ECOS 38 (5)
INHERITORS OF THE EARTH
How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction
Chris D Thomas
ISBN: 978 024 1240755
Hardback RRP: £20
Review by Peter Shirley
Winners and losers amongst dynamic nature – should we care?
Relax folks, the Anthropocene is not a disaster for the world’s flora and fauna, it is actually benefitting it! This seems to be the main message of this book, which turns conventional nature conservation thinking on its head. Coming soon after Fred Pearce’s The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation’ and Ken Thompson’s Where Do Camel’s Belong: The Story and Science of Invasive Species (both of which have been reviewed in ECOS) it provides yet more compelling evidence that it may be time to change our attitudes to nature. Thomas considers, for example, rewilding to be looking backwards, not forwards.
The book is divided into four parts: Opportunity, New Pangea, Genesis Six and Anthropocene Park. Opportunity begins with a look at the species, and their origins, in various places, from the author’s own home to far-flung places around the world. He poses the question: “Why should we not aspire to a world where it is as legitimate to facilitate new gains as it is to avoid losses?” New Pangea is Thomas’s metaphor for what he calls “the accelerated connections of the modern world”. The chapter is mainly focused on ecological change, whereas Genesis Six looks at evolutionary change. Finally Anthropocene Park reviews our attitudes to nature and the ways we try to protect it.
The author does not claim that all is well with the natural world, or that human influence has not caused, and is not causing problems. His premise is more that in a dynamic world where change is ever constant, there are always winners and losers. We should not be fixated on the losers without acknowledging the winners. For example, Britain once had just two species of deer, and it now has six, plus a hybrid between red and sika deer which may, over time, evolve into a seventh. The overall figures are even more impressive: we learn that 1,875 species of plants and animals have established themselves in the wild here in the past 2,000 years, mostly in the past 200, and not one native species has become extinct as a result.
People’s response to this constant churn of species is what seems to drive our nature conservation priorities, and time is a big factor in this. Basically, the more recently something occurs which we don’t like, the more we resist or want to reverse it.
There is quite a lot about sparrows in this book, as they illustrate many of the author’s points. They apparently originated in Asia before spreading throughout the world alongside another species which originated in Africa – us. Today we would not think of trying to eliminate house sparrows in Britain in the way that some still harbour such thoughts about grey squirrels. In the first chapter, Biogenesis, the farce of such inconsistency is summed up. Elsewhere Thomas reckons it takes between 500 and 2,000 years to turn xenophobia into love for newly arrived species. So, sycamores here are still dodgy, but brown hares are just fine.
Looking forwards rather than backwards, one of the most significant messages is that the current relatively rapid movement of species around the world is likely to produce many new species to add to biodiversity, more in fact than will become extinct. The current mix of deer in Britain are but one example. This is because we have essentially created a “New Pangea, a single human-connected mega-continent”. Instead of waiting for plate tectonics to bring them together, the world’s species are being introduced to each other at the fastest rate in history. Add to this the fact that evolution of new species appears to happen at a much faster rate than previously thought, and we have ‘a torrent of evolutionary changes’. This is what makes the current mass extinction different to previous ones.
Thomas asks us to think of the Anthropocene epoch as a fresh start, to understand that life is a process, not a product, and that current changes are neither better nor worse than previous ones. He also questions the logic of the International Convention on Biological Diversity. He challenges the setting of baselines leading to a ‘no-change-is-best framework’ for global conservation. Why, he asks, is a late 20th Century baseline superior to any other? Why are those baselines related to national boundaries? And why is both the loss of a species in one place and the appearance of that, or another, species in a new place considered to be negative?
Towards the end of the book he offers and expands upon four principles to guide future thought and action. They are:
To accept change. Deviations from the past state are not all ‘worse’.
To maintain flexibility for future generations, in the knowledge that we cannot predict the future with any accuracy.
That humans are natural within the Earth system, so anything we do is also a natural part of the evolutionary history of life.
That we still have to live within our planetary bounds.
I found little to quibble with in this book. I wonder though whether Thomas’s optimism overlooks the possibility of a homogenous world of nature. Will we end up with the natural equivalent of the modern shopping centre, in that wherever you are in the world the same brands and franchises are with you? Or will the diversity he anticipates win over the tough generalists that seem to succeed everywhere?
Thomas offers much, much, more to stimulate thought and debate. A minor production point is that the images are, by modern standards, very poor black and white photographs.
Whether the outline above fills you with despair or delight, I thoroughly recommend that anyone engaged in nature conservation practice and policy reads the whole thing.
ECOS 38 (5): Contents
Inheritors of the Earth by Chris Thomas
Review by Peter Shirley
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Review by Andrew Blewett
Rewild by Nick Baker
Review by Peter Taylor
Re-enchanting the Forest by William Ayot
Review by Peter Taylor
Woodland Development by George Peterken and Edward Mountford
Review by Simon Leadbeater
The Red Squirrel by Neil McIntyre & Polly Pullar
Review by John Savory
Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research by Francesco Rovero and Fridolin Zimmermann (eds.)
Review by Rick Minter