Roberts, Patrick

For many of us, jungles are the domain of films like Tarzan or Cast Away and feel far removed from our everyday lives. But across the entire world they influence temperature, create rainfall, clean the air, stabilise soils, and provide food and materials for essential products, such that the future of humankind is intertwined with their disappearing wildlife and impending destruction. As Dr Patrick Roberts shows in this startlingly revisionist history of the world, this symbiotic relationship with tropical forests is anything but a recent development.

Jungle tells the remarkable story of the world’s tropical forests, from the arrival of the first plants on Earth millions of years ago to the role of tropical forests in the evolution of the world’s atmosphere, the dinosaurs, the first mammals and even our own species and its ancestors. Highlighting provocative new evidence garnered from cutting-edge research techniques – from plant genetics to laser scanning from aircraft – Dr Roberts shows, for example, that contrary to popular perceptions of jungles as inhospitable, our view of humans as ‘savannah specialists’ is wildly wrong, with people, produce and even cities thriving in tropical forests throughout history.

Human shaping of these environments also has deep historical roots. ‘Anthropocene’-like impacts began not with the Industrial Revolution, but as early as 6,000 years ago in the tropics. Later, European colonialism set off unprecedented exploitation of their resources, natural and human, with fields mercilessly ploughed for uniform stands of new crops, forests felled for timber and mining, and millions of humans brutally uprooted from their homes. As Dr Roberts shows, these extractive processes set us on course for the environmental tipping point we’re fast approaching, with mass-scale burning of the fossilized remains of forests now undoing millions of years of their planetary guardianship.

In showing how we are all inexorably linked to this issue, past and present, and by explaining what needs to be done to save our tropical forests, this tour de force challenges the way we think about the world, and ourselves. Urgent, clear-sighted and original, Jungle is a book for our times, but also for the ages.

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Viking Books, September 2021.  413 pages, hardcover, 8 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; black and white photos and illustrations