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Copyright © 2004 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Pyke, C. R. 2004. Steffen, W., et al. 2004. Global change and the earth system: a planet under pressure. Springer-Verlag, New York, New York, USA. Ecology and Society 9(2): 2. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss2/art2/

Book Review

Steffen, W., et al. 2004. Global Change and the Earth System: a Planet under Pressure. Springer-Verlag, New York, New York, USA

Christopher R. Pyke

National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Published: July 16, 2004

The human enterprise has expanded at a breathtaking pace over the last 250 years, with dramatic consequences for the Earth’s biophysical and ecological systems. Sometimes the incredible scope of these global changes gets lost in simplified discussions of global temperature or greenhouse gas concentrations. Occasionally, we must step back to appreciate the incredible suite of simultaneous global changes taking place. Almost every major index of human activity and environmental quality is running a 250-year trend, and the rate of change is increasing. Global Change and the Earth System, a new book in the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme Global Change series, reviews the impact of these global stresses on what its authors describe as “a planet under pressure.”

A graphic guide, repeated at the beginning of each chapter, describes the organization of the book: six chapters linking the mechanics of the Earth's system with and without human domination to consequences for human well-being and its own stability. The authors identify opportunities where an understanding of Earth system science may help mediate human impacts and promote global sustainability. Each chapter is fully referenced to primary literature, making the volume particularly useful as a springboard for an advanced undergraduate course or graduate seminar.

It may seem surprising to describe a textbook as an easy read, but this book is an exception to conventional wisdom. It is written in an accessible style that places a great deal of technical literature in context. The attractive color figures and informative legends make the book enjoyable to skim through, as well as a resource for high quality graphics. Many readers will recognize figures from the primary literature, and it is easy to imagine reaching for this volume when preparing a lecture or public presentation. The graphics would be even more useful if the publisher made the figures available on digital media or a website.

Despite the logical framework suggested by the authors, I enjoyed approaching this textbook from the middle. A two-page spread in Chapter 3 lays out 24 graphs illustrating trends in a myriad of important global variables since 1750, including: population, gross domestic product (GDP), dams, water use, fertilizer consumption, motor vehicles, international tourism, flooding, biodiversity, and, of course, carbon dioxide. Any single statistic would be impressive, but the impact of the whole is truly stunning. These pages show more than a fingerprint of global change; perhaps a deep set of tire tracks would be a more accurate analogy. The spread is fully referenced, and it alone could serve as a foundation for an entire semester, with the rest of the book’s 334 pages providing bonus material. However, this would certainly sell short the contributions of the eminent authors and the large number of prominent scientists who contributed technical boxes.

Technical boxes are one of the highlights of the volume. Each chapter has several gray boxes that provide readers with related stories that provide more detail from the primary literature. The boxes are typically written by domain specialists, with topics ranging from isotopic dating techniques to the impacts of land-cover change on East African wildebeest populations. The boxes turn up the intensity of the book, while allowing casual readers to skip over them and follow along in the main body of the text. I particularly enjoyed C. Folke’s treatment of ecosystem resilience to climate change, and A. Jayaraman’s and A. P. Mitra’s description of the Asian Brown Cloud. These stories engage the reader and draw a tighter link to exciting research findings. This arrangement adds significantly to the value of the text and also highlights interesting research. However, regarding one of the few production issues of the book, readers with less than 20/20 vision will probably grumble about the tiny font the authors selected to pack information into the boxes.

In Chapter 5, Global Change and the Earth System provides an exceptionally accessible treatment of the linkages between biophysical systems, ecological responses, and human activities. The authors discuss both scenario- and vulnerability-based approaches to impact assessment. They point out that scenario-based approaches provide the foundation for the widely used Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. Conventionally, this approach follows a linear path from climate change scenarios to biophysical impacts and, finally, socioeconomic consequences. Scenario-based approaches have dramatically improved our understanding of the potential dynamics of the Earth’s system, but they have been less successful in providing guidance to decision makers at local and regional scales who face multiple, interacting stresses. A vulnerability-oriented analysis provides an alterative approach. It typically starts with a particular group, unit, or decision of concern (e.g., coastal communities or investment in flood control structures) and evaluates the risk that a combination of factors (e.g., climate change, rise in sea level, and population growth) may lead to adverse outcomes (e.g., death or property damage). Ultimately, the research and policy communities will find a dynamic balance between these approaches, and the information found in Chapter 5 provides an excellent foundation for discussion.

After describing the array of factors placing stress on the Earth's system, the book reviews emerging strategies for managing human activities and promoting global sustainability. The authors emphasize that studies of global change will play an important role in these efforts. In Chapter 6, the authors present six examples of positive trends in major environmental factors since 1960, including: rapid declines in CFC production, increases in renewable energy consumption, expansion of environmentally protected areas, and improvements in fertilizer-use efficiency. These cases reflect situations where scientific information, political will, and technological capabilities converge to create long-term solutions to global environmental problems. Although these successes are limited relative to the magnitude of on-going challenges, Global Change and the Earth System reflects the vigor and cautious optimism of a growing and increasingly influential discipline.

Steffen and colleagues provide an accessible entry point into the world of global change. In Global Change and the Earth System, they have brought together a wide range of compelling information that may inspire new scientists and remind more experienced ones of the context surrounding their work.


Steffen, W., A. Sanderson, P. D. Tyson, J. Jager, P. M. Matson, B. Moore, III, F. Oldfield, K. Richardson, H. J. Schnellnhuber, B. L. Turner, II, and R. J. Wasson. 2004. Global change and the Earth system: a planet under pressure. Springer-Verlag, New York, New York, USA. 336 pp., hardcover, U.S.$129.00, ISBN 3540408002.


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Address of Correspondent:
Christopher R. Pyke
National Center for Ecological Analysis
and Synthesis,
735 State St., Suite 300,
Santa Barbara, California 93101
Phone: 703-549-0611

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