Island Books, 2015
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
A planet for humans or a planet for all life? The anthropocentric attitude that has prevailed for several centuries, particularly in the Western world, is that the Earth is here primarily to supply what are now sometimes referred to as ‘ecosystem services’ to our human species. It is an attitude that casts humans as aristocrats with an overweening sense of entitlement, the Earth as a store cupboard and our fellow creatures as team of servants (except for the ones that appear to serve no ‘useful’ purpose). But for anyone who really understands the total interdependency and beautiful synergies of Nature’s ecosystems, this is not only an ignorant, arrogant and ludicrous attitude but a scarily dangerous one.
Conservationists have always understood this. And it is because of this understanding that so many efforts have been made in so many parts of the world, over the last two centuries, to protect certain areas from human interference. At the present moment, some thirteen percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by such protected areas but it is not enough.
Also, it is not only important to have protected areas, they need to be ecologically stable. This includes making sure that they contain their top predators as it is they who keep everything else in balance (as was beautifully illustrated when wolves were returned to Yellowstone). Wild areas need to be large, so that there is plenty of gene flow. And—as is becoming even more vitally important in this time of rapid climate change—they need to be connected, since one of the ways to survive climate change is to move. If it gets too hot, plants and animals gradually move north. Too cold and they move south, as happened after the last great Ice Age. For many it is hard to move if human towns and cities and other developments are blocking their path.
As John Terborgh points out in his Foreword: One of the great challenges to be faced by conservationists now and in the future will be that of clarifying in the public mind the distinction between ecosystem services and biodiversity protection. A program can, in some cases, provide both.
In this book we hear the voices of several dozen conservationists from around the world, including well-known spokespeople like Jane Goodall and George Monbiot, about how these challenges are being met.
There are challenges, not only from powerful corporate interests but also from with the ranks of those who profess to be ‘green.’ An earlier title by the same publisher, reviewed elsewhere on this site—see Keeping the Wild— pointed out the alarming fact that a number of influential environmentalists are beginning to subscribe to the so-called ‘anthropocene’ concept of caring for our planet’s wild spaces. Which is to give up the idea of true wildness altogether and shape environmental policies around the needs of human beings. That earlier book—like this one, an anthology of brilliant essays—set out, clearly and comprehensively, all the counter arguments to the Anthropocene point of view. This one focuses on what true conservation means, in practice, and how it plays out in many different types of climate and terrain, worldwide.
We need more protected areas—especially marine ones. And we need to enlarge our existing ones, connect them up and care for them. Such work is, as this book says: …an expression of humility about the limits of human knowledge and a gesture of respect towards our fellow creatures, allowing them to flourish in their homes without fear of persecution.
It is the work that might just save our own species from extinction also.