• By Carl Lombardi
  • Posted Monday, April 10, 2017

Books We like

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The Future of Life, by Edward. O. Wilson, as indicated above, begins with an apostrophe, a letter to Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden. (Don’t worry, Wilson is aware Thoreau has been dead for many years, so it’s not a letter to Thoreau so much as a pretend letter to Thoreau.)

Wilson is considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on ants, and to be an authority on sociobiology in general. In other words, dude knows his research. He explains the problems of resources (which, despite some wiggle room, are limited) for the six billion people (as of 2001) on the planet, and gives some guesses about the top number of humen (my word, not his) that both humanity and the planet would be capable of providing for. He also sketches an argument between a typical Economist and typical Environmentalist, and shows how much they would agree were they to listen to, instead of stereotype, each other. He says that biodiversity is not only good for the health of humanity, but that despite increasing the human population, we are killing ourselves (as a species) by killing off other species. Then again, that’s our thing: if there is one thing that humen are good at, it’s killing off other species: the extinction rate now is “between one thousand and ten thousand times” what it was before the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic tool-makers popped up 10-50 millennia ago.

He ends the book on a hopeful note: despite diminishing biodiversity, we as a species still have time (again, as of 2001) to save a great deal of the biodiversity that remains by preserving the 25 ecosystems (which he calls “hot spots”) that cover only 1.4% of Earth’s land surface, but are the last remaining homes of 43.8% of vascular plant species and 35.6% of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Most of that land is in developing countries, however, so the only way to save it is to convince the people living there that there is more money to be made by saving it than using it. In other words, we’ll only preserve the health of the planet, and coincidentally that of the human species, if we are able to make a buck from it.

My take, not his, is that the ultimate irony for homo sapiens is that for a species capable of understanding how to save itself, it is too stupid actually do so.

Aaaarrrrrrrgggggg! We’re all going to die! (Our bad.)

That seems to be the theme of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. (Sorry, should I have started by saying “spoiler alert”?) The book is separated into thirteen chapters discussing thirteen different species. The first six species are extinct, the second six are nearly so, the third, like Soilent Green, is people. (Oops. Spoiler alert?) The author interviews different researchers, each expert in his or her own field(s), and uses the specifics of their research as a transition to a discussion of mass extinction. Yippie!

There have been five exceptional extinction events since the beginning of life on earth. Paleontologists call them the “Big Five”. The author argues that what scientists call the Anthropocene Era (i.e., now) could encompass the sixth. She gives examples of the sheer number of species that have gone extinct since homo sapiens (we) evolved. People hunt other species down, destroy their habitats, out-compete them, introduce foreign species (e.g. rats, pigs) into populations not prepared for them, or a combination thereof.

The solution, the way to stop this from happening . . . um, well, it may not be possible. So much biodiversity has been lost already that people, the only species capable of preventing more extinctions -- even armed with humanity’s best science and technology -- may not be able to save themselves from extinction. The good news is that life on earth will probably continue, and increase again in diversity after millions of years -- it has after other extinction events so far -- and that the most destructive species ever will not be around to destroy more species. See? There is a silver lining.

I can’t wait for the sequel.

D.D.T., heptachlor, and endrin . . . oh my!

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, is a consolidation of, and lay description of, cutting-edge entomological research of the day, and was, according to the E.O. Wilson’s afterword in the 2002 edition, a major influence in creating the E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency) in 1970, producing the Endangered Species Act in 1973 (voted into law almost unanimously by Congress -- I can’t even imagine that today), and getting many insecticides banned commercially (most famously D.D.T. -- dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane).

Carson was a marine biologist, and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote Silent Spring (named in reference to springtimes following indiscriminate insecticide sprayings which resulted less in killing [harmful] insects, and more in killing nearly all the robins and other songbirds who ate poisoned earthworms). The book’s story is striking even today despite some outdated information (hello again Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union!), because the story is not only well-researched, but well-written, and in some cases prescient (e.g. discussion of using sterilized male insects to reduce their own species’ populations to zero, as is being discussed today to decrease zika-carrying mosquito populations).

Carson begins with specific examples of unintended poisonings (of animals and people) with respect to insecticides’ interactions with soil, waterways, and air, each example ranging from merely gruesome to nearly ecocidal. She then shows that many types of insecticides (e.g. arsenical, chlorinated hydrocarbon, organic phosphorus) are not just poisonous, but carcinogens. She makes clear that most, if not all, cases of spraying with intent to eradicate a species, ended up doing more damage, at a greater monetary and mortal cost, and with less effectiveness, than if nothing had been done (i.e., the target pest ended up increasing in population, or a greater pest which caused more damage than the targeted pest arose, while costing millions of dollars more in both delivery method and lost market produce, killing off human-friendly animals, and making people sick). She ends by recommending that biological, rather than chemical, solutions be found (e.g. introducing predators, rather than insecticides, to kill unwanted bugs). Of course, with rich chemical companies paying great salaries relative to poor farmers being marketed to, it’s no wonder there are (or were in 1960) many more (98% to 2%) chemo- than bio-entomologists.

It’s a shame that people (on behalf of government agencies, corporations, local groups, or the individuals themselves) act more on the emotion of attacking a perceived threat than doing research and consulting experts to find out whether the rash act is indeed the most effective, and that our assumption “that nature exists for the convenience of man” (Carson’s words, final paragraph) “will end by destroying the earth” (Albert Schweitzer’s words, the book’s epigraph).

There’s no place like homicide.

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