Reviewed by Donald Logsdon Jr.
As human population grows beyond 7 billion, competition for the Earth’s resources increases. The natural environment and biodiversity are severely impacted, leading to a decrease in the number of species, a process some call the Sixth Great Extinction.
The author examines human efforts to conquer the planet from a geographic perspective and how we contend with various forces of nature. As he states: “The goal of this book is to show how geographic paradigms, especially human ecology set in past times, can help frame contemporary environmental issues in a continuous temporal context.” The book discusses three approaches that have historically been used by humans as we have expanded to all corners of the globe. The first is environmental determinism, the idea that we can do little to shape the environment using our technology and should instead work to live a sustainable lifestyle. The second approach is possibilism, the idea that technology can forestall the forces of nature and ensure our indefinite future. The third approach, favored by the author, is human ecology. This is the idea that humans should and can adapt to changing environments over time.
The book includes 12 chapters. The first half of the book is focused on human ecology and how it differs from the other two approaches. The next few chapters focus on various forces of nature. The last two chapters examine population growth and migration patterns and how these affect life in the Americas. An important part of the discussion of human ecology is the concept of the ecumene, the places humans most like to live. These are predominantly coastlines and temperate climates. With 7 billion plus people, most of the best spaces are filled, forcing people to live in less desirable places. Another interesting idea is geotheology, the idea that human actions against the environment will result in punishment. This is recognized in legal terms as “Acts of God.” Forces of nature discussed include hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, including information on how we think these are produced. We spend a lot of time and money attempting to predict these forces and to protect people from them, while at the same time human populations in the most threatened areas continue to grow. Climate change is discussed, including our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some have a strong geotheological perspective that climate change is nature’s retribution for our energy–wasteful society.
Overall this is an interesting, well–written book, discussing some important ideas about how we see and deal with the natural work, something we often forget we are a part of. Human ecology is an important compromise between the bleak pessimism of environmental determinism and the extreme optimism of possibilism and is worthy of further study.
Review posted on 7/10/2012