Duke ecologist's book offers hopeful view of Earth's plight

October 17, 2002

DURHAM, N.C. -- As described by ecologist Rob Jackson in his new book "The Earth Remains Forever," ours is a planet that is losing species at more than 100 times the average historical rate as reflected in the fossil record.

It is also a planet where the population of six billion humans increases by another billion about every 12 years; where farmers pour billions of pounds of pesticides into its soils each year; and that has, in the last three decades, lost a million and a half square miles of forest, the equivalent of all the forest lands in North America today.

As Jackson, an associate professor of biology at Duke University, lays out a stunning litany of facts about the damaging human impact on Earth, he also emphasizes the importance of preserving the natural world -- citing, for example, the fact that more than 40 percent of all pharmaceuticals are derived from "nature's medicine cabinet" (plants, animals and microbes).

Even as he uses stark facts to build a case for immediate action to remedy global environmental problems, Jackson has emerged from the experience of writing the book with hope that these problems can be solved.

"In some cases, my research for the book showed that some situations were not as desperate as I had thought previously," he said in an interview. "While we do have very serious ecological problems to solve, I don't believe that the 'catastrophization' of science is helpful."

Catastrophization, he explained, occurs when "people sometimes use bad environmental news to further an agenda, and even through I feel strongly about the importance of protecting the environment, it's a dangerous game to play. It results in genuinely bad news being swamped by 'pretend' bad news."

For that reason, said Jackson, he wrote "The Earth Remains Forever" (University of Texas Press) to offer the public an accessible, realistic source of information about global environmental problems and approaches to solving them. The book emphasizes what he calls "generational time;" that is, how profound long-term consequences for future generations will result from postponing environmental action today. The book also stresses economic incentives and free-market solutions to those problems.

To help the reader negotiate the very serious subject of saving the planet, the young scientist leavened his prose with cartoons and pithy limericks. For example, he includes some cautionary verse on species extinction:

"In maintaining a watch or machine,
All parts play a role, some unseen.
If we throw away pieces
In careless caprices,
We may find out too late what they mean."

Jackson also has personalized his book, drawing on his experiences to dramatize the impacts of global environmental destruction. For example, he recalls a moving encounter with museum specimens of two of the most prominent extinct birds -- the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon:

"I found myself opening cabinet doors and pulling out a long gray tray," he wrote. "At the back, side by side, lay single specimens of the pigeon and parakeet. The Passenger Pigeon was much larger than I expected, more than twice the size of the Mourning Doves near it, with an iridescent purple collar. Around its neck was a handwritten tag that read 'Extinct.'

"The rainbow of colors next to the pigeon was the parakeet. I held it in my hands, turning it over and over, its jeweled feathers still bright and soft. Barring a miracle of molecular biology, that look is as close as anyone will ever come to seeing either bird alive. We all lost that chance a century ago."

Jackson, whose scientific research examines the environmental effects of global change, is particularly critical of the United States' rejection of the international Kyoto Accords to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The U.S. in 2001 "scotched nine years of negotiations by pronouncing the Kyoto Protocol 'dead,'" he wrote. As for the administration's reasons for rejecting the accords, including economic harm, Jackson wrote, "Never mind the narrow bounds of 'harm.' Never mind working within the system to address the many difficult and complicated issues that remain. Never mind that the cuts for America -- reductions of seven percent from 1990 levels -- were less stringent than those for the European Union. ... Never mind diplomacy and international leadership."

Despite such governmental failures, Jackson also cites some remarkable successes, including the rapid phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once the refrigerants, such as Freon, were found to harm the protective atmospheric ozone layer. Key to this policy success, he said, were compelling scientific evidence of the chemical's effects, the direct threat to human health and the technological feasibility of replacing CFCs with other chemicals.

Despite the ban, he cautions that evidence of success will come -- as with many solutions to global ecological problems -- over many decades. "The springtime ozone hole over Antarctica isn't expected to disappear until 2050 at the earliest," Jackson wrote. "Although most of us won't be alive to see it, our descendants will be thankful that we acted when we did."

The battle to save the ozone layer is by no means won, he added, for there are still manmade chemicals being produced whose effects remain unknown.

"Not taking action on greenhouse gases or such chemicals is like playing Russian roulette," Jackson said. "True, instead of six chambers in the gun, we might have a hundred or a thousand, but we keep pulling that trigger. I don't like to play Russian roulette with the only life-support system we have."

However, victories such as the banning of CFCs leave Jackson optimistic.

"Despite all the problems we face, the tremendous challenges ahead, the mistakes we will make, if you asked me now whether I would want to live in our world in 50 or 500 years and meet the people who will be alive then, I would leap at the chance," he wrote.
Related links:
Rob Jackson: http://www.biology.duke.edu/jackson/
The Earth Remains Forever: http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/jacear.html

Duke University

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