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Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate

Readable historical account of the impact of humans on climate change over the last 8000 years

Series: Princeton Science Library

By: William F Ruddiman (Author)

202 pages, 16 b/w photos, 14 b/w illustrations, 7 maps, 4 tables

Princeton University Press

Paperback | Oct 2016 | #229801 | ISBN-13: 9780691173214
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £13.95 $17/€16 approx
Paperback | Apr 2010 | #183804 | ISBN-13: 9780691146348
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £14.95 $18/€17 approx
Hardback | Dec 2005 | #154434 | ISBN: 0691121648
Out of Print Details

About this book

The impact on climate from 200 years of industrial development is an everyday fact of life, but did humankind's active involvement in climate change really begin with the industrial revolution, as commonly believed? William Ruddiman's provocative new book argues that humans have actually been changing the climate for some 8,000 years – as a result of the earlier discovery of agriculture.

The "Ruddiman Hypothesis" will spark intense debate. We learn that the impact of farming on greenhouse-gas levels, thousands of years before the industrial revolution, kept our planet notably warmer than if natural climate cycles had prevailed – quite possibly forestalling a new ice age.

Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum is the first book to trace the full historical sweep of human interaction with Earth's climate. Ruddiman takes us through three broad stages of human history: when nature was in control; when humans began to take control, discovering agriculture and affecting climate through carbon dioxide and methane emissions; and, finally, the more recent human impact on climate change. Along the way he raises the fascinating possibility that plagues, by depleting human populations, also affected reforestation and thus climate – as suggested by dips in greenhouse gases when major pandemics have occurred. Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum concludes by looking to the future and critiquing the impact of special interest money on the global warming debate.

Eminently readable and far-reaching in argument, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum shows us that even as civilization developed, we were already changing the climate in which we lived.

"[A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming."

"If you're not familiar with Ruddiman's hypothesis, you should be [...] Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum is excellent reading for scientist and nonscientist alike."
– James White, Science

"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

"What is most remarkable about Ruddiman's work is the evidence it provides for an initial disruption to the climate system that occurred long before the industrial revolution – around 8,000 years ago [...] Ruddiman's realisation that the gaseous composition of Earth's atmosphere is an exquisitely sensitive barometer of changes to life itself represents a great breakthrough."
– Tim Flannery, Guardian

"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,

"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

"Contentious though they are, Ruddiman's arguments are never mere speculation. The book does an excellent job explaining the basic atmospheric science behind glacial cycles, and it presents convincing quantitative evidence of past atmospheric changes, pointing out the likely role of anthropogenic deforestation and agriculture in the late Holocene. The author's credentials as an established climate scientist lend further weight to the theory."
– Sam White, Technology and Culture

"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

"First came Rats, Lice and History – next, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Now we have Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, a book sure to inspire further thinking about the nature of anthropogenic climate change. Even those who question Ruddiman's central thesis – that pre-industrial humans caused enough climate change to head off a minor glaciation – will find that it serves as a great organizing principle for a thoroughly delightful and accessible romp through the physics of climate."
– Ray Pierrehumbert, Professor of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago

"Bill Ruddiman has long been considered one of the world's top paleoclimatologists. In Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, he caps a career at the cutting edge with a great new scientific debate. The book makes for good reading, too. Humans have a long record of altering their climate system and are now changing the climate system like never before. What's more, we're doing it knowingly."
– Jonathan T. Overpeck, Director, Institute for the Study of Planet Earth and Professor of Geosciences, University of Arizona

"Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum boldly and creatively revisits the role of humans in climate change. Progress in science requires innovation, and when dealing with science, Ruddiman is world-class. This book is certain to be controversial, but even if all the bold new ideas presented here don't survive intact, it will have substantially moved our dialogue on the Earth forward and focused a bright light on the role of humans – for better or for worse – in taking control over our planet."
– Stephen H. Schneider, Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and Co-Director, Center for Environmental Science & Policy at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University

"Bill Ruddiman, one of the giants of climate history, presents a controversial hypothesis for early human influence on Earth. Our ancestors clearly altered their environment in many ways, and Ruddiman proposes that humans even affected the composition of the atmosphere. Vigorous research is testing this new idea, and should lead to an improved understanding of the world, and of ourselves."
– Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, author of The Two-Mile Time Machine

"This book represents a major and welcome endeavor to bridge the gap between the sciences and history. The two are brought together to achieve a greater understanding of climate change, which seems to be of increasing importance to our species. Few persons could accomplish these goals, but Ruddiman does so, and he does it well."
– David C. Smith, Professor Emeritus of History at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, author of H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal


List of Illustrations ix
Preface xiii

Part One: What Has Controlled Earth's Climate?
Chapter One: Climate and Human History 5

Part Two: Nature in Control
Chapter Two: Slow Going for a Few Million Years 17
Chapter Three: Linking Earth's Orbit to Its Climate 25
Chapter Four: Orbital Changes Control Ice-Age Cycles 35
Chapter Five: Orbital Changes Control Monsoon Cycles 46
Chapter Six: Stirrings of Change 55

Part Three: Humans Begin to Take Control
Chapter Seven: Early Agriculture and Civilization 65
Chapter Eight: Taking Control of Methane 76
Chapter Nine: Taking Control of CO2 84
Chapter Ten: Have We Delayed a Glaciation? 95
Chapter Eleven: Challenges and Responses 106

Part Four: Disease Enters the Picture
Chapter Twelve: But What about Those CO2 "Wiggles"? 119
Chapter Thirteen: The Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Which One? 127
Chapter Fourteen: Pandemics, CO2 , and Climate 139

Part Five: Humans in Control
Chapter Fifteen: Greenhouse Warming: Tortoise and Hare 151
Chapter Sixteen: Future Warming: Large or Small? 159
Chapter Seventeen: From the Past into the Distant Future 169

Chapter Eighteen: Global-Change Science and Politics 179
Chapter Nineteen: Consuming Earth's Gifts 190

Bibliography 195
Figure Sources 197
Index 199

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William F. Ruddiman is the author of Earth's Climate: Past & Future, and has published many articles in Scientific American, Nature, and Science as well as various scientific journals. He recently retired as Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, following many years as a Doherty Senior Research Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

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