A Green History of the World
The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations

Ponting, Clive
Publisher:  Penguin, New York, USA
Year Published:  1991
Pages:  430pp   ISBN:  0-14-017660-8
Library of Congress Number:  GF75.P66 1992   Dewey:  304.2'8--dc20
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX6723

Ponting tracks the "green" history of the world showing how throughout history civilizations have collapsed when they exhausted the earth's natural resources.

Historian Clive Ponting says that throughout history the fall of the world's greatest civilizations has been due to an exhaustion of the earth's natural resources. This apocalyptic ecological breakdown has repeated itself for centuries, affecting civilizations including ancient Egypt, Rome, Easter Island, and Pre-Columbian North America. According to Ponting, current green thinking fails to address factors such as the use of resources and energy, distribution of poverty and wealth, how people treat other people and the way people think about the world they inhabit. Ponting re-evaluates history through a "green" lens while examining our current actions with a critical eye. He does not propose any solutions: instead he urges readers to learn valuable lessons from historical patterns.

Ponting tracks the "green" history of the world in 17 chapters. Chapter 1 relates the story of the decline of Easter island as a pattern for civilizations discussed in the rest of the book. He ends the chapter by asking if humans have become any more successful in finding a solution to the resources problem. Chapter 2 focuses on the influence of the physical world on human society, while Chapter 3 illuminates our reliance on the natural world for food sources. Chapter 4 marks the first transition of human society within human history: the evolution from hunter-gatherer society to agricultural society. The second transition is related in Chapter 13 when Ponting examines our discovery of natural energy sources. The next few chapters discuss the consequences on the environment arising from the change to agriculture, with specific discussion of the Indus Valley and Sumer societies, the problem of food supply and finally the impacts of European colonization on the environment. Chapter 8 examines how several doctrines of thought have sought to govern the way the world works, including economics, Marxism and mainstream religious views.

The remaining chapters focus on negative developments within human history that remain obstacles in battling ecological breakdown. Titled The Rape of the World, Chapter 9 documents human exploitation of the earth for its resources and commodities. Similarly, Chapter 10 discusses both how the Atlantic Islands in the 15th century are a microcosm of colonial development and our collective responsibility for the third world. The next few chapters range over a variety of topics including the rise of infectious diseases; rising populations and their pressure on the earth; the associated risks of cities; the tragic dependency of the third world; various forms of pollution caused by human actions and processes and the resulting environmental crises. Ponting concludes by stating that human history is a summation of civilizations' reliance on natural resources and absolute exhaustion of ecological systems.

The book includes a detailed subject index and a useful list of references for each major chapter, issue or civilization, for further research and inquiries. Informative tables, charts and maps help the reader understand, visualize and contextualize the problems discussed. In terms of the coverage of different regions, Ponting justifies the disproportionate material on Europe and North America by their large impact on the world throughout the last 500 years.

[Abstract by Amanpreet Dhami]

Table of Contents


1. The Lessons of Easter Island
2. The Foundations of History
3. Ninety-nine percent of Human History
4. The First Great Transition
5. Destruction and Survival
6. The Long Struggle
7. The Spread of European Settlement
8. Ways of Thought
9. The Rape of the World
10. Creating the Third World
11. The Changing Face of Death
12. The Weight of Numbers
13. The Second Great Transition
14. The Rise of the City
15. Creating the Affluent Society
16. Polluting the World
17. The Shadow of the Past

Guide to Further Reading

Subject Headings

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