Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review: Second Nature

By Marian Starkey

Jonathan Balcombe, PhD--Population Connection member and animal behavioralist--sent me a copy of his new book, Second Nature, as soon as it was printed. I only wish I had gotten it a few weeks earlier so that I could have reviewed it for the last issue of The Reporter, which focused on animals and the ways in which human population growth impacts them.

The book was so interesting and accessible that I almost felt guilty reading it at work. Dr. Balcombe provides entertaining anecdotes and objective research results that reveal the magnificent sentience of so many species that we often think of as operating on survival autopilot.

We learn that bats and chimps will share their food if they realize that others in their group are going without; that zebras will only travel as fast as their slowest member is able to go (debunking the myth that injured or old animals are always left to die in the wild); and that many animals will nurse an orphaned baby of their same species even though there is no genetic advantage to them doing so.

Other examples of animal emotiveness abound: A whale showed gratitude when divers untangled it from fishing ropes, nuzzling each diver individually afterward. Elephants expressed grief over the death of another elephant, but also showed remorse over the death of a human keeper that they accidentally killed. A dog refused to do tricks when he realized that the dog next to him was being rewarded with food for doing tricks and he was not (he understood that the situation was unfair).

If this book were just a collection of funny, interesting, and sometimes heart-rending animal stories, I wouldn't be reviewing it here (although I would still read it on my own for pleasure). But since Dr. Balcombe dedicated the last section of the book to the detrimental effects of human population growth for the animal kingdom, Second Nature is extremely relevant to our mission.

The author explains the concept of both human and animal carrying capacity--the biological limit to how many of a certain species can be sustained in a given area. He describes the ways that humans are the greatest contributing factor to the current Sixth Great Extinction of Species. And he convinces the reader that animals' lives are complex and valuable and worth saving.

He advocates for reducing (or even better, eliminating) meat consumption but does not preach or condescend. He also mentions lack of knowledge of family planning in the context of unsustainable population growth in the developing world. He stops short of advocating for increased funding for family planning or liberalized contraceptive laws. Such a stance would have been outside the scope of the book though, which is really meant to change the way we think about the other life on this planet and how humanity is not necessarily the pinnacle of evolution, deserving to destroy everything in its path for its own "advancement."

I highly recommend this book, but in case you don't get around to reading it, here are some population-relevant excerpts:
“Human population growth—and the concomitant increase in human consumption of resources—underlies some of the most serious problems faced by animals, including humans. Conventional wisdom holds that the planet is filled to capacity, and there isn’t room for any more consumers, human or nonhuman. When we add more, others have to make room. Which means that as the human population grows, other organisms are inevitably being pushed out.”

“It has been calculated that if twentieth-century rates of human population increase continued for the next thousand years, a mass of humanity would cover the earth shoulder to shoulder more than a million deep; another thousand years on and the mountain of humanity would be approaching the edge of the known universe, traveling outward at the speed of light. This imaginary scenario illustrates the inevitable link between economic growth and ecological sustainability. It also shows that any link between growth and a higher quality of (human) life is tenuous, and at best temporary. As long as economic models are defined by growth in consumption, ecosystems will increasingly feel the strain as more human consumers population the land, and as more resources get used up.”

“We can be certain that with more humans there will be fewer animals living free in the world. Animals need wild places to live, and we continue to take them away. Nearly half of all tropical rain forests worldwide have been destroyed for human use, and about one percent of what remains is being taken away each year.”

“Having more humans on earth does not improve the quality of life for humans, either. Human overpopulation has strong links to poverty and hunger (admittedly not new problems), pollution and climate change. In tropical regions, local population density has been directly correlated to the poverty status of the local people, most of whom lack an education in family planning. Human overpopulation is driving climate change through loss of trees and the burning of fossil fuels.

"These ills denote a self-centered ethic--an unwillingness to restrain ourselves. A paradigm shift in humanity's relationship to the planet and its other life forms requires the acknowledgment that growth is no longer a good thing. Chief among those things that need to stop growing is the human population.

"Today, however, addressing human overpopulation remains firmly off the public policy agenda. This is paradoxical when the problem either fosters or exacerbates so many of the challenges faced by modern societies: hunger, gridlock, habitat and biodiversity loss, water shortages, violent conflict. The idea that growth is progress is an anachronism that today serves only those relatively few who profit from another residential development and a longer line at the cash register."

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