Clive Ponting

London, 1991.

This is a substantial survey of human settlement and industry from the pre-agricultural era down to the globally-polluting present. Ponting takes pains to clarify many ideas, such as the relationship between hunting/gathering and farming:

"They should be seen as parts of a spectrum of human activities of different degrees of intensity designed to exploit ecosystems. Gathering and hunting groups are not passive in their acceptance of the environment: they carry out a wide variety of activities that involve interfering with natural ecosystems for the benefit of humans." (p.38)

He spells out such interference across cultures and ages, dispelling the notion that pollution or disruption is a peculiarly European malaise. An African example is what happened when Addis Ababa became Ethiopia's capital in 1883:

"Within twenty years a zone stretching for 100 miles around the town had been devastated - stripped of its trees by charcoal burners producing fuel for the capital." (p.75)

The book is crammed with historical information, and is written in what used to be called a workmanlike way, i.e. without flourish or levity. But it is a valuable read, and we need not be too concerned with style when facing issues like the following:

"About 40 million people die every year from hunger and related diseases - equivalent to 300 Jumbo jet crashes every day - with half of the passengers being children." (p.254)

All aboard for Spaceship Earth!




Paul Taylor 2001