When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.
The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because—bonus detail—the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.
The legendary British broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough needs almost no introduction. Since his first appearance on our television screens in 1954, he has gone on to a long and distinguished career presenting and narrating groundbreaking nature documentaries. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His voice and style have become so iconic that he has been dubbed the voice of nature. Over the years, he has increasingly expressed concern over the state of the natural world, and in A Life on Our Planet Attenborough fully engages with this topic. However, when you turn to the title page you will notice the name of a co-author, Jonnie Hughes, who directed the Netflix documentary tied in with this book. As Attenborough explains in his acknowledgements, Hughes has been particularly instrumental in the writing of the third part of the book, together with substantial assistance from the Science Team at WWF. This is Attenborough’s witness statement, yes, but whose vision of the future is it?
What I am about to write is probably going to upset many people, but… I am growing frustrated with the narrative of much of the environmental movement. Taking to the streets to protest and demand change, to “do something!”, is all fine and dandy, but it is also a bit hypocritical. It fosters a narrative in which the onus is always on others and it begs the counter-question: “what are you willing to give up?”. That is the hard question.
There, I said it. You have the option to stop reading now.
In all seriousness, if we want to avert dangerous climate change or allow forests to recover from deforestation, how much change is enough? How much are we allowed to consume? Planetary Accounting will not offer you final prescriptive answers, but it is an important first step in quantifying per capita quota for what each of us can consume and pollute without it costing the planet.
How many people can planet Earth support? That is the thorny question that economist Partha Dasgupta tackles in Time and the Generations. Or, as he asks: “How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world?” Given that I have previously called overpopulation the elephant in the room that few wish to address, my interest was immediately piqued.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
Speaking of controversial. As mentioned in my previous review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition, concerns about human overpopulation go back to at least Malthus, a name that has become synonymous with this topic. How do you tackle this incredibly thorny issue? Malthus believed moral restraint where having children is concerned should be encouraged, which strikes me as starry-eyed and completely out of reach, especially in the individualized societies of today. Simultaneously, we have seen some pretty drastic population control measures with ugly side-effects, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. The cry of eugenics if never far away when this topic is tabled. Can we have any sensible discussion to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia? This small book does a serious attempt.
Following hot on the heels of Cambridge’s Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, Oxford University Press has just published the edited collection Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma. Whereas the former title was careful about courting controversy, a quick scan of the chapter titles of this book suggest it is seeking out hot-button issues sure to upset some people (“Uncomfortable questions and inconvenient data in conservation science”, “Introduced species are not always the enemy of conservation”, or “Rehabilitating sea otters: feeling good versus being effective”). Together, these two books form an excellent combination of a philosophical and pragmatic examination of biodiversity conservation, and how we could do better.
Perhaps more than any other discipline, conservation science arouses strong feelings of righteousness, of fighting the good cause. Critical questions or results that run counter to the narrative of nature-in-decline are unwelcome, often out of fear that policymakers and the media will misinterpret such findings, leading to drastic reduction in support for conservation efforts. Though understandable, Effective Conservation Science is a collection of 26 cautionary tales of the dangers of such thinking.
Most people would agree that it is important to conserve wildlife and the environment it lives in. But can you clearly articulate why? Defending Biodiversity brings together an ecologist and two philosophers to critically examine the arguments environmentalists often put forward in favour of biodiversity conservation. Because, as they point out, a lot of these arguments are not very strong, and sometimes conflict with each other, or with other parts of what environmentalists wish to achieve. Now, before you get all worked up, all three authors strongly believe that biodiversity ought to be conserved, and this book is not an attack on environmentalists or biodiversity conservation. They are careful to avoid being unnecessarily controversial with this book. Rather, they want to help environmentalists improve and strengthen their arguments and to become more persuasive in debates.