Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Review - Under a Green Sky

I just finished reading Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future. It was written by Peter D. Ward. I found it interesting but somewhat hard to read due to some choices the author made in deciding how to relate the material.

The description of the book notes, "University of Washington paleontologist Peter D. Ward demonstrates in UNDER A GREEN SKY that the ancient past is not just of academic concern. Everyone has heard about how an asteroid did in the dinosaurs, and NASA and other agencies now spend large sums of money tracking so–called near Earth objects. Unfortunately, we may not be protecting ourselves against the likeliest cause of our species' demise. Ward's argument, which has been presented to his peers via several papers in Science, is that all but one of the major extinction events in the history of the world have been brought on by climate change–the same global warming that we are experiencing today. Ward explains how those extinctions happened, and then applies those chilling lessons to the modern day: expect drought, superstorms, poison–belching oceans, mass extinction of much life, and sickly green skies."

What I found most useful and informative of this book is the details of the frequent mass extinctions throughout pre-history. Ward does a good job presenting the evidence and showing how most of them can be directly tied to global warming caused by high carbon dioxide levels in the oceans and atmosphere. He acknowledges that an asteroid hit probably is responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs but he shows how the other recorded mass extinctions have a different cause.

This book is interesting as it lays out a history of evolution and extinction in the past of the planet Earth. Climate changes caused by volcanic activity or the ocean conveyor system have been happening for millions of years. Carbon has been changing the face of life on Earth long before humans every existed. However, Ward makes a strong argument on how current rising carbon dioxide levels are due to human activity and that history may repeat itself with yet another mass extinction of species on Earth in the next several centuries.

The best parts of this book are when Ward describes the hard science behind his argument and gives a description of what he predicts is going to happen unless drastic changes are made. However, much of the book is his recitation of the politics of academia and science. He gives way too much detail on the turf battles between different camps of scientists. I think many readers will give up on this book before they hit the best parts of it in the later chapters. I guess maybe because I work in higher education, I do not find any of his descriptions of ego wars between academics that impact the prevailing paradigms all that shocking or newsworthy. At least in the sciences, evidence can be found to advance the underdogs and change the game. That sure is not the case in literature or history most of the time. I wish Ward had shortened this part of his book and expanded much more on the more interesting and really important parts of the book.

Despite be difficult to read at times, the book is worth reading through. I am sure most will find it educational both for pre-history but the science as well. It is short as well at only 242 pages and only 204 minus references and index which makes the book manageable.


Anonymous said...

I teach a Current World Issues course for higher level sophmore learners. After looking at several global warming text, I'm not sure which would be the best to use for class. Do you think Under a Green Sky is suitable for this age? If not, is there any book you would recommend?

M said...

I am not sure most high school students have the sophistication to sit through much of this book. The description of scientific politics is rather dry and may be hard for many high school students to follow. May I suggest just assigning the last two chapters of the book? Take a look at them and see if that might work.


rebecca said...

Good suggestion! I would say that Under a Green Sky, though enjoyable, is too difficult for most high school sophomores (not just the science and the scientists' gossip, but the sentence structure as well). What's more, it is mostly about the very very distant past.
Have you considered An Inconvenient Truth? There is even a kids' version, for diversified instruction. Add the last couple of chapters of Dr. Ward's book, and maybe some of the students will choose to read the whole thing.