I was pleasantly surprised by the second edition of this book from the Routledge Introductions to Environment Series (and not just because, unexpectedly, I appeared in one of the photos!). In recent years there has been a plethora of texts on one or other of these subjects (biodiversity and conservation) and many have tended to be, if not repetitive, somewhat clichéd and tedious to read. I admit, though, that in view of the magnitude of the impediments to our successful custodianship of the world's natural diversity, it is hard not to sound cynical or hectoring when writing about its loss. Here the author redistributes praise and blame where it is due without an excess of accusatory finger-wagging. The book is nicely divided into a manageable five theme-based chapters and is presented in a nice size and format (yes, size matter in books, too). I do dislike books that are divided into two columns of text per page.
The term biodiversity arose in the mid 1980s and since then there has been a fairly rapid acceptance of the concept and absorption of the term into the global vocabulary (though only very recently was it acknowledged in the Microsoft Word spell check!). Chapter one leads with this conceptual history, including the 1992 Rio Summit and the continuing post Rio degradation of the environment. The importance of biodiversity is emphasised and an overview of the history of life is followed by the central issue: extinction. The author explains that this is a natural phenomenon. However, the situation today is that of an anthropogenic-induced catastrophe where extinctions leave already stressed species in degraded or polluted habitats, leading to what has been termed `the extinction vortex'. The global loss of amphibians and the bleaching of tropical coral reefs may well be grim indicators of this effect.
Patterns of diversity arise through the interaction of ecological and evolutionary processes. The second chapter gives a summary overview of the concepts of the complex discipline of ecology, including an update of the more recent developments and paradigms. The evolution of diversity follows, again a neat résumé with key concepts in bold type (many reiterated in a useful Glossary at the end). The chapter finishes with the role of species in ecosystem health.
Chapter three begins by defining types of biodiversity, and then attempts to quantify what exists, a singularly complicated and often conjectural task that, as a result, probably here suffers from a surfeit of tables and charts. When the author looks at the distribution and patterns of biodiversity, it is good to read about species richness, endemicity and biodiversity `hotspots', a more recent emphasis in conservation planning.
Chapter four concentrates on the reason why we are concerned about the world's biodiversity in the first place: its accelerating extinction rate. Be prepared for the usual unremitting litany of woe through a maze of supporting statistics as we head inexorably to the Earth's sixth mass extinction, this time the result of human impact (habitat loss, fragmentation, degradation). Before the chapter is out the author begins the unenviable task of putting an economic value on biodiversity, which, as you may already have calculated in your head, is 33 trillion US dollars! The final chapter assesses the response to the impending disaster as we trawl through the bewildering complexity of conservation options and efforts, sounding ever more corporate, and recognising that even some of the more idealistic initiatives begun in the 1990s have failed, as local communities appeared to benefit very little from their involvement. In some ways, the most important lesson learnt is that biodiversity is not another branch of biology but encompasses politics, economics, culture, society and history. Science alone cannot solve the problem of the depletion of the world's biodiversity. Hope lies in the recognition that a global, multi-faceted approach is what is needed, even if it is unpalatable for many that biodiversity will need to be viewed as a resource. The book finishes with a nicely balanced look at the role of zoos and botanical gardens in conservation planning with the author stating that it was childhood visits to London Zoo which had first stimulated his interest in wildlife. They did mine, too.
A fine introductory textbook which should be standard reading, if it isn't already, for students new to the discipline, or for those requiring revision or interested in the current zeitgeist.