Comps Notes: The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years 

Edited by B.L. Turner II 

From the first page it is clear that The Earth as Transformed by Human Action is an updated version of Man’s Role in Changing the Earth from its large scale to its interdisciplinary approach. Indeed, B.L. Turner, Robert W. Kates, and William C. Clark list Marsh’s Man and Nature and Man’s Role as precursors to their project. However, The Earth is Transformed is also unmistakably a product of its time. In the thirty-four years that passed between Man’s Role and The Earth as Transformed, three major changes occurred. Firstly, new ways had been developed to examine the earth as a whole. Secondly, new technology had been developed to analyze and collect data. Thirdly, the social structures that affect environmental transformation had been reconsidered and updated. 

The Earth as Transformed’s place in the academic timeline is largely marked by its emphasis of a new conceptualization of a united, global community. As the earth becomes more connected by way of technology, globalization becomes an ever-greater force in all realms of life. Looking at environmental transformation from a global perspective effectively illuminates the scale to which human’s have exacted their altering power, whereas regionalization may paint a different, and perhaps skewed, portrait due to the fact that some regions have had very little environmental degradation while others have been perceptibly, heavily damaged. This is not to say the regional studies have no validity, as they still bring the topic to life in a more approachable and relatable manner for the reader. As Turner and William B. Meyer commented, “The regional scale makes possible a manageable and meaningful integration of environmental transformations with the forces that have directly given rise to them.” (467) 

Another important overarching theme is that of periodization, reminding the historian that the choice of scale plays a large role in defining the nature of a project and its findings. The Earth as Transformed, as the title suggests, dealt with the last three-hundred years, which Robert McC. Adams wrote, “attache[d] unique and central importance to the Industrial Revolution as a profound contributor to the transformation of the environment.” (ix) Bringing the Industrial Revolution to the forefront suggested that the most profound changes in the environment had happened in the relatively recent past. It also implied that consumerism and technological advances have had a large role to play in this accelerated destruction.  

The time in which Earth as Transformed was compiled is also dated by the inklings of postmodernist thought that are scattered throughout the book. It was emphasized that all nature/human relations have been socially constructed. The reader is reminded to think of the past critically, as Adams stated, “while considering the degree to which recorded changes may have been products of changing aggregate forms of human activity…we should remember that perception of these events has passed through a cultural filter and does not come down to us as an objective record.” (vii) However, skepticism should not be reserved only for past accounts, as it is also impossible for mankind to fully comprehend the situation it is in at the moment and thus it is most difficult to for mere humans to predict what will happen in the future.  

While Earth as Transformed stands out because of these unique qualities, it also continues many of the same academic discussions started as far back as the late 1800s with Marsh’s Man and Nature. Population or rather overpopulation is still a major player within the analyses. Man is still enamored with the belief that more people and continuous “progress” are always unquestionably better maintaining the status quo. The slow-moving cultural and natural structures first brought to the forefront by Braudel still play a major role. The researchers also continue to stress the ethical importance of man taking responsibility of his actions and helping to ensure the earth’s habitability for future generations. Jessica T. Mathews and Clark expressed their optimism for the future on page 141. “It can only be hoped that the next century will turn out to be the one in which humankind learns to manage its global and growing power to transform planet earth,” they wrote. Now nearly a decade into the next century, one cannot help but feel discouraged. One must wonder how long this kind of optimism and confidence in the future can last before abject nihilism sets in. Will the next instalment in the Earth as Transformed and Man’s Role series be as hopeful or will it be the one that portrays our ecological hubris as our ultimate doom? 

Feature PhotoHoover Dam, May 7, 2014 by Airwolfhound

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