Review: Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum–How Humans Took Control of Climate (Hardcover)

5 Star, Environment (Problems), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Very small print, good work, falls between big picture and farming,

June 11, 2006
William F. Ruddiman
This is a fine book that ties with When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century and falls slightly below The Weather Makers : How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth and The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations all of which I read in this week-end’s series. Better books in the larger scheme of things include E. O. Wilson’s The Future of Life and J. F. Rischard’s High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.

The books is blessed with many useful figures.

The author focuses on farming, which requires deforestation through burning, as preceding the impact of cities on climate.

He titillates with his discussion of 6 billion humans producing methane in huge quantities via rice irrigation, livestock tending, biomass burning, and human waste.

I especially appreciated the author’s discussion of climate studies as being relatively new, and his itemization of the number of specializations that now bear on climate study, including geologists, geochemists, meteorologists, glaciologists, ecologists, biological oceanographers, climatologists, etc.

The book is somewhat mis-titled in that the humans are not in CONTROL of the climate as much as impacting upon it in ways not fully understood but largely understood to be negative (e.g. hurricanes twice as intense as 30 years ago, witness New Orleans and KATRINA).

It takes 50 years to raise a forest.

Plagues are a form of natural control. People die, farms are abandoned, forests grow back, and emissions are reduced.

For a taste of the future, the author shows us the past, when Africa and India and China had much greater moisture across their regions. The author ably argues that the water cycle is as important if not more important than the energy cycle in relation to the future of life.

Page 152, the author provides a superb discussion of climate response time, noting that the land mass is much more responsive, which the varied layers of the ocean run from months-years at the top to years-decades in the middle, and centuries in the deep ocean–with the average being decades.

On page 182 the author demonstrates a lack of understanding of politics when he says “Politicians generally vote for policies their constituents want.” Not so fast, bubba. Read Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders; Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It; and The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (Institutions of American Democracy) among many other works on corruption in Congress, where the bottom line is money from special interests, or privileges and committee assignments from the party that demands one vote the party line rather than as constituents’ desire.

The author is the only of the four that I really felt made the point that BOTH extremes are bad: the extremists that deny climate change, and those that demand draconian corrective measures. He points out, in a very balanced way, that pollution is as old as the earth itself.

As with other authors who value the truth in this arena, this author makes it a point to lament the unethical and unreasoned “alternative universe” of industry-funded contrarians and the actively malicious mis-representation and disinformation they purvey. I was quite pleased to read his suggestion that citizens need to get organized and “follow the money” in order to out the connections from industry to “front organizations” to specific liars and agents of influence seeking to deceive the public.

He discusses the concept of ecosystem services and the costs to replace, something E. O. Wilson does in a more thorough and readable manner in The Future of Life but the coverage here is useful if you do not wish to buy many books.

Finally, the author concludes that global warming is not the most vital issue–that energy and then water scarcity are more important, followed by the issue of topsoil replenishment (no longer from clean natural ice melts, now from petroleum-based fertilizers).

There are no notes in this book, with disconcerted me a bit.

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