Essential COP15 reading: six books that explain the biodiversity crisis

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

Chosen by Patrick Barkham

Imagine a beautiful Persian rug 12 feet by 18 feet. Now imagine wielding a razor-sharp hunting knife and cutting it into 36 equal pieces. When you’re done cutting, there’s still nearly 216 square feet of recognizable things like rugs. But are they beautiful Persian rugs? No. Each is small, worthless, and frayed around the edges.

This striking image opens David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, a prescient world tour of extinction published just over 25 years ago. The metaphor of a fraying carpet has been used many times since to explain the fate of ecosystem tapestries in times of extinction; how we pull a thread and the whole system collapses; how we carve out a habitat and how fragmented life forms dwindle and disappear.

The cover of David Quammen's Song of the Dodo
Photography: David Quammen

Le Chant du Dodo brilliantly presents island biogeography and tells stories of evolution, destruction and extinction. This explains why the losses start on small islands and why they spread across the world as we sequester other species onto ever smaller fragments of wild habitat. We are all little islanders now.

It is diagnostic work, not prescription, and there has since been a new awareness of what we need to do to stop the catastrophic loss of life on Earth. But the space for non-human nature continues to shrink and extinction continues. Quammen’s slim hopes of a conclusion must now be even slimmer.

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts

Selected by George Monbiot

The cover of Callum Roberts' Unnatural History of the Sea
Photography: Callum Roberts

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts is a magnificent ecological investigation into what we have lost. It draws on a vast body of historical research to reveal what is missing from the seas of the UK: cod the length of an adult human, table-like slicks, schools of herring miles in long harassed within sight of the English coast by packs of bluefin tuna, giant sharks, fin whales and sperm whales…

Only when we understand what once lived here can we begin to restore these natural wonders, primarily by declaring large parts of our seas off-limits to commercial fishing. But because policymakers and the public know so little about what a thriving marine ecosystem looks like, we accept and normalize a state of extreme degradation. It’s time to restore the lost glories of the ocean.

The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli

Chosen by Phoebe Weston

Cover of The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli
Photography: Alexandre Antonelli

I like the idea of ​​biodiversity as a hidden universe. It is estimated that 8.7 million species live on land and in the sea, and this number is probably underestimated. When you include bacteria and archaea, it might look more like a trillion. But an estimated 99.99% of species that have ever lived are already gone. That makes the 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way seem like a pretty paltry number.

This book encourages readers to look down, not up, at the universe beneath our feet. It speaks of a world more complex, abundant and intertwined than you could dream of. And it reads like an adventure, with plenty of detail about the author’s own travels. It is free of jargon but manages to navigate all the usually difficult to communicate points, such as genes, ecosystems and species.

For anyone who still needs to win back the beauty of our planet – and wants to know how we can save it – this is the book they should read.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Chosen by Anna Turns

Cover of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Photography: Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is as relevant today as it was when American conservationist Rachel Carson first published her seminal work 60 years ago. Each chapter is a reminder that we are not above nature, nor able to control it. When we harm biodiversity, we ultimately harm ourselves. As Carson wrote, “in nature, nothing exists alone.”

This is a wake-up call about the widespread use of dangerously toxic agricultural chemicals. So meticulously informed, rigorously researched, yet accessible to the general public, Carson’s writing paints two evocative images across its suite of characters, from robin to gypsy moth. Yes, the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides such as DDT has been detrimental to the ecology of this planet and to our own health. Yet Silent Spring emphasizes that we have the power to call for change.

“The choice, after all, is ours to make,” she wrote. Silent Spring sparked the dawn of a new environmental movement, the banning of DDT and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Yet the production of dangerous chemicals continues to increase exponentially. Banned pesticides persist. Decades later, I have traces of DDT in my own blood. This alarm bell is still ringing loudly. We have to listen to him.

The Worth of a Whale by Adrienne Buller

Chosen by Patrick Greenfield

book cover of The Worth of a Whale by Adrienne Buller
Photography: Adrienne Buller

As nature takes center stage at COP15, so too will market-based solutions to the ecological collapse of life on Earth. Biodiversity offsets have become law in the UK, as conservation NGOs team up with investment banks, asset managers and private equity firms to make nature an investable asset. But do these solutions actually work? Can green capitalism help avoid the double climatic and natural crisis?

Canadian author Adrienne Buller, research director at the Common Wealth think tank, offers a clear and accessible critique of these concepts in The Value of a Whale. The title is based on a 2019 IMF document that assigned a value of more than $1 billion to the global living “stock” of whales – around $2 million worth of whales – and Buller explores why, despite an apparent overwhelming acknowledgment of nature and climate crisis, humanity is so far from really responding to the problem.

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

Chosen by Stephen Moss

Cover of Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald
Photography: Benedict Macdonald

What I love about Rebirding is its positivity. Rightly, Benedict Macdonald acknowledges that we are facing a double whammy of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, which not only threatens Britain’s birds, but also our very existence on this planet. But instead of wringing your hands in despair, it offers positive, practical strategies that could be put into practice right now. These are backed up with facts and figures that show exactly how it could be done. He neatly confuses the oft-quoted notion that Britain “doesn’t have enough space”, pointing out that the Scottish Highlands estates are more than twice the size of Yellowstone, while Snowdonia – one of most unnatural places in the country – is larger than Kenya’s Masai Mara. At a time when the UK government seems determined to destroy our natural heritage and the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and RSPB are turning into the militant wing of the conservation movement, Macdonald offers us what we need if we are to repair the damage. already done: not just hope, but solutions.

The sixth extinction of Elizabeth Kolbert

Chosen by Max Benato

Cover of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Photography: Elizabeth Kolbert

For anyone paying attention to the biodiversity crisis, it will come as no surprise that some scientists call it the sixth extinction. That’s the title Elizabeth Kolbert, a veteran journalist with a gift for writing, adopted for her 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which lays out in plain terms exactly what we’re up against. But it’s not a dry account of how humans destroy the natural world, though it certainly makes for sober reading. It’s a gripping story of the fate of the species we’ve lost and those we stand to lose if we sit idly by. From the disappearance of the American mastodon and the great auk to the threats facing the planet today, from the Amazon to the Great Barrier Reef, Kolbert asks the question: “In an extinction event of our own , what happens to us?

Find more Age of Extinction coverage here and follow the Biodiversity Reporters Phoebe Weston and patrick greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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