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

Overview

"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 ...

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Overview

"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

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Editorial Reviews

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

"The activities of Stone Age farmers may have altered Earth's climate. This is the exciting but controversial theory conveyed by palaeoclimatologist William Ruddiman in his well-written book Plows, Plagues and Petroleum. . . . [A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming."—Nature

"If you're not familiar with Ruddiman's hypothesis, you should be. . . . At a time when some scientist seem to fear that open criticism will give the public the impression that we disagree about the facts on climate change—that it is real, caused in part by humans, and increasingly unavoidable—it is good to read of Ruddiman's faith in the scientific method and his willingness to let the process unfold as it should. . . . Plows, Plagues and Petroleum is excellent reading for scientist and nonscientist alike."—James White, Science

"What William Ruddiman has done in Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, an attractive, well-written new book aimed at a popular audience, is to explore the geochemical and climatological implications of worldwide deforestation over the past several thousand years. . . . 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

"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

"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

Nature
The activities of Stone Age farmers may have altered Earth's climate. This is the exciting but controversial theory conveyed by palaeoclimatologist William Ruddiman in his well-written book Plows, Plagues and Petroleum. . . . [A]n excellent book summarizing and placing in context the age-old influence of humans on atmospheric composition, climate and global warming.
Science
If you're not familiar with Ruddiman's hypothesis, you should be. . . . At a time when some scientist seem to fear that open criticism will give the public the impression that we disagree about the facts on climate change—that it is real, caused in part by humans, and increasingly unavoidable—it is good to read of Ruddiman's faith in the scientific method and his willingness to let the process unfold as it should. . . . Plows, Plagues and Petroleum is excellent reading for scientist and nonscientist alike.
— James White
American Scientist
What William Ruddiman has done in Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, an attractive, well-written new book aimed at a popular audience, is to explore the geochemical and climatological implications of worldwide deforestation over the past several thousand years. . . . 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
EH.net
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691133980
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/22/2007
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Read an Excerpt

Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum

How Humans Took Control of Climate
By William F. Ruddiman

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12164-2


Chapter One

CLIMATE AND HUMAN HISTORY

Most scientists accept the view that human effects on global climate began during the 1800s and have grown steadily since that time. The evidence supporting this view looks quite solid: two greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, or C[O.sub.2], and methane, or C[H.sub.4]) that are produced both in nature and by humans began unusual rises like the pattern shown in figure 1.1A. Both the rate of change and the high levels attained in the last 100 to 200 years exceed anything observed in the earlier record of changes from ancient air bubbles preserved in ice cores. Because greenhouse gases cause Earth's climate to warm, these abrupt increases must have produced a warming.

But one aspect of the evidence shown in figure 1.1A is deceptive. Magicians use a form of misdirection in which flashy movements with one hand are used to divert attention from the other hand, the one slowly performing the magic trick. In a sense, the dramatic change since 1850 is exactly this kind of misdirection. It distracts attention from an important rise in gas concentrations that was occurring during the centuries before the 1800s. This more subtle change, happening at a much slower ratebut extending very far back in time, turns out to be comparably important in the story of humanity's effects on climate.

I propose that the real story is more like the one shown in figure 1.1B. Slower but steadily accumulating changes had been underway for thousands of years, and the total effect of these earlier changes nearly matched the explosive industrial-era increases of the last century or two. Think of this as like the fable of the tortoise and hare: the hare ran very fast but started so late that it had trouble catching the tortoise. The tortoise moved at a slow crawl but had started early enough to cover a lot of ground.

The tortoise in this analogy is agriculture. Carbon dioxide concentrations began their slow rise 8,000 years ago when humans began to cut and burn forests in China, India, and Europe to make clearings for croplands and pastures. Methane concentrations began a similar rise 5,000 years ago when humans began to irrigate for rice farming and tend livestock in unprecedented numbers. Both of these changes started at negligible levels, but their impact grew steadily, and they had a significant and growing impact on Earth's climate throughout the long interval within which civilizations arose and spread across the globe.

For most people (including many scientists), the natural first reaction to this claim of a very early human impact on climate is disbelief. How could so few people with such primitive technologies have altered Earth's climate so long ago? How do we know that the "tortoise" version shown in figure 1.1B is correct? Convergent evidence from two areas of scientific research in which major revolutions of knowledge have occurred in the last half century-climatic history and early human history-provides the answer to these questions and the demonstration of an early human impact on climate.

When I started my graduate student career in the field of climate science almost 40 years ago, it really was not a "field" as such. Scattered around the universities and laboratories of the world were people studying pollen grains, shells of marine plankton, records of ocean temperature and salinity, the flow of ice sheets, and many other parts of the climate system, both in their modern form and in their past manifestations as suggested by evidence from the geologic record. A half-century before, only a few dozen people were doing this kind of work, mostly university-based or self-taught "gentleman" geologists and geographers in Western Europe and the eastern United States. Now and then, someone would organize a conference to bring together 100 or so colleagues and compare new findings across different disciplines.

Today, this field has changed beyond recognition. Thousands of researchers across the world explore many aspects of the climate system, using aircraft, ships, satellites, innovative chemical and biological techniques, and high-powered computers. Geologists measure a huge range of processes on land and in the ocean. Geochemists trace the movement of materials and measure rates of change in the climate system. Meteorologists use numerical models to simulate the circulation of the atmosphere and its interaction with the ocean. Glaciologists analyze how ice sheets flow. Ecologists and biological oceanographers investigate the roles of vegetation on land and plankton in the ocean. Climatologists track trends in climate over recent decades. Hundreds of groups with shorthand acronyms for their longer names hold meetings every year on one or another aspect of climate. I am certain there are now more groups with acronyms in the field of climate science than there were people when I began.

Studies of Earth's climatic history utilize any material that contains a record of past climate: deep-ocean cores collected from sea-going research vessels, ice cores drilled by fossil-fuel machine power in the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets or by hand or solar power in mountain glaciers; soft-sediment cores hand-driven into lake muds; hand-augered drills that extract thin wood cores from trees; coral samples drilled from tropical reefs. The intervals investigated vary from the geological past many tens of millions of years ago to the recent historical past and changes occurring today.

These wide-ranging investigations have, over the last half-century or so, produced enormous progress in understanding climate change on every scale. For intervals lying in the much more distant past, tens or hundreds of millions of years ago, changes in global temperature, regional precipitation, and the size of Earth's ice sheets have been linked to plate-tectonic reorganizations of Earth's surface such as movements of continents, uplift and erosion of mountains and plateaus, and opening and closing of isthmus connections between continents. Over somewhat shorter intervals, cyclic changes in temperature, precipitation, and ice sheets over tens of thousands of years have been linked to subtle changes in Earth's orbit around the Sun, such as the tilt of its axis and the shape of the orbit. At still finer resolution, changes in climate over centuries or decades have been tied to large volcanic explosions and small changes in the strength of the Sun.

Some scientists regard the results of this ongoing study of climate history as the most recent of four great revolutions in earth science, although advances in understanding climate have come about gradually, as in most of the earlier revolutions. In the 1700s James Hutton concluded that Earth is an ancient planet with a long history of gradually accumulated changes produced mainly by processes working at very slow rates. Only after a century or more did Hutton's concept of an ancient planet displace the careful calculations of an archbishop in England who had added up the life spans of the patriarchs in the Bible and calculated that Earth was formed on October 26 in 4004 B.C. Today chemistry, physics, biology, and astronomy have all provided critical evidence in support of the geology-based conclusion that our Earth is very old indeed, in fact several billions of years old.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection, based in part on earlier work showing that organisms have appeared and disappeared in an ever-changing but well-identified sequence throughout the immense interval of time for which we have the best fossil record (about 600 million years). Darwin proposed that new species evolve as a result of slow natural selection for attributes that promote reproduction and survival. Although widely accepted in its basic outline, Darwin's theory is still being challenged and enlarged by new insights. For example, only recently has it become clear that very rare collisions of giant meteorites with Earth's surface also play a role in evolution by causing massive extinctions of most living organisms every few hundred million years or so. Each of these catastrophes opens up a wide range of environmental niches into which the surviving species can evolve with little or no competition from other organisms (for a while).

The third great revolution, the one that eventually led to the theory of plate tectonics, began in 1912 when Alfred Wegener proposed the concept of continental drift. Although this idea attracted attention, it was widely rejected in North America and parts of Europe for over 50 years. Finally, in the late 1960s, several groups of scientists realized that marine geophysical data that had been collected for decades showed that a dozen or so chunks of Earth's crust and outer mantle, called "plates," must have been slowly moving across Earth's surface for at least the last 100 million years. Within 3 or 4 years, the power of the plate tectonic theory to explain this wide range of data had convinced all but the usual handful of reflex contrarians that the theory was basically correct. This revolution in understanding is not finished; the mechanisms that drive the motions of the plates remain unclear.

As with the three earlier revolutions, the one in climate science has come on slowly and in fact is still under way. Its oldest roots lie in field studies dating from the late 1700s and explanatory hypotheses dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Major advances in this field began in the late 1900s, continue today, and seem destined to go on for decades.

Research into the history of humans is not nearly as large a field as climate science, but it attracts a nearly comparable amount of public interest. This field, too, has expanded far beyond its intellectual boundaries of a half-century ago. At that time, the fossil record of our distant precursors was still extremely meager. Humans and our precursors have always lived near sources of water, and watery soils contain acids that dissolve most of the bones overlooked by scavenging animals. The chance of preservation of useful remains of our few ancestors living millions of years ago is tiny. When those opposed to the initial Darwinian hypothesis of an evolutionary descent from apes to humans cited "missing links" as a counterargument, their criticisms were at times difficult to refute. The gaps in the known record were indeed immense. Now the missing links in the record of human evolution are at most missing minilinks. Gaps that were as much as a million years in length are generally now less than one-tenth that long, filled in by a relatively small number of anthropologists and their assistants doggedly exploring outcrops in Africa and occasionally stumbling upon fossil skeletal remains.

Suppose that skeletal remains are found in ancient lake sediments sandwiched between two layers of lava that have long since turned into solid rock (basalt). The basalt layers can be dated by the radioactive decay of key types of minerals enclosed within. If the dating shows that the two layers were deposited at 2.5 and 2.3 million years ago, respectively, then the creatures whose remains were found in the lake sediments sandwiched in between must have lived within that time range. With dozens of such dated skeletal remains found over the last half-century, the story of how our remote precursors changed through time has slowly come into focus.

Even though the details of the pathway from apes to modern humans still need to be worked out, the basic trend is clear, and no credible scientist that I know of has any major doubts about the general sequence. Creatures intermediate between humans and apes (australopithecines, or "southern apes") lived from 4.5 to 2.5 million years ago, around which time they gave way to beings (the genus Homo, for "man") that we would consider marginally human, but not fully so. Today anthropologists refer to everything that has followed since 2.5 million years ago as the hominid (or hominine) line. By 100,000 years ago, or slightly earlier, fully modern humans existed. This long passage was marked by major growth in brain size; progressively greater use of stone tools for cutting, crushing, and digging; and later by control of fire.

Knowledge of the more recent history of humans has increased even more remarkably. Decades ago the field of archeology was focused mainly on large cities and buildings and on the cultural artifacts found in the tombs of the very wealthy; today this field encompasses or interacts with disciplines such as historical ecology and environmental geology that explore past human activities across the much larger fraction of Earth's surface situated well away from urban areas. Radiocarbon dating (also based on radioactive decay) has made it possible to place even tiny organic fragments with a time framework. The development of cultivated cereals in the Near East nearly 12,000 years ago and their spread into previously forested regions of Europe from 8,000 to 5,500 years ago can be dated from trace amounts of crops found in lake sediments. On other research fronts, archeologists unearthing mud-brick and stone foundations of houses have been able to estimate population densities thousands of years ago. Others examining photos taken from the air in early morning at low sun angles find distinct patterns of field cultivation created by farmers centuries before the present. Geochemists can tell from the kind of carbon preserved in the teeth and bones of humans and other animals the mixture of plants and animals they ate. From these and other explorations, the developing pattern of human history over the last 12,000 years has come into much sharper focus.

Because both of these research fields-climatic and human history-concentrate on the past, they have much in common with the field of crime solving. Imagine that a breaking and entering and a murder have been committed. The detectives arrive and examine the crime scene, searching for evidence that will point to the guilty person. How and when did the criminal enter the house? Was anything stolen? Were muddy footprints or fibers or other evidence left behind? Based on all the evidence, and the modus operandi of the possible perpetrators, the detectives gradually zero in on the identity of the criminal. Was the crime the work of a family member, an outsider who knew the family, or a complete stranger? A list of possible suspects emerges, the detectives check out where they were at the time of the murder, and a primary suspect is identified.

By analogy, students of climate and human history also arrive on the scene after the event has occurred, but in this case hundreds, thousands, or even many millions of years later. And, as in the crime scene, the first thing these scientists encounter is evidence that something of importance has happened. Twenty thousand years ago, an ice sheet more than a mile high covered the area of the present-day city of Toronto. Ten thousand years ago, grasslands with streams and abundant wildlife existed in regions now covered by blowing sand in the southern Sahara Desert.

Natural curiosity drives scientists to wonder how such striking changes could have happened, and for some scientists this process of wondering leads to hypotheses that are first attempts at explanations. Soon after a major discovery is made, other scientists challenge the initial hypothesis or propose competing explanations. Over many years and even decades, these ideas are evaluated and tested by a large community of scientists. Some of the hypotheses are found to be inadequate or simply wrong, most often because additional evidence turns out to be inconsistent with specific predictions made in the initial hypotheses. If any hypothesis survives years of challenges and can explain a large amount of old and new evidence, it may become recognized as a theory. Some theories become so familiar that they are invoked almost without conscious thought and called paradigms. But even the great paradigms are not immune from continual testing. Science takes nothing for granted and draws no protective shield around even its time-honored "successes."

Only rarely do scientists studying climate history manage to isolate one causal explanation for any specific piece of evidence. By analogy to a crime scene, the detectives might be lucky enough to find totally diagnostic and incriminating evidence near the murder victim or at the point of the break-in, such as high-quality fingerprints or blood samples with DNA that match evidence from a suspect. If so, the perpetrator of the crime is convicted (unless the prosecutors are totally incompetent). In climate science, the explanation for an observation (the presence of ice sheets where none exist today, or of ancient streambeds in modern-day deserts) more commonly ends up with several contributing factors in plausible contention.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum by William F. Ruddiman Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

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 CO 2 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 CO 2 “Wiggles”? 119
Chapter Thirteen: The Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Which One? 127
Chapter Fourteen: Pandemics, CO 2 , 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
Epilogue
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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