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People and Nature: The Big Picture

Published 2005

The book

This small book tells the story of life on planet Earth, from its primordial beginnings several thousand million years ago up to the present time. Special attention is paid to the highly significant impacts of humankind on the living world and to the ecological unsustainability of present patterns of human activity across the globe. It is hoped that the book will encourage individuals to become involved in discussion and debate about the future of civilisation, and to explore ways of becoming actively involved in the transition to an ecologically sustainable, healthy and equitable society of the future.

From the Introduction

The preparation of this book has been motivated by the conviction that a basic understanding, right across the community, of the story of life on Earth and the emergence of humankind as a product and part of nature is a prerequisite for successful transition to an ecologically sustainable and equitable society.

The book is based on an approach to understanding human situations that has been called biohistory. This approach takes knowledge of the processes of life as its starting point, and is concerned with the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and with fundamental biological and ecological principles. It also recognises the enormous significance in the history of life on Earth of the relatively recent emergence of humankind’s most distinctive biological attribute, our capacity for culture. As soon as human culture came into existence it began, through its influence on people’s behaviour, to affect not only humans themselves, but also other living systems. It evolved as a new kind of force in the biosphere, destined eventually to bring about profound and far-reaching changes across the whole planet. Some of these effects of culture would be seen by nearly everybody as desirable from the human point of view, some would be seen as desirable by some people and undesirable by others, and some would be seen as undesirable by nearly everybody.

Biohistory recognises the reality that the processes of life permeate, underpin and make possible the whole social system and everything that happens within it. Without them no human situation would exist, and if they go wrong, then the whole system goes wrong. Keeping them healthy must, in the long run, be our first priority, because everything else depends on them.

157 pages, 15 figures/diagrams, glossary, bibliography, index. ISBN 0 9585674 4 1

The author

Stephen Boyden received his PhD in immunology from the University of Cambridge in 1951 and carried out research in immunology in the USA, Europe and Australia. After 1965 he played a leading role in developing the new field of human ecology and biohistory at the Australian National University. He has published a number of books, and since his retirement, at the end of 1990, he has been an active member of the Nature and Society Forum.

A review from our own journal

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Book review 
People and Nature: The Big Picture
by Stephen Boyden

The Big Picture is a small book with an ambitious scope and a clear purpose. Readers should prepare for their horizons to be broadened and to develop new perspectives as they absorb the information carefully laid out by Stephen Boyden. The beauty of The Big Picture is that it provides a readable and succinct account of the evolution of life on the planet Earth with particular emphasis on the development of human civilisation. Despite its small size the book is packed with facts and lives up to its title admirably. However, it also goes further than a presentation of the facts: several interrelated perspectives are presented. These include a time perspective of the history and evolution of life as well as an ecological perspective of human development in which Boyden identifies four main ecological phases (hunter-gatherer, early farming, early urban and high-consumption). In developing these perspectives Boyden provides the reader with a general factual background while at the same time raising awareness of several areas of concern. Even though many of us may regard ourselves as generally well-informed about the ecological challenges which we now face, some would admit to a lack of knowledge or historical perspective about the development of human civilisation. This book provides such a perspective in a nutshell, and is essential reading for anyone who wishes to further their understanding about the nature of human culture, and how human behaviour in a non-natural habitat can impact the natural world.

An important perspective presented in The Big Picture is that of changing patterns of disease as civilisation has evolved from the natural hunter-gatherer phase through to the current high consumption phase. Boyden suggests that the “natural habitat” of the human species is still the hunter-gatherer habitat, because there has been too little time for the species to adapt to the current conditions of civilisation. An appreciation of this perspective from the hunter-gatherer phase can be helpful when assessing aspects of the current human condition. For example, Boyden uses the conditions of hunter-gatherer society as a basis for identifying what he calls the universal health needs of the human species. He lists these in two areas: the biophysical, such as clean water and a natural diet, and the intangible, such as emotional support and social well-being. These health needs must be met if human activity is to achieve a state of ecological sustainability. Boyden suggests that deviations from natural conditions are the cause of many common diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. This suggestion is supported by recent research into athletes’ diets in the USA which has shown that athletic performance can be improved if athletes adopt a diet low in carbohydrates typical of a hunter-gatherer diet.

The value of a historical perspective such as presented by Boyden is not to suggest that we romanticize hunter-gatherer conditions, but rather that we re-evaluate our current human condition and cultural beliefs based on these universal needs. Some of our current societal beliefs, for example, that happiness increases as material well-being increases, need to be re-examined in the light of our impact on the natural world and associated energy and resource use. While Boyden does not propose any panacea for the future, he does suggest some essential characteristics of an “ecological phase” which could replace the current high consumption phase. As Boyden states in his introduction, one of the aims of his book is to stimulate thought and discussion about how society should go about recognising and dealing with some of the serious problems we face today. Although the book is written for a general readership, it will appeal to people from all walks of life who are prepared to consider different perspectives and to challenge ingrained belief systems. The value of the book lies in its factual presentation of a range of perspectives on human civilisation thereby laying a solid foundation for people to think about where we go from here.

Reviewed by Catherine Gross