A Citizen's Guide to Ecology. Lawrence B. Slobodkin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2003. 256 pp. $40.00 (ISBN 0195162862 cloth).
Larry Slobodkin is professor and chair of the Ecology and Evolution Department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, one of the earliest departments of ecology in the United States. I looked forward to reading this book, as the title seemed to indicate that I was the target audience: a citizen interested in knowing more about ecology. As a social scientist who often works with ecologists on interdisciplinary projects, I hoped this book would be a great resource for learning more about ecological theory and principles.
After defining ecology and ecologists in a brief introduction, Slobodkin introduces readers to the “big picture” of how the natural world works, generally using ordinary language and examples, although occasionally a technical term like “benthic” slips in without definition (or glossary). He goes on to describe in some detail the ecology of lakes, claiming that “it is possible to gain a kind of understanding of all communities on earth by considering them all as more or less extreme variants of lakes” (p. 70). A brief discussion of ocean and dry land systems follows, after which Slobodkin moves on to describe how species survive, using everyday examples to explain and simplify the complexities of population biology (an appendix presents more technical details about the rate of increase of populations).
The final section of the book is devoted to policy and “applied ecology,” with a focus on global warming and endangered species. Here Slobodkin shifts from a description of ecological phenomena to a more prescriptive discussion about “what can be done” and “how to protect.” After presenting the bare bones of global warming, he urges the “world's citizenry [to become] aware of it” and admonishes “each person [to modify] his or her behavior in relatively painless small ways” (p. 166). This superficial recommendation exposes the danger of simplifying complex natural and policy problems. The author claims that “most of the realistic actions that might be taken in confronting the problem are curiously undramatic. How I eat and dress, how I maintain and heat my house, how cities are designed, how governments…exert power, and how we interact to maintain international compliance with regulations all affect global warming” (p. 157). As a social scientist, I wonder how anyone could think that changing any one of these cultural, political, and economic institutions would be “curiously undramatic.” It can make sense to ask individuals to change their behavior as a solution to large-scale problems only if you don't consider and understand how history, economics, and politics interact with the science of climate change or endangered species. The scale of change needed to modify climate change or protect endangered species makes it unlikely that painless modifications in individuals' behavior alone will accomplish the task. The author is not well versed in policy science, dispute resolution, or any social science, which is reflected in the brief discussions and careless recommendations in the last section of the book.
The goals of the book are ambitious. The author wants to present a solid body of ecological theory and evidence, as well as criticize some of the “dubious material that has appeared in the name of ecology,” in a way that allows citizens (i.e., nonecologists) to tell the difference between “real problems and needless alarm” (p. 21). Unfortunately, this book was neither written for me, a reasonably well-educated citizen, nor written particularly well. The writing is a clumsy combination of scientific language, questionable analogies and side comments, and platitudes. Slobodkin says many times that he wants to explain ecological principles and applications in nonbiased and objective ways. For example, his claim that the book “will enable readers to distinguish serious ecology from mystical visions of nature provided by well-meaning pantheists as well as nonsense mouthed by self-appointed leaders for personal aggrandizement or from a desire to hear their own voices” (p. 20) lets me know what his prejudices are and presents a vivid image, but it does not give me confidence that he can be objective about those who don't agree with his message or his style. Despite the author's resolve to provide unbiased information, I often found myself sorting through gratuitously harsh and didactic comments, including one about the “nonsense” of Aldo Leopold's criteria for ecological damage. Maybe Slobodkin believes that objective language is reserved only for “scientific” topics.
The book concludes, “Will we continue to muddle through? I hope so.” So does everyone, I imagine. But will readers learn anything about ecology that will help them to muddle? It is difficult for me to assess the reliability or credibility of the ecology described in this book, primarily because of the uneven language. I had enough difficulty with some of the text that I asked colleagues who are ecologists to help explain some of Slobodkin's ideas and determine whether the claims made were reasonable. And although extensive footnotes are provided, I don't think a citizen reader should be expected to unearth PhD theses or obscure journal articles to check the veracity of the text. The author says that “ecology is in danger of becoming an uncomfortable blend of science and a passé but still trendy mass movement” (p. 13). I'm sorry to report that this book does little to remedy this description of ecology for the citizen reader.