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“Global Environment History” a Book by Ian G. Simmons Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Apr 24th, 2020


The book Global Environment History was written by Ian G. Simmons and was first published in the year 2008 (Durham University). The author is a Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University. At the institution he has developed research interests in human-environmental relations from the past and future. More specifically he has addressed the later Mesolithic and early Neolithic environmental setting on the English uplands (Durham University).

The book is 288 pages and contains information on the changes that have been witnessed in the global environment since the last glacial maxim of the Pleistocene (UCP n.d.). The book also examines the flux between the natural environment and living organisms that inhabit this environment. The information contained in the book draws back into history from the period around 10,000 BC to the present day. In this examination the text provides a rich overview that explains how man has come to be in his present situation of an ecological crisis (UPC n.d.).

The book does not only focus on the material world but also includes human ideas about the planet and their place on the planet. The book focuses on the major phases of human technological evolution over the last 12,000 years for direction (UPC n.d.). In the book, Simmons considers how the various changes have affected the natural world. The book further considers the response of the world to phenomenon such as climate change.

Through a careful assessment of the humans and their environment in this long term perspective, the book reveals the history of some of the current anxieties. The book thus presents a very timely examination of the inter relation between history and nature. In so doing, Simmons draws on the work of philosophers, artists and literary figures to give insight into society’s point of view as they transformed the landscape (UPC n.d.).

The gatherer-hunters and their world

As stated in the introduction the goal of the book is provision of information about various different stages both in the past to present. This is then used in understanding how these stages have affected the global environment. The book progressively moves from one era to the next pointing out how the humans in that era survived and identifies their impact on society (Simmons 26).

In this chapter of the text the book points out that until the early Holocene, the human population on earth practiced the hunter-gatherer way of life. Based on this point the author concludes that if human evolution as a genus began over a million years ago, then over 90% of human history has been as hunters-gatherers.

This era in the history of humankind continued until the late Pleistocene characterized by a hostile climate that inhibited the transition to agriculture (Penna 57). During this period it is reported that atmospheric CO2 levels were so low that it placed increased stress on vegetative life forms.

In addition to that there were extreme weather conditions ranging from greenhouse to ice age conditions in a period of 150 years (Penna 57). It has been hypothesized by scientists that the decline of this situation was brought about by the decline in massive ocean ice sheets and ice bergs in the Northern Atlantic latitudes. This trend is imagined to have taken place between 14,500 to 12,900 BP and resulted in gradually warmer climate that was more suitable for agriculture and settlement (Penna 57).

During this phase it is suggested that humans were involved in food collecting 100% of the time and only as the race emerged from the Pleistocene did it quickly convert to agriculture (Simmons). This move to agriculture was prompted mainly due to the retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered the earth surface. The retreat of the ice sheets towards the end of the Pleistocene provided new habitats for the humans to colonize.

It is thus possible to conclude that emergence of these new habitats played a major role in the evolution of the species from hunter-gatherers to agricultural communities. However, the book clarifies that the spread of agriculture was not necessarily uniform given that environmental tolerance of various domesticated plants and animals varies from region to region (Simmons 54). However, in tracing the roots of agricultural activity the author suggests that the process can be linked to two distinct processes.

These activities include the increased intensity of plant use by hunters-gatherers and adoption of permanent settlements (Simmons 54). It is observed in the book that the first documented center of agricultural development was in the Levant region of South West Asia (Simmons 54). This finding is based on evidence from the onset of the Younger Dryas period from 11,000 to 10,500 BC when indications suggest based on climatic conditions food was scarce.

The book also points out that Homo erectus became the only member of the Homo genus to survive extinction almost 22,000 to 20,000 years ago (Simmons 26). This is process appears to have resulted from harsh climatic conditions which presented a population appear to have become a major impediment for the species.

The book suggests that as the species emerged from the Pleistocene it was quickly converted to agriculture such that by 1500 AD, the hunter-gatherer way of life was only restricted to regions that were not arable (Simmons 26). This is supported by evidence in the text that indicates16, 000 years ago following the adverse climatic conditions the human species experienced a major population expansion.

This expansion is likely to have been the result of the agricultural practices that resulted in greater food security. Today the portion of the population that remains as hunter-gatherers is below 0.001 percent. This is due to the fact it is no longer deemed sustainable based on reasons that are more cultural than environmental.

Though the issues relating to human migration scant in this portion of the book, it has been reported that humans survived various adverse climatic conditions of the glacial maxima (Simmons 26). After this event there was a decline in the sea level in various regions and humans managed to colonize new lands such as Tasmania. This is supported by archaeological finds from the era that indicate the southern margins of the Eurasian ice sheets were inhabited.

There are also similar archaeological finds extracted from Mezhirich and Pushkari in Ukraine where Tundra provided adequate plant and animal material to support seasonal hunter-gatherer occupation. It has been suggested hunters of the era specialized in hunting mammoth based on the number of mammoth bones used in building settlements. This fact appears to point to the fact that humans were to some extent responsible for the extinction of the species.

Preindustrial Agriculture

In this chapter the author suggests that biological evolution of the human species was minimal in the duration spent as hunter-gatherers. He continues to point out that after this era changes began to become evident in the lifespan of adult human bodies (Simmons 53).

This is and other factors probably arose due to improvements in the human immune systems and other issues that arose such as ability to gain excess weight. The millennia described in this chapter points out that the energy of the sun served as the fuel for human life through the varied channels of domesticated animals and plants. It is reported that it was mainly in this era that the human race began to show a large variation in types of subsistence and produced positive glimpses of cultural diversity (Simmons 53).

However, the author notes that these environmental changes did not significantly affect the anatomy and physiology of the human race. The main variation of this era and the preceding hunters and gatherers was the fact that the inhabitants of this period had more to eat. It is important to note that the shift from dependence on food collection to food production is not clearly documented and there is little information available detailing the place or time.

The only available information on ancient agriculture is based on archaeological information (Simmons 53). The data from archaeological findings allows the assumption that by around 10,000 BC there were some areas of the world that had already shifted irrevocably to this agricultural way of life (Simmons 53).

As earlier stated the population growth can thus be probably attributed to food production in various regions inhabited by humans. Through this transformation the human species which was originally food collecting became largely food producing.

Though data suggests that there were vast areas that were agriculturally unsuitable it still is possible to assume that food production played a major role in the population growth. The chapter reports that by around 10,000 BC the world population stood at about 4 million while in the year 1750 AD the world population was in the range of 750 million (Simmons 54). The author also goes further to point out that solar based agriculture formed is assumed to be the primary basis for this enormous population growth.

It has also been mentioned that the spread of agriculture was not uniform owing to differences in environment that played a significant role in the adoption of various domesticated plants and animals. However, evidence still indicates that the agricultural way of life guaranteed availability of much more food than the hunter-gatherer way of life (Simmons 54).

It is also possible to assume that there was increased environmental manipulation given that the era was marked by a significant increase in the human activities relating to food production (Simmons 54). Based on this the author suggests that this relatively simple ecological simplicity triggered a series of immense changes in culture. These significant cultural alterations led to a new perspective in terms of human cognition of the world with very far reaching consequences.

The evidence of increased environmental manipulation is best illustrated by indicating major changes s a result of agriculture. Among these changes the most significant include increased intensity in use of plants and the establishment of permanent settlements (Simmons 54).

It has already been mentioned earlier that archaeological data indicates the first such was located in the Levant region of South west Asia. Evidence from these archaeological findings indicates that settlers in this region cultivated wild rye and intensified their use of it till they turned it into a domesticated species.

Further evidence of agricultural activity is evident at the onset of the Holocene around 9600 BC. During this period data indicates that there was an abundance of plant foods and rye had been abandoned for other plants such as wheat and barley (Simmons 54). The evidence of increased agricultural activity is also indicated in changes in hunting of game for food.

In this regard, it has been mentioned in the book that gazelle hunting declined around 8800 BC in favor of sheep herding. The author points out that data collected on these sites suggest that the era was characterized by increased interaction. As such it is possible to conclude agricultural activity occurred in phases that included the harvest of wild plants, cultivation of pre domesticated varieties followed by the onset of complete domestication (Simmons 54).

An industrious world

In this chapter, the author draws the discussion to the emergence of the second Iron Age and gives prominence to the development of fossil fuels as a major energy source (Simmons 110). This fact arises due to the historical data that indicates that energy for human use was mostly channeled either through plant or animal tissue. In this era it should be noted the increased use of coal and, oil and natural gas as the primary source of energy can be attributed to increased use of iron and steel (Simmons 110).

In this chapter the book reports on the significance of the period between 1750 and 1950. The period saw a major increase in exploitation of fossil hydrocarbons in the western world and thereafter everywhere else. It should be noted that though historical evidence exists of the use of coal and natural gas in the previous eras the magnitude of this use is not comparable. This trend is most likely due to changes in scale and technology that saw the emergence of railways, steamships and high volume chemical production from the eighteenth century onwards (Simmons 110).

The book indicates that the inhabitants of these initial centers of industrialization lived in societies that were characterized by a much higher per capita use of energy than any previous era (Simmons 110). For example, the book reports that in Britain in 1870, 100 million tons of coal was consumed in the production of the same quantity of calories required to feed 850 adult males for a year.

It is clear to see that energy formed a key component of this era with varying implications socially and environmentally due to the fact that it is embedded in raw materials. This new Iron Age is best defined by the significant increase in production capacities. This is seen in the fact that production of pig iron in Britain soared to 17,350 tons in 1740 and 2,701,000 tons in 1852 (Simmons 110).

The increased use of natural resources and production was due to knowledge on energy that saw society gain know how such as how to make use of compressed steam (Simmons 110). As a result of this new knowledge steam power came to find many uses beyond driving the locomotives.

The chapter identifies that the underlying aspect of this era can be traced to identification of means of supplementing solar power. This came as societies came to understand how to process fossil fuels to supplement solar energy. (Simmons 111). These fossil fuels are remnants of living tissue that are distributed in various locations worldwide. The adoption of fossil based energy suggested that industrial energy was no longer reliant on surface area.

As a result of this it became possible to produce huge volumes concentrated in small areas and not widely distributed throughout the population. The evidence of this is seen when comparing the effort to produce more wheat per hectare when compared with production of millions of cheap tins.

The latter case suggests ability to concentrate on a single site and exploit the knowledge on modern energy in combination with knowledge on manufacturing processes (Simmons 111). This point led to the situation in which a single manufacturer could access and consume 100 times the amount of energy as their agrarian predecessors.

As a result of such major technological changes there were various transformations in relationships. This point is seen when we consider that before coal replaced wood for firing bricks, more trees were consumed to sustain construction in brick than in timber (Simmons 111).

This suggests the fossil resources allowed greater conservation of land based resources. Similar changes were seen in the relationship to land was also transformed as land that could be used for grazing was enclosed to develop mines, houses, water reservoirs or transport links.

It is reported that since most of these transformations were favorable the new position provided both development and opportunity to sustain the new ecology. In addition to that the author notes that none of the old sources of energy were lost and new technology simply provided additional utility to such sources. To illustrate this example the author identifies the relationship between falling water and the creation of electricity (Simmons 111).

The author points out that the cultural basis of this new energy driven economy is not to be undermined because the environmental changes in the era were of a truly magnificent scale. In addition the book indicates that these changes were extremely diverse and suggest limitless expansion and direction of application within the human race (Simmons 111).

The author illustrates this point in the words of a Scottish improver of the steam engine who wanted to find the weak side of nature and vanquish her. In concluding the chapter the author suggests the complexity of the industrial revolution is beyond the scope the book. However, he mentions that the historical and ecological realities of this era are unquestionable.

A post industrial era

In this chapter the author draws our attention to innovations that have played a role in the dissemination of information through the human race. In this light the author draws our attention to specific subjects such as the use and role of television. The chapter begins by mentioning that the television was a product of the 1920’s though it’s integration into most homes took place after 1950 (Simmons 168).

The use of the television gives emphasis to the fact that between 1950 and 2000 many viewers have made it a tool used to learn a great deal about humans and their environments. The author further states that this trend was further propagated with the advent of satellite television which enabled transmission to remote locations (Simmons 168).

It is suggested that despite the presentation of remarkable visual content it came with the price of lost immediacy. Due to this it is implied that the world became meditated through the screen’s everyday presence. As such a product that was tailored for the individual has become pre programmed by the providers of the services (Simmons 168). For this reason television has been used as a tool to distort based on its ability to turn past fiction into present fact.

The author also points out that the use of fossil fuel continues to increase in the post industrial era which is characterized by a service driven economy. The nature of the current economy has seen services such as financial, educational and medical services generate more income than manufacturing activities (Simmons 170). Also evident in this era is the increased ease of mobility due to increased use of fossil fuels.

The evidence of this is seen in the proliferation of cheap air travel and greater access to private means of transport. In addition to that, the author points out that this era is also characterized by increased leisure time owing to increased disposable income and better health. The author mentions that increased income and better health can be attributed to reliance on machines and high levels of mechanization (Simmons 170).

The author mentions that it is worth noting that all these changes have led to changes in environmental interactions. This is evident given that, energy demands for consumption by individuals in the home continue to dominate public discussions more than the supply of the same resources to industry (Simmons 170).

Another change is seen increased efficiency that results in mechanization and increased use of cheap fossil fuels causing both social and environmental effects. However, it must be noted that this era is also characterized by some novel elements such as an increased drive to identify and use alternative sources of energy. This era has also witnessed increased distribution of electricity facilitated by a digital revolution with an emphasis on computers (Simmons 170).

This era also known as the digital revolution has brought to the fore two main features. The first is the fact that currently many changes in the world are driven by technology. The second is in relation to the role of war that has been accelerated due to the role of the digital computer, targeted biocides, and radar at their present degree of penetration and impact (Simmons 170). Amidst of all these issues it is apparent that some significant changes have began to be noticed in the global environment.

In relation to this, evidence indicates that the year 1990 and the decade of the 90’s was the warmest decade on the planet since 1861 (Simmons 172). This increase in temperature was the largest recorded of any century in the last 1,000 years. The author suggests that it is not surprising that the majority of these changes have been attributed to the continued reliance on fossil fuels.

The economic boom in countries such as China has continually driven reliance on fossil fuels higher despite efforts to identify alternative sources of energy (Simmons 173). In addition to this there is the serious implication of possible depletion of these fossil fuel resources. As a result this era has witnessed intense investigations into identification and implementation of alternative sources of energy. It is further observed that of these alternative sources of energy, the most promising is nuclear power which was initially produced to serve military purposes.

Emerging themes

In this discussion on long term developments in environmental history, the author begins by mentioning that the solution to the global environmental dilemma has not yet been identified. However, the author also goes a step further to clarify that this should not be taken to mean that there is none but rather it a suitable and implementable solution still remains elusive (Simmons 219).

In so doing the author suggests that despite the intense anticipation for a conclusion it may still be a while before the human race can find a solution that can bring the discussion to a close.

Among the emerging themes that have been mentioned in the text relate to the gradual development of a strong ethic in relation to the use of the environment. Based on this it is emerging that there is growing consensus on the fact that there is need to use global resources responsibly in a manner that ensures the sustainability of life and development. This comes to light given the evidence that suggests the depletion of the non renewable fossil fuels is a growing reality (Simmons 219).

In addition to that another emerging theme is an ethic with regard to the whole of nature. Based on this realization it has been suggested that Homo Sapiens are not the culmination of evolution but are indeed one of the many species that inhabit the planet (Simmons 219).

Based on this realization it is emerging that humanity must therefore make efforts aimed at sustaining the environment. This is due to the realization that our environment and habitats contains many organisms that play various roles in this habitat. This ethic has led to an increase in knowledge and understanding of various eco systems and their role in the survival of the planet.

Why was the book written?

The purpose of the author in publishing this book is to provide a long term account of the development and activities of human societies in relation to the planet. The author states that there are a number of similar books that provide a long range analysis and worldwide accounts of similar nature. However, he suggests that there appears to be a chronological gap in the books that has not been filled by any comparable work. This position infers that for a really long range historical comparison of human societies and their activities over the last 4.5 billion years, there is a shortage of suitable books (Simmons XVI).

The author further mentions that though there are several overviews with an emphasis on environment here is a lack on in depth analysis of the topic over a long range of time. This reason appears to indicate why the book was written given the need for such a book providing an in depth analysis.

Another reason the book was written was to build on past knowledge on the depletion of fossil fuels to increase the relevance of the work (Simmons XVI). It has also been suggested that the book may also have been written with the goal of identifying and describing varying notions that describe human behavior. For example, it has been noted that fundamental religionists favor divergence as the testimony of some divine mandate.

On the other hand environmentalists are likely to see the trends on the globe as a drive to destruction. This book therefore attempts to create a discussion in light of the fact that humans exist as groups and individuals driven by conflicting needs, demands and illusions. It is in such light that this book attempts to provide an independent view of the events that have taken place over a long period of time and the impact of such events on the environment.

Critical Analysis

On analysis of the book it would appear that the author’s arguments are sound. This is seen in the fact that history is best defined as the tale of change. This position suggests that if people around the world remained in one state from year to year and from one generation to the next, merely repeating cycle of growth and decay, then there would no history worth being written or even read (Hughes 1).

Due to this fact it appears that there is need to document the history of humanity in relation to the environment given that change is an inescapable aspect of life. In addition to that environmental change is crucial given that it has played and continues to play a major role in our lives.

On analysis of the book it would appear that the main challenges in history took the form of natural catastrophes. These major events threatened the survival of communities by altering cultural and economic choices that ensure the survival of the species. Such changes are mentioned in the text in the era of the glacial maxima that eventually resulted in relocation to more favorable territories and the eventual emergence of agricultural communities (Simmons 26).

On studying the past of the planet one encounters many instances of antagonism between humankind and nature. As a result of this, ecological processes have played a significant role in definition of the course of human history. Due to these ecological changes humanity has encountered major environmental change that led to adaption and alteration of patterns within their societies (Hughes 1). This fact reported by the author is evident during numerous historical periods.

In the adjustment to survive various ecological conditions the human species evolved by competing, cooperating, using and being used by other species. For this reason the human species can be considered an offspring of the various interacting forms of life on earth. This is evident based on the fact that present human species came resulted from various adjustments in their ecosystems.

This brought changes to the sustenance they used, the set of problems they encountered and as a result sharpened their wits in the identification of the way forward (Hughes 6). Because of this adaptive nature reports indicate that to a more impressive degree than any other species, humans have shaped their eco systems. This suggests that humans and the rest of the ecosystem have been engaging constantly in a process of co evolution (Hughes 6).

With the development of the humankind throughout history there have been changes to the ecology. These changes in the environment more often than not have far reaching implications. This position leads to the suggestion that there is a need to reconcile the relationship between the environment and humankind (Hughes 7).

The study of ecology describes nature as consisting of complex systems with many parts. Among these systems are biological communities which live and integrate with other organisms and eco systems. Ecology suggests a body of knowledge on the economy of nature and as such includes relationships between animals and the organic and inorganic environment. This leads to the need to reconcile imbalances that human development may have brought about in the environment.

Based on this role, ecological processes must therefore form an important theme in the narrative of the history of the world. This narrative must record the changes in the natural environment and the ways in which the environment has affected and been affected by human activity over time (Hughes 8). This interaction between human events and nature is crucial as it has been active during every chronological period. This relationship between past changes helps us to explain the present and is crucial in making decisions for the future (Hughes 8).

Another important aspect discussed in the book is in relation to the age of manufacturing and mining. Though it is reported that this age began many millennia ago with the fashioning of tools, ornaments and weapons it is reported that the age of industrialization lead to serious degradation of the earth in search of natural resources used a fuel.

During this age it has been reported that the earth ecosystems were destroyed in ways that were not heard of before. It is reported that among the main reasons for this major drive for exploitation was a massive growth in population. The increased populations led to larger urban settlements that encroached on even larger natural ecosystems (Hughes 154). Alongside this huge population boom was a major increase in reliance on fossil fuels.

This position further supports the need to reconsider the use of resources on the planet. For this reason there has been an increase in conservation efforts around the world and research into alternative sources of energy to carry humankind into the future.

Works Cited


Hughes, J. Donald. An Environmental History of the World: Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life. Oxon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Penna, Anthony S. The Human Footprint: a Global Environmental History. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010. Print.

Simmons, Ian G. Global Environmental History: 10,000 BC to Ad 2000. Edinburgh: Cromwell Press, 2008. Print.

University of Chicago Press (UCP) n.d. . N.d.

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