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Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

Laurent Testot | Translated by Katharine Throssell

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, 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.

Laurent Testot is a French journalist and lecturer who specializes in global history. His books include Homo Canis and The New World History.


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 SGOKI.org

“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 humanity’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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