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Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate Paperback – October 22, 2007


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 22, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691133980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691133980
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,453,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

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)

Review

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)

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Customer Reviews

Beyond that, it was well thought out, well written, and quite intriguing.
Cake2585
Inevitably, this percentage of CO2 will leave the atmosphere and enter one of the long-term geological sinks for carbon.
Jay Gregg
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

59 of 63 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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32 of 32 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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87 of 96 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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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By mianfei on April 4, 2008
Format: Paperback
"Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate" is a controversial extension of anthropogenic global warming back as far as the earliest farmers ten thousand years ago. Ruddiman argues that human effect upon carbon dioxide and methane concentrations between around eight thousand years ago and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution was as great as that observed since 1800.

In the first part of "Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum", Ruddiman looks at early human history and the evolution of the human species. Whilst his overview is far from illogical, I must disagree with him about the evolution of human intelligence, which he says was not helped by the cold and frequent climate change. Cooling of the planet is undoubtedly decisive in evolving highly intelligent beings: Tim Flannery shows how environments without glaciation have extremely infertile soils and oceans so that species of human-like intelligence could never evolve. Frequent climate change would probably actually necessitate a better knowledge of the variety of possible conditions and still larger brains.

Ruddiman's explanation of how Milankovitch cycles cause glacial/interglacial cycles on Earth is clear and efficient, with a very good number of graphs even if most are rather coarsely drawn. Nonetheless, he does not take into account how very ancient records show temperatures can change without the levels of carbon dioxide changing or vice versa - even if this does not contradict anthropogenic global warming as sone assume. Ruddiman's claim that continental drift cannot have played a role in causing climate change is however doubtful.
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