The Cosmic Oasis: The Remarkable Story of Earth’s Biosphere
As I begin this review, The Guardian is reporting on a high-pressure system that is inducing unprecedented temperatures around the Mediterranean Sea. Parts of Rhodes, Corfu, and Evia are aflame. There are also wildfires on mainland Greece and Italy, while others in Algeria have killed 34 people in two days. Meanwhile, recent wildfires in eastern Canada resulted in dense smog in New York. Considerable areas of the biosphere are aflame, and the World Weather Attribution initiative, an international effort by climate scientists to analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events, has stated that this summer’s southern European and southwestern US heatwaves would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.
These recent events reflect disconcertingly the main subjects of The Cosmic Oasis. After a long, readable review of how the biosphere was assembled and its impact on the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere, the authors explore two themes. The first is that many species of human ape walked the landscape starting approximately 3 million years ago, living alongside other apes as part of nature. The hominids then began to change and, after a short while, so did nature. The domestication of other animals, beginning around 12000 years ago, changed humanity’s view of its place in nature. Our species began to see itself as something special, separate, and in control, which had widespread impacts. For example, 2000 years ago, a fifth of the human population (300 million at that time) lived in the Roman Empire, with 1 million alone in Rome. Emperor Vespasian constructed the Colosseum – a theatre of death. For over 400 years, this building was a spectacle of slaughter of people and animals, a million of the latter being killed there. This required a brisk trade in big game that left parts of the old world denuded; lions disappeared from Mesopotamia and hippos disappeared from the Nile delta.
Secondly, recent decades have seen the development of the “technosphere”, which we could not live without and which cannot (yet?) survive without us. The authors present the idea of technodiversity, arguing, for example, that the number of technospecies of writing implements alone is rivalling that of beetles worldwide. The continuation of the technosphere requires major degradation of the other spheres so the authors present possible mitigating measures. I hope they are not too little too late; our world now needs our ingenuity for our survival.
Reviewed by Brent Wilson
BY: Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz, with illustrations by Anne-Sophie Milon (2022). Oxford University Press. 280 pp.
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