Why We Need the Wild
By Enric Sala
Find it on Bookshop
Have you always loved nature whether you chose it for a career or not? Enric Sala’s latest book, The Nature of Nature, is a well-written, future-focused Ecology 101 for any background, with a bias to the marine realm that I can appreciate.
If I can pull from the acknowledgements up front, Sala points out that writing a book is a good metaphor for an ecosystem. There are many moving parts, and many contributions from different players, some known and some unknown. They all work together to form the product you see in front of you.
The Nature of Nature is a quick and fairly easy read that gives modern real world examples. You’ve heard that climate change and human impacts are bad but exactly how and why? Sala shows us how it can play out in an ecosystem with cascading effects.
Introduction to Ecology
The Nature of Nature begins with an introduction by E.O. Wilson, a giant of ecology with some troubling ties. He talks about the emotion one feels in nature, which is more complex than simply appreciating its beauty. Ecology is a complex field of study by nature, and ever more important to understand in an environment that will soon be defined by climate change.
Natural ecosystems are both our savings accounts and our life insurance policies. We need to ensure that our natural capital portfolio is well diversified.
When Sala takes over, he dives into core ecological concepts like the dynamics of populations and limits of their growth. These terms just mean how many animals are in a certain place and why there are that number. It might be because they don’t have enough food, they are frequently eaten by predators, or they can’t make babies very fast. Sala uses plain language to get these concepts across.
The heavy use of relatable metaphors is where Sala shines. He uses New York City as a model for a mature ecosystem. Skyscraping buildings are like the trees in a forest, providing structure and microhabitats for its inhabitants, and are more or less permanent with low turnover. The city has huge human diversity, with 800 languages spoken. Even though the city doesn’t grow food or host large manufacturing plants, it maintains its function artificially through importation of essentials from other areas. Jobs are like ecological niches, in which certain humans specialize.
Sala also covers the work of Bob Paine, whose work was a keystone example of ecology in my undergrad university of Oregon State. (Ecology joke, get it? If not, keep reading.) He showed how starfish were keystone predators in the intertidal zone: there aren’t that many of them but they have a huge impact on the abundances of other organisms based on what they choose to eat. Sea otters are another example of a keystone species. They eat the urchins that eat the kelp forming the structure of kelp forest ecosystems in the Eastern Pacific (West Coast USA).
Threats to Nature’s Biodiversity and Opportunities for Management
By far, the main driver of biodiversity loss in the ocean is overfishing. There is the one exception of bottom trawling, the marine equivalent of slash-and-burn practices. It removes biodiversity and habitat with each deep, raking sweep.
We need to change the way we harvest ocean resources. What is the best way to go about that?
Once I joined the National Geographic Society, I learned the secret to inspiring leaders to commit to protecting natural places: Let them fall in love with those places.
Sala worked on a study that modeled the effects of increased ocean protection. He and his colleagues found that protecting 35% of the ocean could preserve two-thirds of the benefits of biodiversity, while also allowing the global fish catch to increase to 91% of the theoretical max. Doing this would also eliminate 28% of the carbon emissions from bottom trawling.
Now, here is where knowledge from my career in biology helps me. It seems like a great idea, but there is a catch. (Another pun, I’m sorry.)
I’m sure this only works by protecting a very specific part of the ocean. And I’m guessing at least some of it is where a lot of fishing already takes place. You’re going to have some very angry and starving fishers if you come in and take their livelihoods away from them. This is not the way to approach conservation. Rather, protection should be approached on a local level, involving the stakeholders every step of the way.
The Nature of COVID-19
Sala rounds out the book with an epilogue on COVID-19. This pandemic is a great example of the far-reaching effects of biodiversity loss, and should be a wakeup call for everyone. The pandemic occured, and worsened, in part because of human encroachment into wild areas, high population densities in cities, and reduction in the biodiversity of natural areas. The actions of humanity have broken ecosystems all over the world, and sooner or later, the consequences will catch up to us.
A healthy natural world is our best antivirus.
The Nature of Nature is well-written, but also idealized. It portrays the world purely from an ecological point of view, with little regard to the effects of its suggested actions on communities around the world. It does consider some global-scale economic effects, but few fine-scale ones. We need to figure out how to accomplish the overall goals laid out here, while still supporting local communities.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in nature and its future, whether you are a scientist or not. It is very accessible, and covers the big picture in a contemplative way.
Do you worry about the future of our planet such that you dream about how to fix it? This book is for you. Even if you don’t, give this book a try and let it convince you.
Clamping down on the trade and consumption of wildlife, ending deforestation, protecting intact ecosystems, educating people about the risks of consuming wildlife, changing the way we produce food, phasing off fossil fuels, and transitioning to a circular economy: These are the things we can and must do.
Want to read more? Find The Nature of Nature here: Bookshop
This book made it onto my list of the Top 10 Best Books of 2022! See the full list here.
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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You might also like my notes on:
The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales
Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now by John Doerr