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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2000

Book Reviews

Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment

Gregory K. Raschke
Reference Librarian and Information Consultant
Library & Information Center
Georgia Institute of Technology

Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment. Edited by Jill Ker Conway, Kenneth Keniston, and Leo Marx. University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. 368 p. $50.00 (ISBN 1-55849-220-8).

The concept of a fundamental element or elements forming the basis of all matter has existed since the ancient Greeks dominated science and philosophy. Empedocles, and later Aristotle, developed the theory that all things are composed of four elements: air, earth, water, and fire. Although modern scientific understanding of the elements has grown substantially since the time of the ancient Greeks, the mystical connection between humanity and the elements of nature remains. The editors and contributors to Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment understand the historical, social, and cultural connection between humanity and the environment. The authors' efforts to integrate scientific and humanistic solutions to environmental problems are supported by this ancient connection of humanity to nature.

As the title suggests, Earth, Air, Fire, Water... takes a humanistic approach to studying the environment. In an effort to provide historical analysis as well as modern context, the book covers a spectrum of time periods and subject matter. From Gregory Nagy's study of "Metaphorical Perspectives on the Heavens and Atmosphere in the Ancient World" to Anton Struchkov's essay on "Modernity and the Environment as a Public Issue in Today's Russia," each of the fourteen entries adds a fairly unique humanistic perspective to studies of the environment. While some of the entries, such as Terence Turner's "Indigenous Rights, Environmental Protection, and the Struggle over Forest Resources in the Amazon," cover familiar territory, each entry adds new intellectual content to the environmental studies discipline. Leo Marx's particularly strong entry on "Environmental Degradation and the Ambiguous Social Role of Science and Technology" provides a quality summary to the work by addressing the role of humanities in defense of the environment as well as analyzing the sources of environmental problems, cultural and social impediments to change, and the roots of environmental consciousness and activism.

The book's greatest strength is its ability to conceptualize and portray the importance of the environment and environmental issues for a variety of peoples, places, and cultures. Along with Ian Simmons' Humanity & Environment: A Cultural Ecology, this work provides an excellent starting point for scholarly inquiry into humanity's role in environmental processes, degradation, preservation, and recovery. The text's only real weakness is that while it provides a sound basis for further humanistic studies of the environment, its range of coverage can leave the reader searching for the central message. However, the strength of the writing and subject matter in the individual entries more than makes up for any lack of depth.

All three of the editors have substantial academic backgrounds and distinguished scholarly records. Their experience is evident in the well-written text, strong editing, and unique content. Jill Ker Conway is a visiting scholar and professor at MIT. She was president of Smith College in Australia for ten years. Kenneth Keniston is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Human Development at MIT. Leo Marx is the William R. Kenan Jr. Emeritus Professor of American Cultural History at MIT. With its strong scholarly content, unique subject matter, and interdisciplinary coverage, Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment is recommended for all academic libraries and any scholars with an interest in humanistic studies of the environment.

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