- - Tuesday, October 17, 2017



By Chris D. Thomas

PublicAffairs, $28, 320 pages

The future isn’t all bleak for the natural world. Just ask ecologist Chris D. Thomas, professor of conservation biology at the University of York, U.K. Mr. Thomas‘ new book, “Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction,” examines “the responses of species and ecosystems to human impacts over periods that range from years to millennia.” In his highly engaging book, he embarks on “a round-the-world tour of the planet’s diverse continents and far-flung islands, visiting locations where [his] research has taken [him] over the past several decades.”

“Inheritors of the Earth” is a thoroughgoing study of the vast variety of species and their evolution. The book thoughtfully challenges traditional negative views of nature and humans interaction with nature. The interaction isn’t necessarily all bad, and may likely be mostly good. The book provides ample examples of how original habitats are “not so much destroyed as replaced by a new environment that still contains quite a lot of species.”

Furthermore, “[o]nce one appreciates that there may be several different human-created habitats in any given region, containing somewhat different species (i.e., the species found in crops, pastures and urban areas are not all the same), then the total number of species found within a region may be just as high, or even higher, than it was before.”

Four parts are used to develop the book’s thesis that includes human’s understanding of and their going with “the tide of ecological and evolutionary change.” The sections of “Inheritors of the Earth” explore prospects for facilitating biodiversity. “Part I: Opportunity” introduces the house sparrow as a good example of “biogenesis.” Considering all the varieties of sparrows, this nearly ubiquitous bird provides continuity throughout the book as an illustration of speciation and survival.

“Part II: New Pangea” compares largely human alterations to the environment to the former Pangea — connected continents — that naturally facilitated explosive evolution across the planet.

“Part III, Genesis Six” contests the idea that there is a new imminent human-generated sixth mass extinction (five enormous natural extinctions have been documented throughout ancient times).

Rather Mr. Thomas recommends “we should consider whether we are on the brink of a sixth major genesis of new life.”

“Part IV: Anthropocene Park” sums up the gains and losses and puts the planet on the positive side of the biological ledger.

Field-tested Thomas provides plenty of much needed perspective on biosphere issues. During teaching of my introductory session of college environmental science, I write on the board in big capital letters: “Perspective.” In general, perspective is sorely missing from environmental practice. Mr. Thomas helps to fill in the missing ecological context.

Regarding climate change, again the news is not all bad. Assuming a continued warming planet, Mr. Thomas observes that “[m]ore species like it hot than cold, and so the overall consequence of a warmer climate is to raise biological diversity in many parts of the world.”

“Inheritors of the Earth” reminds me of James Trefil’s 2004 book, “Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth — by People for People.” In “Human Nature,” Mr. Trefil promotes a benefit-to-humans principle that the global ecosystem “should be managed to maximize the welfare, broadly conceived, of human beings.”

Now, “Inheritors of the Earth” is not as strongly promotional of a human focus, but it doesn’t treat humans as negatively as most popular environmentalists seem to. Instead, “Inheritors of the Earth” sees humans and their impact across the earth as being both positive and negative; and always more natural than the apparent consensus of environmentalists. After all, we are an integral part of nature.

With all his constructive recommendations — that some might misread as being destructive — Mr. Thomas assures readers that although he has advocated “a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing [he] said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.”

The future isn’t all bad, especially considering a broadened environmental horizon resulting from a better understanding of human’s integral role in the biosphere and the acceptance of more “foreign” species into a rather global ecosystem.

Anthony J. Sadar is an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pa., and author of “In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big to Fail” (Stairway Press, 2016).

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