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Biological Extinction: New Perspectives Paperback – October 10, 2019
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'Partha Dasgupta, unexcelled among economists for his contributions to ecological economics, and Peter Raven, revered for his leadership in biodiversity science, have combined to assemble a collection of papers by a virtual who's who of experts on the subject of biodiversity loss and sustainability. This volume, the product of an obviously remarkable meeting at the Vatican, will be a touchstone for all those concerned with our declining biodiversity, and the implications for the future welfare of humanity.' Simon A. Levin, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University
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None of the 14 articles in this edited volume questions the ecosystem services approach in any depth. If they question it at all, it's only in an obligatory tip of the hat to Pope Francis, who sponsored the 2017 Vatican conference that gave rise to this book. Indeed, one piece maladroitly defines biodiversity purely in the context of species used by humans: "Biodiversity is the variety of species used in both the production and consumption of goods and services" (Perrings & Kinzig, Chap. 10 @285; bad copy editing made this come out more narrowly than the authors probably intended, which was already too narrow). This, fortunately, is not a universally accepted definition of the term. Another piece (Wackernagel, Chap. 11), promoting the Global Footprint metric without much mention of extinctions, makes it clear that the Global Footprint is calculated on the assumption that humans are entitled to use every usable hectare of the planet -- wildlife get nothing.
Nonetheless, several of the articles in the first 60% of the book do a good job in describing the magnitude of the problem of ongoing extinctions, either throughout geological history or with regard to specific environments. A standout in this regard is a chapter about African fauna, by the late Harvard professor Calestous Juma: it is thoroughly depressing, in a salutary way. A couple of contributions even quietly, timidly question whether economic growth is always a good thing. This includes not only Juma's but the contribution co-written by Partha Dasgupta, who previously has been a defender of the so-called "environmental Kuznets curve" (the poorly-substantiated notion that a country's environmental problems initially increase, and then resolve, as GDP per capita continues to increase). The main extinction drivers that are addressed are global warming and land use/fishing patterns; plastics or pharmaceuticals, among others, don't get more than a passing mention. But because they're good overviews, I'll probably assign a few chapters from this part to an undergraduate sustainability class I teach, where we take biodiversity loss as our central case study.
The latter 40%, though, is disappointing. Some contributions here are the most hard-core economistic of the bunch, mentioned above. Others talk about natural capital, smart villages or a "NEW DESIGN CONDITION" (caps in original, twice) without mentioning extinctions as much more than an afterthought. This last, which admittedly is by an architect rather than an economist, also closes out the book with this plea: "The historic concept of city and nature needs to be replaced with this new understanding of planetary urbanism as a dynamic closed-loop system, which interfaces at the global, continental and eco-regional scales and integrates the morphology and metabolism of the socio-ecological adaptive systems of the different 'place types' (cities)" (@421). However much it may need to be, I doubt this sentence has ever been, or ever will be, understood.
A useful feature of the book is the inclusion of lengthy reference lists for most contributions. Less useful is a set of color insert plates providing color versions of some, but not all, of the graphics in the book. The principle of selection isn't clear, and in many cases the figures are still too small to be legible.
Biological extinctions are an extremely important topic. I had been hoping that at least part of the book would have been given over to a variety of philosophical reflections on it, particularly given its Vatican origins. At some point we need to transcend human-centered economics and ask ourselves, as our screens offer up pictures of burning koalas and kangaroos, plastic-choked sea turtles and many other upsetting images, whether we have any moral responsibility to the creatures we are so obviously killing off. Really, we should have been asking ourselves this long before those images came into being.
If you're new to this subject and have an appetite for factual exposition and a bit of jargon, you can learn a lot from this book -- but it will be from a rather traditional and unbalanced perspective, not a new one at all.