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Adaptation or Extinction in the Anthropocene

Joint Book Review of:

Roman, Joe, Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Seidl, Amy, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming. Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2011

As we reflect on global climate change policy in the next decade, the seminal metric for environmental policy-makers will be our ability to adapt to environmental stress. Human resilience will be tested alongside ecosystems that sustain us, and if we fail, we may well be exposing ourselves to the same decline and ultimate demise that has befallen so many other species before us. Two of my colleagues at the University of Vermont have authored books this year which address the spectrum from adaptation to extinction within their pages. Often it is unusual to write a review for a professional venue about works by one’s colleagues to avoid conflict of interest. Yet, with appropriate disclosure, a reviewer who knows the author can perhaps provide insights into context that might otherwise be lacking.

In the case of Amy Seidl’s book, the reader is invited into the author’s living room and a narrative which uncovers her own family’s quest to adapt in a world with changing energy constraints. From solar panels, to wood stoves, to natural drying techniques for laundry, we get a very personal account of adaptation.  Joe Roman also provides a personal account of his search for the backstory behind America’s attempt at intervening and assisting in the adaptation efforts of other organisms – The Endangered Species Act. The reader accompanies Roman on his field journey to various habitats of endangered species across the country.

While Seidl’s topic is more prospective, Roman’s locus of analysis is evaluative about a particular statute and resulting policy. For example, he is able to note that since the law was passed in 1973 only 20 species have recovered and been delisted. With climate adaptation evaluating particular policies for action is more difficult, but Seidl admirably tries to provide comparisons of different technologies that could be most suitable for adaptation.

Another area of thematic commonality between these two books pertains to the resistance to scientific acceptance of anthropogenic phenomena. While denial of climate change is well known, Roman also alerts us to how denial of extinction could be traced back to the man who coined the term “biology,” Jean Baptiste Lamarck, refused to accept that fossils were evidence of extinction. Our country’s illustrious founding father Thomas Jefferson also insisted that natural laws “forbade extinction in the economy of nature.”  Overcoming such denial is only possible through painful scientific process but that too has its limits.

Listed presents some important limits of data for policy-makers, which could also be useful to Seidl in exploring metrics for consumer preferences to adaptation on matters such as community-supported agriculture or energy technology choice. For example, in describing the distinctions between use value, non-use value and option value (bequested to future generations) for species, Roman notes one study in the Grizedale Forest(UK) were willing to pay almost twice as much on days the interviewer wore a suit versus when he wore a T-Shirt! Quoting environmental philosopher J. Baird Calicott, Roman notes that at the end of the day our values will be reflected by the penalties we charge for violation of laws. For the Endangered Species Act this means a maximum of $50,000 fine and 1 year imprisonment. For climate change issues we are yet to even have a legally binding treaty in place with no enforcement penalties.

Both Roman and Seidl are natural scientists, and dedicated educators, as I have seen in their interactions on campus. A strong commitment to science education resonates in both books, though it is more lucidly presented by Seidl. Perhaps the encumbrance of a University Press review process with citation formatting prevents Roman from reaching the same level of effortless fluidity for the reader that Seidl provides. Yet such fluidity also compromises some level of analytical rigor for Seidl. For example, her call for “global localism” as a way to balance the local food movement with concerns about international development is a bit simplistic and not adequately analyzed. Issues of scale in trade flows and grappling with existing inequality and population pressures without compromising pluralism of choice in personal decision-making are topics that are not properly addressed.

Yet these two books complement each other insofar that preventing extinction (Roman’s normative premise) is an intrinsically essential part of adapting to climate change (Seidl’s quest). We greatly increase our chances of resilience to global change if we are more willing to sustain other species alongside our own. Hence policy-makers concerned about climate change, who might still be hand-wringing, after the modest movement at the Durban climate change conference this month should perhaps follow-other paths for adaptation policy. These books suggest that individual behavioral change on the one hand and legislative action on incremental attributes of ecosystem function such as species diversity may provide us with an alternative path towards sustainability.