Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dying World

Spoiler Alert!
This review includes book details.

Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist’s View of the Crisis We Face, by marine ecologist Peter Sale, describes the details of Earth's Sixth Great Extinction as it's unfolding around us, including its history, causes, what the future may hold, and things we might do to stop it. Throughout the book, Sale makes the case that no single factor is responsible; rather, a number of interacting factors are causing the rapid demise of the majority of species, the most significant being habitat destruction, which will soon to be eclipsed by human-induced climate change.

Our Dying Planet is also an excellent primer on contemporary ecology, and how our understanding has undergone a revolution in the last few decades. For example, ecologists have totally dispelled the notion of the “balance of nature,” a reason commonly used to ignore human effects on the natural world. The real world is dynamic, without predetermined equilibrium states and subject to rapid as well as gradual change. As a result, as Sales' experience with coral reefs reveals, our huge impact on ecosystems could have unpredictably bad consequences (the reefs themselves may disappear in this century).

Sale explores why we have the effect we do, including our insensitivity to gradual, absolute change; our use of fossil fuels; economics that doesn't factor in the productivity of other species (or its loss); the devaluing of other species in our culture; and reproductive behavior leading to a huge population multiplier on our consumption. He also lays out the details of what we're doing, with an emphasis on over-harvesting, habitat loss, and pollution, and compares historical and projected extinction rates with previous mass extinctions (they're at least as high as the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs). The huge role of fossil fuels is also discussed, along with the ecological impacts of alternative energy supplies since we will need to transition off of fossil fuels soon for a number of good reasons which include climate change.

The book ends with several future scenarios. They include: doing nothing different; seeking a more natural lifestyle; bypassing nature with technology; and using innovation to maximize quality of life without further ecological damage. The details of these scenarios, while sketchy, are believable, and Sales explains how likely he thinks each of them is based on recent history. He is hopeful about achieving the last scenario, but doesn't seem optimistic that we will avoid the worst case.

In my view, Our Dying Planet is the perfect book for someone who appreciates the scientific perspective and wants to learn the state of ecological understanding about our relationship with the natural world. As a leading expert who has clearly come to his conclusions based on an enviable amount of experience and thought, Sales adds a lot of credibility to the concern that humanity is seriously threatening the fabric of what sustains it and other life on Earth. The details he provides are at times overwhelming, but that's pretty much unavoidable. He has, I think, realistic expectations about what people are likely to do and why, though they can be a bit uncomfortable to read. Overall, I recommend the book, and expect to find it very useful in future discussions.

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