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College Quarterly
Fall 2010 - Volume 13 Number 4
The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History
Anthony N. Penna
Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The author of this book has undertaken a seemingly impossible task. It is remarkable that the result is as good as it is.

This is the task: to write a history of the Earth and everything in, on and under it since what my students like to call “the beginning of time.” Obviously, in a volume of only 370 pages (including 65 pages of front matter, endnotes and index) a few details get left out. In fact, as far as the history of the planet, the people and other living things in the biosphere are concerned, this is what my mother used to call “a once-over-lightly.”

The Human Footprint is a compendium of “highlights,” which brings together geology and climatology, anthropology and archaeology, history and geography and a hint of biology and political economy in an ambitious attempt to link diverse parts into a coherent whole.

It provides an inventory of topics that beg further exploration. The range is necessarily vast. We are treated, for example, to about two pages each on the origins of the Earth, Homo neanderthalensis, early urbanization about 6000 years ago and the curse of conspicuous consumption in the modern world. There are slightly longer discussions of human population growth between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries and the case for renewable wind and solar power. At or near the extremes, the “neotechnic” world of oil production gets more than ten pages, while Mayan civilization is allowed to rise and fall in less than one.

To be fair, the book is divided into thematic chapters that are organized more-or-less chronologically that build these brief accounts into a narrative of patterns. The most noticeable is the transformation of the world from a “natural” to a “man-made” environment. This is handled from an interdisciplinary perspective in which appropriate sources of information and interpretation are brought to the description and analysis of disparate phenomena in the hope of telling a comprehensive story. Against most if not all odds, it works.

It would be easy to lose focus in a project such as this, and to descend into a rambling jumble or a disjointed inventory of “factoids” left unassembled into a convincing theme. Anthony Penna, however, has mastered the art of making a necklace. It does no good to try to push a string through the holes in a group of pearls, each lying in disorder on a table top; you have to hold the string firmly in hand and apply the pearls to it in turn. The overall purpose must be established and maintained.

The particular problem with dealing with the environmental string is the ease with which disinterested science can become a didactic polemic, and an empirical account of the evolution of humanity and its cultures interacting with a complex and changing environment can turn into a political screed. The flip side, of course, is the danger of describing a series of events and trends “objectively” and pretending that crucial and controversial issues, matters of life and death for species including our own, are somehow to be excluded for fear of letting “values” invade the realm of “facts.” Striking the right balance is crucial.

The Human Footprint does a serviceable job of negotiating this difficulty. Merely to measure the ways in which human activities from the population growth made possible by the intensification of agriculture, technological innovation and economic expansion to the toxic by-products of industrialization and the reliance on non-renewable energy resources is to raise questions of vital importance. These questions beg answers, and the answers are not going to please everyone. Powerful vested interests are at stake, whether they are those of the global corporate system which separate rich from poor both domestically and globally or whether they connect to the common interest in restoring a sustainable ecosystem.

The “string” connecting these and related issues is, of course, ourselves and our collective interest in survival. Both as pathology and as therapy, The Human Footprint is all about us.

From a universal perspective, this may seem to be just another example of human hubris and, in an important sense, it is. In cosmological time, we are (as Mark Twain so nicely put it) akin to the last coat of paint atop the Eiffel Tower. We emerged very recently and there is no overpowering reason to believe that we will stick around very long. We may be akin to an experiment that failed. Moreover, after we are extinct, there’s a good chance that the Earth will recover from our juvenile vandalism. That, however, is rather beside the point. We will not be around to make amends or even to feel remorse. So, our immediate task is to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves now. The universe, I am sure, will take care of itself.

Anthony Penna’s book doesn’t provide all the answers. It doesn’t even raise all of the questions. It does, however, alert us to a pattern which, if tenaciously explored, will lead the thoughtful reader to a research project of immense personal, social and ecological importance. Each of the ten chapters points toward a rich and rewarding branch of learning from geology and biology to demography to political economy. Though he doesn’t use the term, The Human Footprint encourages what has been called a cultural materialist approach to the conundrums we face in the twenty-first century and beyond. It is materialist in the sense that we face specific problems of survival that must be solved by practical action in a fixed and limited environmental context; there is only so much coal and clean water. It is cultural because we must choose what actions to take using our conscious awareness of the opportunities and the limits that closed system imposes on us; there are only so many options and there is only so much time to decide. The “facts” of our situation and the “values” embedded in our choices cannot be untwined. We have, so to speak, fashioned our necklace and we must learn to repair it without either breaking it or strangling ourselves.

In building from the evolution of an Earth that had no human presence to the contemporary world in which humanity is torn between stark alternatives, we will either rediscover how to live within and as a part of nature, or else we will persist in altering nature so drastically that we cannot live at all. Penna provides a workable platform upon which to build knowledge and aspire to wisdom. His book makes clear what the better choice must be.

The Human Footprint  is an introduction only. It is not a detailed curriculum for the study of global history; but, it is an engaging introduction from which the otherwise uninitiated can move on in the direction of their choosing toward a broader view of life and death. It is full of useful information, but not so much as to be overwhelming. It has a viewpoint, but not so blunt as to be hectoring. It resembles the results of a good physician’s initial examination of new patients in distress. It takes a complete history, makes a tentative diagnosis and outlines a plan for therapy. What the patients do with the good advice they have been given, however, is pretty much up to them.

The chances that the patients will listen attentively and follow scrupulously the guidance that they have been given are not encouraging. Published this past year, it looks forward to the possible renewal of the Kyoto Accord. That is not a possibility. Kyoto has already been abandoned and there is no serious alternative on the horizon. Led by the United States, Canada and Australia and followed by India and China, the movement to slow or stop plans for ameliorative action on climate change and other potentially environmental disasters is apt to prevail, and no authoritative alternative worthy of the name is being proposed. The patient has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and continues to chain smoke. The madness must stop. My generation did not do its duty. A flash of 1960s idealism faded into complacency and willful ignorance, arrogance and avarice. A new generation will have to make up its mind to change its behaviour. Well used, The Human Footprint will do its small part to help in the desperately needed educational process if, that is, it is not too late and if anyone can be persuaded to care.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy and globalization in the degree programs of nursing and social work at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at