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Drawing on research and concepts from fields as varied as physics, biology, anthropology, behavioural psychology and economics, this volume proposes that two unifying threads can be identified running through the 4-billion-year history of life on this planet. The first is the exploitation of energy sources, coupled to an attendant capacity to do work and exert power, generating increasing material and social complexity; the second is a hierarchy of homeostatic regulatory mechanisms, which sequentially stabilise these evolving complexities and are essential to their sustainability and well-being. Six major step-changes in energy use are highlighted, from energising the first cell, out of equilibrium with its environment, to the latest, the industrial revolution fuelled by burning fossil hydrocarbons. Humans now face a seventh revolution, to energise society without these greenhouse gas emissions – however ill-adapted our historic (as hunter-gatherers-cookers) and recently constructed (as Homo economicus) homeostatic mechanisms are to this challenge.
‘R. Gareth Wyn Jones offers a distinctive perspective on the evolution of life and civilization. He links the key transitions – from the emergence of life to our present civilization – to the enhanced availability of energy, and he argues that sustaining planet Earth as a viable home for humans and every organism with which we share it is surely the greatest project ever contemplated. One can learn a great deal from this wide-ranging book.’
- Professor Lord Martin Rees, FRS, Hon. FLSW. Astronomer Royal, former President of Royal Society
‘Energy drives everything, says R. Gareth Wyn Jones, and in this magnificent integration of science and history he shows how all forms of life have had to adapt to the consequences of their own energy consumption. The present consequences are as alarming as at any time in our planet’s history – and anyone who wants to understand them should read this powerful book.’
- Professor Ian Morris, Willard Professor of Classics, Stanford University
‘This beautifully written book is an important contribution to the analysis of the consequences of climate change by an experienced and widely travelled biologist. His treatment of the role of agriculture, and the problems faced by humans in arid lands, are outstanding. The Prologue alone is exemplary, and induced me to delve more deeply into this meticulously researched text.’
- Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS, FLSW, former Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge
‘Life depends on the transformation of energy. From this premise, R. Gareth Wyn Jones takes us on an exhilarating journey through 4 billion years of life on Earth, relating energy to major evolutionary transitions, biotic changes to the environment, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and solutions to current anthropogenic environmental changes.’
- Emeritus Professor John Raven, FRS, FRSE, University of Dundee.
‘Seven encyclopaedic, linked, interdisciplinary chronicles tell the billion-year energy story in Wyn Jones’s essay. Energy propels economic expansion and political power; ’tis known. What to do when our use of energy brings us to imminent threat? Can we possibly find clues to a forward path in the discipline which limits the energy-seeking behaviour of cells? Read on …’
- Margaret Catley-Carlson, former Chair Global Water Partnership; World Economic Forum Water Agenda Council
‘A fresh and elegant scientific synthesis, confirming the exceptional challenge to human inventiveness and adaptability presented by climate change. A fine work, lucid and accessible.’
- Robin Grove-White, Emeritus Professor Environment and Society, Lancaster University
‘R. Gareth Wyn Jones takes us on a voyage of discovery that starts before the origins of life and moves through six major energy steps. Along this journey, his beautifully researched and fascinating text knits together a vast array of topics ranging from cell biology to human psychology. Following the unifying themes of energy and homeostasis, his journey leads us headlong to the very brink of the current climate crisis. Let us hope that this long-and-unifying view might help us all understand both the naturalness and the utter urgency of our current moment.’
- James Intriligator, Professor of the Practice (Human Factors, Engineering and Design), Tufts University, Boston
‘A fascinating tour through the history of energy use on our planet – and a sobering reminder that we have very little time to make very big changes in how we think about and interact with our planet.’
- Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
List of Illustrations
Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter II: The Mysterious Origins of Life
Chapter III: Harvesting the Sun
Chapter IV: A Structural Revolution: Complex Cells
Chapter V: The Hominid Factor
Chapter VI: ‘Food Glorious Food’?
Chapter VII: Fossil Fuels –An Energy Bonanza
Chapter VIII: The Homeostatic Hierarchy.
Chapter IX: Emergent Patterns
Chapter X: The Gathering Storm – Greenhouse Gases: The Effluence of Affluence
Chapter XI: On human behaviour and our social and physical constructs
Chapter XII: Denouement?
Chapter XIII: The Human Factor