Our tradition of environmental literature has been built by thinkers ranging from philosophers (Walden, Leopold), statesmen (Marsh, Gore), journalists (Kurlansky, Quammen), activists (Muir, Maathai), novelists (Abbey, Bass), and others of many and varied stripes.
But in my view, the most fundamental, and often the most penetrating, contributions to this body of thought come from research scientists. For environmental issues have at their core processes operating in the realms of ecology, oceanography, geology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, climatology, and other disciplines of the physical and biological sciences. Therefore, the insights of Paul Ehrlich, E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond and others of their ilk help us understand these challenges at their most fundamental level.
Joining this group of accomplished research scientists who have stepped out of the ivory tower to convey crucial messages much more far and wide steps Dr. Peter Sale. Dr. Sale is arguably the world's foremost expert on the ecology of coral reefs, and has spent a lifetime pushing the limits of our understanding of these complex and fascinating ecosystems. Now, in "Our Dying Planet," Sale uses coral reefs as a lens for understanding the challenges facing our planet and ourselves. For coral reefs sit at the nexus of nearly all of the major threats to environmental sustainability: climate change, overharvesting, pollution, watershed management, coastal development, and other impacts. Accordingly, they serve as the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" of where we might be headed if we don't change our ways.
But Sale uses coral reefs not simply as a lens, but also as a springboard. The same suite of threats jeopardizing the very existence of coral reefs are also bringing pressure to bear on forests, the larger ocean, and the global climate system. Sale turns his keen ecological insight toward these other critical systems as well, weaving together a story of a whole that will deteriorate with greater speed and force than the sum of its parts if we don't quickly recognize the reality of where we stand and the actions needed to steer a different course.
And this is the most important contribution of "Our Dying Planet". Despite its sobering name, and despite the dire picture it paints of how we are pushing limits that we don't fully understand, Sale offers a hopeful message. He describes very clear, achievable steps that we can take, including many that we have already taken in small doses but now need to scale up, to chart a different course toward ecological resilience and productivity, to the benefit of nature and ourselves.
Anyone who has met Dr. Sale (as I have) knows what a measured and thoughtful, yet sharp and really rather witty, demeanor he portrays. That intellect and wit comes across in his writing as well (his footnote about "fishers" on page 17 in particular gave me quite a chuckle). He clearly explains complex science and what it tell us about our possible future, gives it life through humor and anecdote, and pulls no punches with his warnings while still inspiring hope with his roadmap toward a better future. "Our Dying Planet" is well worth reading by anyone concerned with the fate of humanity and our world.