We live in an age in which we are repeatedly reminded—by scientists, by the media, by popular culture—of the looming threat of mass extinction. We’re told that human activity is currently producing a sixth mass extinction, perhaps of even greater magnitude than the five previous geological catastrophes that drastically altered life on Earth. Indeed, there is a very real concern that the human species may itself be poised to go the way of the dinosaurs, victims of the most recent mass extinction some 65 million years ago.
How we interpret the causes and consequences of extinction and their ensuing moral imperatives is deeply embedded in the cultural values of any given historical moment. And, as David Sepkoski reveals, the history of scientific ideas about extinction over the past two hundred years—as both a past and a current process—is implicated in major changes in the way Western society has approached biological and cultural diversity. It seems self-evident to most of us that diverse ecosystems and societies are intrinsically valuable, but the current fascination with diversity is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, the way we value diversity depends crucially on our sense that it is precarious—that it is something actively threatened, and that its loss could have profound consequences. In Catastrophic Thinking, Sepkoski uncovers how and why we learned to value diversity as a precious resource at the same time as we learned to think catastrophically about extinction.
One hundred and fifty years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, award-winning environmental reporter Alanna Mitchell set out to retrace the idea of evolution and grapple with the fact that a massive extinction of the planet's species was well under way. So began a three-year odyssey in which Mitchell picked up where Darwin left off, examining not just the origin but also the ultimate fate of our world.
Combining scientific curiosity with travel and adventure, Dancing at the Dead Sea takes the reader on an intimate tour through the world's environmental hotspots. Readers join Mitchell as she tracks the spectacular biodiversity of regions as extraordinary as the island of Madagascar, the rain forests of Suriname, the parched oases of Jordan, the Arctic desert of Banks Island, the volcanic crests of Iceland, and, ultimately, the Galapagos archipelago, where Darwin conducted his famous research. Along the way, Mitchell introduces us to the numerous scientists and conservationists who are working to protect these endangered places. She also chronicles the courageous efforts of everyday men and women in these regions as they try to convince governments to turn the world's hotspots into environmentally protected areas.
Ultimately, Mitchell's travels around the world compel her to ponder our shelf life as a species in the grand evolutionary scheme of the planet. She wonders what Darwin would make of the profound ecological destruction she witnesses. Is the human race suicidal? What can help our species avert extinction? Posing tough and cutting questions such as these, Dancing at the Dead Sea is a must-read for aficionados of good science writing and travel literature alike.
At the dawn of the 21st century, it is clear that changes of enormous ecological significance are occuring on our planet. The ozone layer is beginning to disintegrate. Since 1970 the world's forests have almost halved. A quarter of the world's fish have been depleted. We live in an age of ecocide. 70% of biologists believe the world is now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction of species in the planet's 4.5 billion-year history. Biodiversity loss is rated as a more serious environmental problem than the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, or pollution and contamination. How have we come to this, and what can be done to conserve our environment for the future? Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species examines the facts behind the figures to offer a disturbing account of the ecological impact that the human species has on the planet. Research specialist Franz Broswimmer shows how we are wilfully destroying our world. Highlighting important countermovements who are working for ecological democracy, this unique book is essential for anyone who cares about conserving our environment for the future.
Sprinkled across the tropical Pacific, the innumerable islands of Oceania are home to some of the most unique bird communities on the planet, and they sustain species found nowhere else on earth. Many of the birds that live in this region are endangered, however; many more have become extinct as a result of human activity, in both recent and prehistoric times.
Reconstructing the avian world in the same way archeologists re-create ancient human societies, David Steadman—a leading authority on tropical Pacific avian paleontology—has spent the past two decades in the field, digging through layers of soil in search of the bones that serve as clues to the ancient past of island bird communities. His years of indefatigable research and analysis are the foundation for Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds, a monumental study of the landbirds of tropical Pacific islands—especially those from Fiji eastward to Easter Island—and an intricate history of the patterns and processes of island biology over time.
Using information gleaned from prehistoric specimens, Steadman reconstructs the birdlife of tropical Pacific islands as it existed before the arrival of humans and in so doing corrects the assumption that small, remote islands were unable to support rich assemblages of plants and animals. Easter Island, for example, though devoid of wildlife today, was the world’s richest seabird habitat before Polynesians arrived more than a millennium ago. The forests of less isolated islands in the Pacific likewise teemed with megapodes, rails, pigeons, parrots, kingfishers, and songbirds at first human contact.
By synthesizing data from the distant past, Steadman hopes to inform present conservation programs. Grounded in geology, paleontology, and archeology, but biological at its core, Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds is an exceptional work of unparalleled scholarship that will stimulate creative discussions of terrestrial life on oceanic islands for years to come.
Threats to biodiversity, food shortages, urban sprawl . . . lessons for environmental problems that confront us today may well be found in the past. The archaeological record contains hundreds of situations in which societies developed long-term sustainable relationships with their environments—and thousands in which the relationships were destructive. Charles Redman demonstrates that much can be learned from an improved understanding of peoples who, through seemingly rational decisions, degraded their environments and threatened their own survival. By discussing archaeological case studies from around the world—from the deforestation of the Mayan lowlands to soil erosion in ancient Greece to the almost total depletion of resources on Easter Island—Redman reveals the long-range coevolution of culture and environment and clearly shows the impact that ancient peoples had on their world. These case studies focus on four themes: habitat transformation and animal extinctions, agricultural practices, urban growth, and the forces that accompany complex society. They show that humankind's commitment to agriculture has had cultural consequences that have conditioned our perception of the environment and reveal that societies before European contact did not necessarily live the utopian existences that have been popularly supposed. Whereas most books on this topic tend to treat human societies as mere reactors to environmental stimuli, Redman's volume shows them to be active participants in complex and evolving ecological relationships. Human Impact on Ancient Environments demonstrates how archaeological research can provide unique insights into the nature of human stewardship of the Earth and can permanently alter the way we think about humans and the environment.
We are currently facing the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of life on Earth, biologists claim—the first one caused by humans. Activists, filmmakers, writers, and artists are seeking to bring the crisis to the public’s attention through stories and images that use the strategies of elegy, tragedy, epic, and even comedy. Imagining Extinction is the first book to examine the cultural frameworks shaping these narratives and images.
Ursula K. Heise argues that understanding these stories and symbols is indispensable for any effective advocacy on behalf of endangered species. More than that, she shows how biodiversity conservation, even and especially in its scientific and legal dimensions, is shaped by cultural assumptions about what is valuable in nature and what is not. These assumptions are hardwired into even seemingly neutral tools such as biodiversity databases and laws for the protection of endangered species. Heise shows that the conflicts and convergences of biodiversity conservation with animal welfare advocacy, environmental justice, and discussions about the Anthropocene open up a new vision of multispecies justice. Ultimately, Imagining Extinction demonstrates that biodiversity, endangered species, and extinction are not only scientific questions but issues of histories, cultures, and values.
The rapid growth of the American environmental movement in recent decades obscures the fact that long before the first Earth Day and the passage of the Endangered Species Act, naturalists and concerned citizens recognized—and worried about—the problem of human-caused extinction.
As Mark V. Barrow reveals in Nature’s Ghosts, the threat of species loss has haunted Americans since the early days of the republic. From Thomas Jefferson’s day—when the fossil remains of such fantastic lost animals as the mastodon and the woolly mammoth were first reconstructed—through the pioneering conservation efforts of early naturalists like John James Audubon and John Muir, Barrow shows how Americans came to understand that it was not only possible for entire species to die out, but that humans themselves could be responsible for their extinction. With the destruction of the passenger pigeon and the precipitous decline of the bison, professional scientists and wildlife enthusiasts alike began to understand that even very common species were not safe from the juggernaut of modern, industrial society. That realization spawned public education and legislative campaigns that laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement and the preservation of such iconic creatures as the bald eagle, the California condor, and the whooping crane.
A sweeping, beautifully illustrated historical narrative that unites the fascinating stories of endangered animals and the dedicated individuals who have studied and struggled to protect them, Nature’s Ghosts offers an unprecedented view of what we’ve lost—and a stark reminder of the hard work of preservation still ahead.
"What caused the extinction of so many animals at or near the end of the Pleistocene? Was it overkill by human hunters, the result of a major climatic change or was it just a part of some massive evolutionary turnover? Questions such as these have plagued scientists for over one hundred years and are still being heatedly debated today. Quaternary Extinctions presents the latest and most comprehensive examination of these questions." —Geological Magazine
"May be regarded as a kind of standard encyclopedia for Pleistocene vertebrate paleontology for years to come." —American Scientist
"Should be read by paleobiologists, biologists, wildlife managers, ecologists, archeologists, and anyone concerned about the ongoing extinction of plants and animals." —Science
"Uncommonly readable and varied for watchers of paleontology and the rise of humankind." —Scientific American
"Represents a quantum leap in our knowledge of Pleistocene and Holocene palaeobiology. . . . Many volumes on our bookshelves are destined to gather dust rather than attention. But not this one." —Nature
"Two strong impressions prevail when first looking into this epic compendium. One is the judicious balance of views that range over the whole continuum between monocausal, cultural, or environmental explanations. The second is that both the data base and theoretical sophistication of the protagonists in the debate have improved by a quantum leap since 1967." —American Anthropologist
In Rewilding North America, Dave Foreman takes on arguably the biggest ecological threat of our time: the global extinction crisis. He not only explains the problem in clear and powerful terms, but also offers a bold, hopeful, scientifically credible, and practically achievable solution.
Foreman begins by setting out the specific evidence that a mass extinction is happening and analyzes how humans are causing it. Adapting Aldo Leopold's idea of ecological wounds, he details human impacts on species survival in seven categories, including direct killing, habitat loss and fragmentation, exotic species, and climate change. Foreman describes recent discoveries in conservation biology that call for wildlands networks instead of isolated protected areas, and, reviewing the history of protected areas, shows how wildlands networks are a logical next step for the conservation movement. The final section describes specific approaches for designing such networks (based on the work of the Wildlands Project, an organization Foreman helped to found) and offers concrete and workable reforms for establishing them. The author closes with an inspiring and empowering call to action for scientists and activists alike.
Rewilding North America offers both a vision and a strategy for reconnecting, restoring, and rewilding the North American continent, and is an essential guidebook for anyone concerned with the future of life on earth.
The research paper "Extinction Risk from Climate Change" published in the journal Nature in January 2004 created front-page headlines around the world. The notion that climate change could drive more than a million species to extinction captured both the popular imagination and the attention of policy-makers, and provoked an unprecedented round of scientific critique.
Saving a Million Species reconsiders the central question of that paper: How many species may perish as a result of climate change and associated threats? Leaders from a range of disciplines synthesize the literature, refine the original estimates, and elaborate the conservation and policy implications.
examines the initial extinction risk estimates of the original paper, subsequent critiques, and the media and policy impact of this unique study
presents evidence of extinctions from climate change from different time frames in the past
explores extinctions documented in the contemporary record
sets forth new risk estimates for future climate change
considers the conservation and policy implications of the estimates.
Saving a Million Species offers a clear explanation of the science behind the headline-grabbing estimates for conservationists, researchers, teachers, students, and policy-makers. It is a critical resource for helping those working to conserve biodiversity take on the rapidly advancing and evolving global stressor of climate change-the most important issue in conservation biology today, and the one for which we are least prepared.
We have long lorded over the ocean. But only recently have we become aware of the myriad life-forms beneath its waves. We now know that this delicate ecosystem is our life-support system; it regulates the earth’s temperatures and climate and comprises 99 percent of living space on earth. So when we change the chemistry of the whole ocean system, as we are now, life as we know it is threatened.
In Seasick, veteran science journalist Alanna Mitchell dives beneath the surface of the world’s oceans to give readers a sense of how this watery realm can be managed and preserved, and with it life on earth. Each chapter features a different group of researchers who introduce readers to the importance of ocean currents, the building of coral structures, or the effects of acidification. With Mitchell at the helm, readers submerge 3,000 feet to gather sea sponges that may contribute to cancer care, see firsthand the lava lamp–like dead zone covering 17,000 square kilometers in the Gulf of Mexico, and witness the simultaneous spawning of corals under a full moon in Panama.
The first book to look at the planetary environmental crisis through the lens of the global ocean, Seasick takes the reader on an emotional journey through a hidden realm of the planet and urges conservation and reverence for the fount from which all life on earth sprang.
Featuring numerous illustrations, this book explores the many lessons to be learned from Pleistocene megafauna, including the role of humans in their extinction, their disappearance at the start of the Sixth Extinction, and what they might teach us about contemporary conservation crises.
Long after the extinction of dinosaurs, when humans were still in the Stone Age, woolly rhinos, mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths, and many other spectacular large animals that are no longer with us roamed the Earth. These animals are regarded as “Pleistocene megafauna,” named for the geological era in which they lived—also known as the Ice Age.
In Vanished Giants: The Lost World of the Ice Age, paleontologist Anthony J. Stuart explores the lives and environments of these animals, moving between six continents and several key islands. Stuart examines the animals themselves via what we’ve learned from fossil remains, and he describes the landscapes, climates, vegetation, ecological interactions, and other aspects of the animals’ existence. Illustrated throughout, Vanished Giants also offers a picture of the world as it was tens of thousands of years ago when these giants still existed. Unlike the case of the dinosaurs, there was no asteroid strike to blame for the end of their world. Instead, it appears that the giants of the Ice Age were driven to extinction by climate change, human activities—especially hunting—or both. Drawing on the latest evidence provided by radiocarbon dating, Stuart discusses these possibilities. The extinction of Ice Age megafauna can be seen as the beginning of the so-called Sixth Extinction, which is happening right now. This has important implications for understanding the likely fate of present-day animals in the face of contemporary climate change and vastly increasing human populations.
Putting a provocative new slant on the history of U.S. conservation, Vanishing America reveals how wilderness preservation efforts became entangled with racial anxieties—specifically the fear that forces of modern civilization, unless checked, would sap white America’s vigor and stamina.
Nineteenth-century citizens of European descent widely believed that Native Americans would eventually vanish from the continent. Indian society was thought to be tied to the wilderness, and the manifest destiny of U.S. westward expansion, coupled with industry’s ever-growing hunger for natural resources, presaged the disappearance of Indian peoples. Yet, as the frontier drew to a close, some naturalists chronicling the loss of animal and plant populations began to worry that white Americans might soon share the Indians’ presumed fate.
Miles Powell explores how early conservationists such as George Perkins Marsh, William Temple Hornaday, and Aldo Leopold became convinced that the continued vitality of America’s “Nordic” and “Anglo-Saxon” races depended on preserving the wilderness. Fears over the destiny of white Americans drove some conservationists to embrace scientific racism, eugenics, and restrictive immigration laws. Although these activists laid the groundwork for the modern environmental movement and its many successes, the consequences of their racial anxieties persist.