Book Review

The Work of Nature

by Carolyn Chase
received the most amazing book. If you're interested in what the state of the art and the consensus of the global scientific community is on the status of biodiversity and nature... or if you've ever wondered what the heck is this biodiversity thing and why is it important... check out The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us, by Yvonne Baskin, published by Island Press, with an introduction by Paul Ehrlich.

This book was commissioned by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and is the culmination of an "exciting and innovative" scientific endeavor. The goal was to answer a single key question: What are the possible consequences of the accelerating losses in biodiversity?

The SCOPE program on Ecosystem Functioning of Biodiversity mobilized hundreds of scientists around the world.

In 1991, SCOPE launched a program to review and evaluate all scientific literature relevant to the subject of ecosystem functioning. As part of the process, they brought together specialists in all major ecosystems of the earth, including coral reefs, tropical forests, deserts and tundra. These scientists reviewed existing data on the impact of diversity losses on ecosystem functioning and compared results from their respective systems to assess similarities and differences. This book also provides an excellent primer of how ecosystems function and why they are important.

Here are some brief selections from the concluding chapter, entitled "Do We Still Need Nature?"

"One exceptionally well-monitored project in southern California, where less than 15 percent of the historic expanse of tidal marsh remains, illustrates just how far from complex natural functioning an otherwise authentic-looking wetland can be. Restoration at the site, known as the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, represents a federally mandated effort to provide suitable habitat for two endangered birds and also to reestablish populations of an endangered plant.

"Dr. Joy Zedler of San Diego State University began tracking progress and conducting research in the new march in 1989, five years after it was created from former marsh and mud flats... her team successfully seeded the endangered plant, the salt march bird's beak... small native fish that provide food for one of the endangered birds, the California least tern, have returned to the reconstructed channels. The terns, however, rarely fish for reasons still unknown.... and the elusive clapper rail has been even harder to please.

"....the restoration project is still underway... indeed the outcome of projects like these may not be clear for decades or longer.... Creating suitable habitat and recovering lost functioning has proven a tough assignment, and not just in Sweetwater Marsh. When Zedler examined coastal mitigation projects throughout Southern California, she found no instance where ecosystem functioning had been successfully duplicated or where endangered species had been "rescued from the threat of extinction." A 1992 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded much the same for all types of wetland restorations throughout nation: There is no evidence that these restored wetlands can recreate fully functional ecosystems and they cannot be relied upon to maintain biological diversity."

"Certainly, restoration projects should be encouraged... The National Academy report itself called for restoration of 4 million hectares of already degraded wetlands in the U.S. There are millions of more hectares of rangelands, forests and march on every continent that might be restored to health and productivity if complex environments could be rebuilt as skillfully as they are dismantled. As for the earth's dwindling stock of natural and semi-natural landscapes, it would be far less costly to preserve natural systems rather than count on being able piece them back together after they've been torn apart. ...the current track record of restoration offers nothing on which to stake the fate of the earth's functioning ecosystems.

"...policy makers tend to behave as though the survival of most non-human organisms is an amenity, one that future generations of humans can live without. Everything scientists are learning about the earth's life-support processes argues against this view. It's time to complement our sense of obligation as stewards of the earth with a somewhat humble sense of self-preservation, to acknowledge that despite our increasing estrangement from nature, even urban societies are profoundly dependent upon it.

"... Most industrial societies tend to disregard and devalue ecosystem processes, opting instead for a technological fix whenever environmental services falter. Lost services are replaced not with natural mimics but with engineering solutions: dams, reservoirs, waste treatment plants, air scrubbers, air conditioners, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and water filtration systems. Replacing natural systems that work for free with engineered systems powered by fossil fuels is enormously expensive, often problem-plagued and commonly impractical.

"...Right now, the natural level of diversity is the best proxy scientists have for healthy functioning, and all species losses are warning of potential malfunctions.

"...With human population still expanding exponentially, our species is hardly likely to take up less space or exploit fewer resources in the future. Now, more than ever, we need to learn how to use lightly and sustainably the natural systems that survive in our midst.".