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Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate (New in Paper)

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Overview

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? Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum has sparked lively scientific debate since it was first published--arguing 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. While our massive usage of fossil fuels has certainly contributed to modern climate change, Ruddiman shows that industrial growth is only part of the picture. The book concludes by looking to the future and critiquing the impact of special interest money on the global warming debate.

In a new afterword, Ruddiman explores the main challenges posed to his hypothesis, and shows how recent investigations and findings ultimately strengthen the book's original claims.

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Editorial Reviews

Technology and Culture
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 - Sam White
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.
Science - James White
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: If you're not familiar with Ruddiman's hypothesis, you should be. . . . Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum is excellent reading for scientist and nonscientist alike.
American Scientist - Wolfgang H. Berger
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Guardian - Tim Flannery
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
EH.net - Robert Whaples
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Geotimes - Matthew S. Lachniet
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Nature and Culture - Arlene Miller Rosen
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Journal of the History of Biology - Erik M. Conway
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Science News - S. Perkins
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
Left History - Michael Egan
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: 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.
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2006 Book Award in Science, Phi Beta Kappa

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "[A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming."--Nature

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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, EH.net

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "[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

Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "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

Nature
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: [A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming.
Science
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
American Scientist
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Guardian
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
EH.net
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Geotimes
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Nature and Culture
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Journal of the History of Biology
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Science News
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Population and Development Review
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: [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.
Left History
Praise for Princeton's previous editions : 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
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691146348
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 4/4/2010
  • Series: Princeton Science Library Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 539,342
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

William F. Ruddiman is the author of "Earth's Climate: Past and Future", and has published many articles in "Scientific American", "Nature", and "Science", as well as various scientific journals.

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  • Posted October 23, 2011

    A unique and outstanding contribution to the climate change literature

    During the 1960s scientists resurrected the astronomical (or Milankovitch) theory of climate change which had languished for at least half a century. The theory offered the possibility of not only explaining Earth's past climate change, but of predicting its future as well. Armed with this knowledge, some scientists made what has become one of the most controversial missteps in the recent history of climate change science - they predicted that the Earth might be on the brink of another ice age. Within a few years the impact of greenhouse gases on the world's climate made it clear that humans had more to worry about from warming than cooling. The apparent flip-flop seriously eroded the credibility of science in the public forum.

    In Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, William Ruddiman takes this apparent faux pas and turns it instead into a powerful argument that human climate interference dates from far earlier than has ever been proposed. The fundamental thesis of the book is that the major greenhouse gases - CH4 and CO2 - should, in fact, have declined steadily following the insolation-defined, interglacial temperature maxima at approximately 10,000 BP, but that human agency, namely, agriculture, reversed the trend, pumped both gases into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts, and managed to stem what should have been a global cooling and possibly, even, the re-growth of continental glaciers in North America. Over 8000 years, pre-industrial agriculture had a comparable effect on climate, he claims, as does modern, industrial fossil-fuel burning.

    Along the way, Ruddiman even throws in plagues as an explanation for secondary "wiggles" in the overall upward-trending greenhouse-gas trend. Plagues, he further hypothesizes, wiped out enough farmers, such that previously plowed regions of the Earth returned to forest, sucking up CO2 and leading to temporary cooling intervals.

    The absence of any evaluation of probability for the hypotheses presented is about the only flaw in this otherwise superbly written book. Ruddiman properly avoids any statement on climate policy within the text of the main arguments, restricting his discussion to an epilogue. He realistically assesses what will very likely be the actual global response to the reality of global warming (politics and economics will trump science and alarmism) while reflecting on his disillusionment with extremists on both sides of the climate "debate" - especially from the industrial wing.

    Given the unique character of Ruddiman's thesis, a more complete bibliography would have been welcome.

    Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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