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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Cataclysms An Environmental History of Humanity

By: Laurent Testot(Author), Katharine Throssell(Translated by)
452 pages, 1 b/w photo, 1 table
Ambitious in scope, Cataclysms is a narrative rather than data-driven environmental history of humanity that will fascinate newcomers to this field, but might leave seasoned readers craving more.
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Average customer review
  • Cataclysms ISBN: 9780226609126 Hardback Dec 2020 In stock
Price: £27.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Related titles

About this book

Humanity is by many measures the biggest success story in the animal kingdom; but what are the costs of this triumph? Over its three million years of existence, the human species has continuously modified nature and drained its resources. In Cataclysms, originally published in French, Laurent Testot provides the full tally, offering a comprehensive environmental history of humanity's unmatched and perhaps irreversible influence on the world.

Testot explores the interconnected histories of human evolution and planetary deterioration, arguing that our development from naked apes to Homo sapiens has entailed wide-scale environmental harm. Testot makes the case that humans have usually been catastrophic for the planet, "hyperpredators" responsible for mass extinctions, deforestation, global warming, ocean acidification, and unchecked pollution, as well as the slaughter of our own species. Organized chronologically around seven technological revolutions, Cataclysms unspools the intertwined saga of humanity and our environment, from our shy beginnings in Africa to today's domination of the planet, revealing how we have blown past any limits along the way – whether by exploding our own population numbers, domesticating countless other species, or harnessing energy from fossils. Testot's book, while sweeping, is light and approachable, telling the stories – sometimes rambunctious, sometimes appalling – of how a glorified monkey transformed its own environment beyond all recognition.

In order to begin reversing our environmental disaster, we must have a better understanding of our own past and the incalculable environmental costs incurred at every stage of human innovation. Cataclysms offers that understanding and the hope that we can now begin to reform our relationship to the Earth.



Part I: Monkey Conquers the World
1 We Are the Children of the Climate
2 The End of the Elephants
3 The Wheat Deal
4 Collapse

Part II: Monkey Dominates Nature
5 When Gods Guide the Way
6 All Empires Will Fall
7 After Summer Comes Winter
8 Biological Hazards
9 Demographic Hazards

Part III: Monkey Transforms the Earth
10 The Promises of Quicksilver
11 Cold, Cold Earth
12 Dying for the Forest
13 Unlimited Energy
14 The Cold Chill of Catastrophe
15 A Time of Excess
16 The Blind Flock
17 Tomorrow’s World
Epilogue to the English Edition: Two and a Half Years after the French Edition . . .

Appendix A: Glossary
Appendix B: Chronology

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Amibitious in scope, narrative in style
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Jan 2021 Written for Hardback

    What is the price of humanity's progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

    Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

    To be frank, Testot deals with the first 2,988,000 years in the first two chapters. Understandably, as the pace of progress was initially slow, and comparatively little information is available to us from the palaeontological and archaeological records. Thus, he starts his history proper with the agricultural revolution ~12,000 years ago. Given the synthesizing nature of this book, Cataclysms will be a feast of recognition for readers that are familiar with the literature.

    Some examples include the near-simultaneous rise of agriculture in several places, with geography playing an important role in which plants and animals were available to domesticate, or the fall of the Late-Bronze Age civilizations in the 12th century BCE. The myth of virgin rainforests and the long history of agriculture practised in the jungle. The microbiological onslaught that accompanied the Columbian exchange when Christopher Columbus and other explorers brought new epidemics to the Americas, or the scourge of mosquito-borne diseases that later decimated European colonialists overseas. The medieval Little Ice Age and the global crises it precipitated, or the worldwide impact of the Tambora volcanic eruption. The Great Acceleration in the 20th century and the recognition of the Anthropocene. All of these have been chronicled at length in books and other publications.

    Testot also mentions episodes that I was barely familiar with; partially, I suspect, because he can draw on the French history literature. For example the eruption of the Samalas volcano that seems to have served as a transition between the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. Or the 15th-century mining for silver in the Andes and the immense pollution that caused. Or the environmental roots of the expression "mad as a hatter" (it involves the 17th-century beaver trade). Cataclysms sometimes seems to forget it is an environmental history book. Thus, the environment takes a backseat when he describes the Axial Age, the period between 800-300 BCE that saw the birth of universal religions and philosophies in both Asia and Europe that are still with us today. Similarly, the chapter charting the rise of money, empires, and trade in Europe and Asia before the Common Era only at the very end examines the environmental impact of it all.

    The book's style might divide opinions. Testot throws all his eggs in the proverbial narrative basket. The book is clearly deeply researched, but the notes section at the end encompasses a mere 16 pages. Testot must have decided that supporting every claim and fact with a footnote would have distracted from the story he tells. Although the references contain many interesting books and publications, those wishing to check up on certain claims will have to do their own research. Furthermore, the book is strikingly devoid of photos, maps, graphs, and tables, bar a single chart of the human world population through time in the appendix. As such, I felt Cataclysms did not deliver on the dustjacket's promise of providing "the full tally" the way e.g. Vaclav Smil did in Harvesting the Biosphere. Those wanting a more data-driven overview will probably want to check out Cataclysms‘s big contender for 2020, Daniel R. Headrick's Humans versus Nature. I had the chance to rifle through a copy, though not yet read it in full. At 604 pages with a 100-page notes section (and some illustrations), it promises to be a denser read.

    Testot's outlook for the future is bleak, though his concluding chapter wanders somewhat aimlessly. Rather than offering an overview of which planetary boundaries we have breached and how far in overshoot we are, Testot focuses on what he calls the upcoming Evolutive Revolution before turning to some likely consequences of climate change. This final revolution could either pan out as the pipe-dream of transhumanism where nano-, bio-, and information technologies converge into the singularity that would make humans immortal / obsolete as Artificial Intelligence takes over (something Testot is critical of), or we may end up as mutants in the chemical cesspit that we are making of our planet. Throw in a conclusion and an epilogue to the English edition that both reiterate main points from the book, and it starts to feel a little bit like Tolkien's struggle to let the reader go in the last book of The Lord of the Rings.

    Environmental history has become a rather crowded subject and opinions will probably be divided on whether Cataclysms stands out from the crowd sufficiently. It will undoubtedly charm newcomers to the field with its narrative style and ambitious scope – Testot knows how to spin a fine yarn and provides an entry point to many fascinating chapters in world history that readers will want to explore further. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but I suspect that seasoned readers will crave something more dense and data-heavy.
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By: Laurent Testot(Author), Katharine Throssell(Translated by)
452 pages, 1 b/w photo, 1 table
Ambitious in scope, Cataclysms is a narrative rather than data-driven environmental history of humanity that will fascinate newcomers to this field, but might leave seasoned readers craving more.
Media reviews

"Testot's Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity is a global and historical tour de force of humans facing nature; from the earliest of times to our present days. Testot's book demonstrates that we still are monkeys; basically seeking the tribal pleasures of a warm pool. Yes, the human monkey has conquered the world, dominated nature, and transformed the Earth. But that's it. Nothing more. Thus, in 2020, this monkey world is as vulnerable as ever in its struggle to cope with a single, tiny virus – COVID-19. Now is the time to stop, think, and read this book."
– Dag Herbjørnsrud, global historian of ideas and founder of

"Whether it be the internet or the coronavirus, we all know the world is connected. But how did we get here? In this brilliant, highly readable book, Testot answers that question. He follows mankind's trek out of Africa and the footprint this 'naked ape' left behind as humans conquered the world's continents. It is a study of environmental tragedy, but Testot also tells a story of hope. He provides a history of our shared past from the earliest times to the present and, in so doing, suggests how this can help us to make the future better."
– Christopher Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal

“Welcome to the world that the alpha predator – we, of course – have made. Roving the globe to chronicle the catastrophes that humans have visited on the planet, Testot brings to the abstract idea of environmental collapse wisdom, warmth, and warning. This is the book we all need to read.”
– Timothy Brook, University of British Columbia

“In this essential book, Testot has written a fascinating history of the relationship of mankind with its environment. At each stage of its historical evolution since the Neolithic, mankind has led a more and more aggressive war on nature. The question remains: who will end this war and prevent us from entering into chaos? To answer, this book is a must-read."
– Philippe Beaujard, author of The Worlds of the Indian Ocean

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