A comprehensive assessment of humanity's assault on the environment across the centuries, by British historian Ponting (University College, Swansea). Examining the interaction between societies and their surroundings from the earliest hunter-gatherer groups on, Ponting describes the first great leap of civilization--the development of crops and agriculture--as the start of a systematic environmental transformation. As groups settled near their fields and as populations grew, the burden on the land increased, and at times the ecological pressure grew too great. Crop irrigation, the author says, led to increased salination and diminished yields, while a loss of forest cover brought erosion and the destruction of precious arable land. The Sumerian civilization in the Middle East and the Mayans of Central America, among others, fell victim to these limits to growth, with the collapse in some cases being precipitous. Other societies survived, however, to participate in the more recent great transition involving the use of fossil fuels for energy. With this step, Ponting says, environmental degradation increased exponentially through pollution at all stages of the industrialization process--and, in addition, the industrialized societies, by their exploitation of others less advanced, created the Third World, with its Pandora's Box of poverty, overpopulation, and other social ills that continue to worsen today. Ponting suggests no solutions, marking instead the devastating course of human progress and the ruins that serve as its milestones. Few colorful anecdotes, but an impressive accumulation of evidence culled from the annals of recorded history: a sobering view of a planet deeply in peril.