Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Do we need Pandas? – Ken Thompson **

Before starting a book I usually have a quick flick through to get a general feel for it and to see what is ahead. When I first picked up this introduction to biodiversity and conservation, I got the impression it was going to be a little dry and academic. In hindsight, I’m not at all sure why I thought this, as it turned out to be nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, very accessible and engaging.
The book addresses the basic questions you are likely to have when starting to think about biodiversity and conservation of species. Author Ken Thompson covers what we know about what biodiversity consists of, what explains the patterns of diversity around the world, what functions biodiversity carries out for us and the planet as a whole, and why species are currently threatened. What comes across most, however, and it’s a point I recall being made a few times in the book, is just how little we know about many of the world’s species (let alone the ones we haven’t even identified yet) and ecosystems.
Thompson’s answer to the question posed in the book’s title is, as you might expect, no, or at least, probably not – ultimately, we are unlikely to be affected if we lose certain individual species (even though we can all agree that any loss of life’s diversity would be a shame). But in any case, Thompson explains, this isn’t the sort of question we should be asking. This is because singling out any individual species for protection does not solve the more general, underlying problem of the destruction of natural habitat around the world. For the most part, conservation efforts should concentrate on simply ensuring that earth’s ecosystems are broadly well equipped to support diversity – important factors here would be things like fertility of land, size of forests and wetland, and soil pH. If we focus on these aspects, it is argued, the problem of loss of species will resolve itself.
It is not clear from the book whether this is a minority view among conservationists – and there are other occasions where I would have liked to have been informed whether what was being said reflected more or less the current consensus (if there is a consensus on any of the issues). But here, Thompson’s clear and methodical writing in any case makes his argument convincing. It is the same elsewhere in the book – the author’s ideas are always very well organised, and there is always research and specific examples behind what is being discussed.
There is a lot to recommend this title, then. After reading this, you’ll be in a good position to explore the issues further, and it may challenge the way you think about conservation.
Review by Matt Chorley

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