles can change more rapidly and more often than the long orbital cycles would indicate. Ruddiman also attributes monsoons to heat, stating more heat, more monsoon. This is not an adequate explanation of monsoons. Areas that were very wet 9,000 years ago are undergoing increased desertification today, with increasing heat.

Entirely too much is supposed in terms of early human development, the amount of agriculture practiced, and it's effect on climate. As one example, Ruddiman supposes that early nomadic humans spaced children four years apart. There is absolutely no evidence cited for this supposition, and given the high mortality rate and shorter life spans, this type of "spacing" may not have been enough to maintain populations. Too little is known about prehistoric agriculture and population levels to come up with a reliable formula on amount of acres farmed for each person, and amount of methane released per acre.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jay Gregg on January 13, 2008
Format: Paperback
The climate of the Earth has never been stable over the long expanse of geological time. This book is an excellent treatment of the very complex subject of global climate change for the educated but non-specialist reader. This book treats the major controls on natural climate change such as orbital forcing and greenhouse gasses and deftly explains how these variables have resulted in periodic ice ages over the past few million years as well as how and why climate has fluctuated over the greater span of geological time. The book is short, concise, and very well illustrated with maps, tables, and graphs. It is not written in standard scientific format with numerous references in the text, however, a chapter-by-chapter bibliography and credits for the illustrations are provided.

The major thesis of the book is that the influence of human activity on climate is not a recent phenomena related to the industrial revolution and burning of fossil fuels but began 8000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. This slow trend of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gasses, due to deforestation and other agricultural activity, may have had the effect of warding off, for the time being at least, a coming ice age. This ice age is predicted on the basis of the variations of the Earth's orbit around the sun that is responsible for the repeated glaciations since the Late Pliocene Epoch about three million years ago. However, the effect of rapidly increasing CO2 during the past 250 years with the industrial revolution has yet to be felt and may be profound. Just as the hottest days of the summer follow by a month or more the summer solstice, the full effects of the current dramatic increase in CO2 emissions will not be felt for some decades.
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