A New Green History of the World (2007) is the new and improved version of A Green History of the World (1991), which was translated into 13 languages. British historian Clive Ponting did a fantastic amount of research, and then refined it into a very readable, mind-altering 400-page book (a silver bullet cure for folks suffering from denial). It spans the two million year saga of our hominid ancestors, devoting most attention to the last 12,000 years, the era of thunder footprints.
Ponting provides numerous charts displaying the skyrocketing growth of many unsustainable trends. For example, world coal production was 10 million tons in 1800, 760 million tons in 1900, and 5 billion tons in 2000. World oil production was 95 million tons in 1920, 294 million tons in 1940, 2.3 billion tons in 1970, and 3.8 billion tons in 2004. Is it any wonder that the atmosphere is having convulsions?
For almost the entire human journey, wood was our fuel, a renewable resource. With the shift to agriculture and civilization, we invented forest mining, which is unsustainable. Industries making glass, ceramics, bricks, and metals rapidly obliterated forests. By the 1550s, regional wood shortages began limiting growth. The English were the first to begin the shift to coal. Coal lit the turbo thrusters for the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the process of urbanization, and ignited two centuries of pandemonium.
Until 1800, 95 percent of humans were paupers. Ponting says, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population have lived in conditions of grinding poverty. They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.” European commoners often lived in crude huts with dirt floors, and no windows or chimney. Bed was a heap of straw. No corpse was buried in usable garments.
Until 1800, most people travelled on foot. Paupers couldn’t afford horses, or six acres (2.5 ha) of pasture to feed one. Consequently, villages and towns remained small, close to their food supply. Few places could afford even rudimentary sanitation services. Village households dumped their night soil in the streets. Almost any place was a restroom. Fecal-oral diseases were popular, and bathing was not, especially in chilly months. It was a wonderland for rats, fleas, flies, lice, and infectious diseases.
In 1652, the council of Boston banned residents from discarding the “entrails of beasts or fowls or garbage or dead dogs or cattle or any other dead beast or stinking thing” into the streets. In the summer of 1858, the British House of Commons abandoned its sittings because of the unbearable “Great Stink” (all raw sewage went into the Thames). The official residence for Britain’s prime ministers is 10 Downing Street, which didn’t have an indoor bathroom until 1908. And so on.
With urbanization, the privileged class grew — folks who could afford horses, stables, carriages, and feed. More horses were needed to haul more goods. As cities grew, they got too big for foot travelers, so horse-drawn buses, trolleys, cabs, and coaches came into service. Sprawling cities gobbled up nearby farms, increasing the distance between the inner city and their source of food. More horses were needed to haul more food over more miles. Eventually, farmers could no longer afford to have urban manure hauled to their distant fields, so it piled up in empty places.
By 1900, horses plopped 10 million tons of fragrant manure on British streets each year. When it rained, the streets became yucky mucky smelly ponds. In warm dry weather, the breezes carried manure dust for all to inhale. The incredible filth attracted countless trillions of flies that took great delight in spreading typhoid. New York City had to remove 15,000 dead horses annually. Imagine the stench.
By the early twentieth century, Britain and France each had about 3.5 million horses. The U.S. had 20 to 30 million, and feeding them required 88 million acres (36m ha) of farmland — about a quarter of the total. These countries had little spare land to feed more urban horses; they were close to Peak Horses. (Here’s an interesting stinky horse story.)
In 1900, London was the world’s biggest city, with 4.5 million. New York City was second with 2.7 million. Their streets were jammed with slow chaotic clippity-clop traffic, close to capacity, with little room for more. The bubble of cheap and abundant horse feed was over. Both cities had to switch from horse power to fossil power. By 2000, Tokyo had 26.4 million, Mexico City had 18.4 million, and Mumbai had 18 million. They cannot shift to horse power when motor vehicle extinction approaches.
Modern cities cannot function without nonrenewable fossil power. It is needed to move folks from home to work, and from the ground floor to the thirtieth. It moves water in, and sewage out. It picks up the garbage and carries it to landfills. It powers farms, ships, air travel, factories, mines, refineries, lighting, communication systems, and on and on. The list includes everything essential for the energy-guzzling consumer lifestyle, and industrial society itself.
Our global civilization is completely addicted to ever-increasing quantities of finite nonrenewable resources. Obviously, this can only be temporary. We’ve had a high-speed joyride of insane growth, pollution, and ecological gang rape. We’ve invented lots of fascinating gizmos, lived like crazy, and created a monster that has an expiration date. It will disintegrate, sooner or later. Ponting warns that we are approaching a major crossroads.
To make the coming decades even more exciting, climate change is knocking on the door, stopping by to collect our staggering karmic debts. The Technology Fairy cannot give us the magic beans needed to remove the carbon from our emissions. Ponting shrugs, “Global warming is the greatest threat that the world faces and finding a solution will be extremely difficult.”
The Technology Fairy also appears impotent to accelerate the crop yield gains necessary for feeding the projected mob in 50 years (see Cribb and Bourne). Like the Green Revolution disaster, GMO crops require big inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation — large fields, expensive seeds, rich farmers, big machines, and lots of petrol. Industrial agriculture is getting gray and wrinkled, its best days behind it. Ponting has no faith in biotech miracles.
With the calm and objective voice of a venerable professor, Ponting lifts readers far above the intense roaring madness that we consider normal. When we can observe the human journey from a perspective that spans thousands of years, it’s easy to see that our consumer lifestyle is an extreme deviation from the human journey. Every student in every nation should take a class based on this book, every year. The family of life is paying a terrible price for our ongoing ignorance of environmental history. Few have a competent understanding of the path we have taken, or the predicaments that now threaten us.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the topics in Ponting’s book. It’s a fascinating experience. He did not include the obligatory chapter of brilliant solutions. His conclusion: “The course of human history over the last two centuries has produced change at a rate never before experienced and brought together a series of interlinked problems that almost defy solution because of their complexity.” Progress is wonderful, eh?
Ponting, Clive, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, New York, 2007.