Two Books for Earth Day from University of California Press (Part One)


Part One: dodging extinction

dodging extinction by Anthony Barnosky and Concrete Jungle by Niles Eldredge and Sidney Hornstein both deal with the concept of the Sixth Extinction. A new term in my lexicon, I Googled it and found a book by Elizabeth Kolbert with the title: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. According to all these authors, this concept is part of a series of biodiversity losses that are massive and threaten all life on the planet.

According to James Temple in, 7/26/2014: “The defining characteristic of the current round — the latest since the dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago — seems to be driven mostly by the actions of humankind. We’re steadily encroaching on the habitat of millions of species while fundamentally altering the environment.” Before reading Dodging Extinction and Concrete Jungle, but not Kolbert’s book, I had not even heard of The Sixth Extinction, but now that I am familiar with the idea, I find the two books I read to be eye-openers, although their approaches are slightly different.

dodging extinction by Anthony D. Barnosky

Barnosky is a paleontologist, so he approaches The Sixth Extinction from a scientific viewpoint, even though his subtitle is “power, food, money, and the future of the earth.”  By showing the links between the past and the present, he notes in his Preface that his book “is a fusion of my own hands-on research on global change issues¾primarily from a paleo-biological perspective¾and my reading of the recent (and sometimes not-so-recent) work of many others.”

Starting with the giant tortoise Lonesome George in Chapter One, the last one of his kind, the author takes us on an historical journey about the rapid loss of many different animals on the planet, which he links to power (energy), food, and money. While Barnosky’s approach is somewhat pessimistic, given the historical background of previous extinctions and the rate at which so many species are becoming endangered and/or extinct, his second chapter, “It’s Not Too Late (Yet),” is actually more optimistic. The core of the book is power, food, and money, Chapters 4, 5, and 6, in which he explores these topics and their relationship to the looming extinction of countless animal species, many of which are already extinct.

Chapter 4’s topic is Power and on p. 64 is a list compiled by ecologist Stephen Pacala and physicist Robert Socolow who offer 15 solutions to keep enough carbon from the air we breathe to prevent the worse-climate change impact. The 15 solutions are combined within these five categories with additional suggestions to make them viable:

1)   Use fossil fuels more efficiently, (2) Increase Efficiency in power-generating that run on fossil fuels, (3) Implement Carbon Capture Storage (CCS), (4) Replace energy produced by fossil fuels with energy generated by carbon-neutral technologies, and (5) Practice more prudent agriculture and forestry.

Chapter 5 tackles Food, and since this is a food website, I may come back to this chapter in a separate posting, but for this review, I will note that the author discusses pollution of our waters that are the homes of fish, whales, dolphins, crustaceans and sea vegetation; converting landscapes where animals live to agricultural plots that threaten both domestic and non-domestic animals to extinction because their habitats disappear; and the fact that nearly 25% of all cropland goes to feeding domestic animals that humans eat (an inefficient way to feed the world). These and other issues are creating ecological and environmental problems  that we must tackle before it’s too late to save our planet.

Chapter 6 deals with Money, what we are willing to pay to get what we want and involves ecosystem services. Increasingly, big corporations have entered the environmental awareness business that will help us get what we need without stripping the planet. The concept of environmentally sound products to buy and sell has been catching on. The author notes at the end of the chapter that if we value species alive more than dead, then how and where we spend our money will impact this value.

Chapter 7 is entitled “Resuscitation.” Barnosky writes, for example, about the contributions that can be made by conservation biology, whose mission is to conserve the Earth’s biological diversity with the help of science and prudent practices. He writes that we need a “multi-pronged, heavy duty management required to resuscitate species”  (p. 151) that we have brought to the brink of extinction.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, aptly entitled “Back from the Brink,” is probably the most important in that it gives up hope for the future if we stop doing business as usual and make stronger efforts to deal with climate change, fossil fuel pollution, food shortages, an unstable economic system, etc.  What is good for us (humans) will also be good for the animals that are dying off because of our environmental practices that involve power, food, and money. By working on this as a global problem, all of humanity will benefit, especially when done on a local basis by individuals, groups, and governments who share similar ideas of biodiversity, ecology, technological so0lutions, and an (emergency) call to action.

The book could easily be a text for a classroom with students studying environmental science from a macro-approach. Some of the information is too detailed for me, but the overall message of opportunity for change and hope for a sustainable planet is what I found encouraging in this book. dodging extinction is published by the University of California Press and contains 240 pages. It has extensive notes at the back of the book and costs $29.95 (hardcover).

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