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1 January 2008 Humans, Disasters, and Human Disasters
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Roger del Moral and Lawrence R. Walker, authors of Environmental Disasters, Natural Recovery, and Human Responses, say their book demonstrates “the lessons natural systems have to teach us about coping with human-inflicted disasters, including how to most efficiently conduct restoration efforts” (p. ix). And according to the front material, the book will “appeal to ecologists and land managers, as well as anyone curious about the natural world and natural disasters.” Nonetheless, the question that I kept asking myself as I read was, “Who is the audience?”

Environmental Disasters is an overview of the effects of disturbance on plant communities. After the introduction and a chapter on the various types of disturbances, del Moral and Walker get to the heart of the book: four chapters on disturbances and their effects that divide the world into a two-by-two matrix of site productivity (infertile versus fertile) and stability (unstable versus stable). The book concludes with a brief chapter on lessons learned from disturbances.

The topic of each of the four main chapters—for example, “Infertile and Unstable Habitats” (chapter 3)—is run through the same mill, consisting of an introduction, a description of the physical setting, a discussion of the topic in the lives of humans, ecological responses, human responses, and interactions with other disturbances. As the headings indicate, humans are a focus of this book.

The writing is sprightly and engaging. Sprinkled throughout the text are side boxes, many of which describe the authors' personal experiences—such as the time that Walker sat through Hurricane Hugo. These lend a welcome personal touch to the book. The numerous photographs, mostly black and white but with a few color plates, serve well to illustrate the topics.

A curious mix of topics are discussed in the four main chapters, with some disturbances defined by type (e.g., fire or hurricane), and others by the type of habitat in which they can occur (e.g., dune or salt marsh). The sections on glaciers, volcanoes, and lava are the most thorough, reflecting the research areas of the authors. Unfortunately, organization on the basis of site characteristics creates the false impression that disturbances are confined to certain habitat types; for example, fire can occur in any type of habitat, not just in those that are fertile and stable.

It seems that as the authors assembled this book, they were guided by the adage coined by University of California–Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger: “The plural of anecdote is data.” Environmental Disasters is composed almost entirely of either very specific anecdotes or broad generalizations—although, to their credit, the authors are also careful to provide the necessary caveats to the generalizations. What is missing are data. The closest the authors come to supplying data is in the section on glaciers, where they include some information on the current effects of global warming on glacial melt. There is not a single graph in the book, and there are only a couple of data tables. It is this lack of data that makes me doubt the claim that this book will appeal to ecologists: to the professional ecologist, the generalizations are very likely already well known, even if the many anecdotes are not.

This book is not a good teaching tool, because it also lacks citations beyond a very short list of readings at the end of each chapter. Although the lack of in-text citations facilitates reading, it is impossible for someone to track down the details behind the anecdotes, to find out the bases for the generalizations, or to discover the people responsible for the ideas and information. A graduate student would be better off with more specialized texts, and an undergraduate would find much of the same knowledge in a good textbook.

Similarly, land managers interested in restoration would be frustrated by this book. One cannot plan a restoration project on the basis of anecdotes and generalizations, and a land manager would need to delve into much more technical books. Would a manager even learn anything new from Environmental Disasters? I would hope that any such manager would have at least a master's degree in ecology or in an allied field and would be sufficiently trained to already know the generalizations. If not, we academics have served our students poorly. The final chapter on lessons learned is a nice summary of the current state of the world, but it could stand on its own—the rest of the book isn't necessary.

Finally, for all of these potential audiences—professional ecologists, students, and land managers—one critical element is missing: general theory. Except for a brief description of relay floristics versus initial floristic composition versus the competitive-inhibition model (discussed in the section on glaciers about a third of the way through the book), the text is nearly devoid of ecological theory. Moreover, the few theoretical concepts that are presented are at least 50 years old.

So that leaves the general public as a possible audience. This book might well appeal to the same people willing to sit through Al Gore's An Inconvienent Truth, as it uses much the same approach of bringing a human face to nature, and it's filled with plenty of engaging asides. And if they are the audience, what is the message that this book conveys?

I part company with the authors when it comes to tone and substance, especially considering how much the first affects the second. The tone of the introductory chapter is designed to galvanize the masses—a disturbance is described as a “devastation” or a “catastrophe.” Although del Moral and Walker admit that “‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’ are emotionally laden terms” (p. 17), they excuse their use of the terminology when they want “to emphasize impacts...or when we simply want to focus your attention” (p. 18). The very notion of “disaster,” however, is human centric, which is demonstrated in this statement: “Ecosystems cannot repair themselves with sufficient speed... to avoid large, negative impacts on humans” (p. 145).

Throughout the book, the authors impose human-defined normative values on natural phenomena, making it seem as though ecosystems and nature are mostly at equilibrium, except when those nasty disturbances wreak havoc. The text claims that disturbances can cause landscapes to “degenerate,” that succession is a process by which “ecosystems repair themselves” (p. 9), and that “natural recovery may resurrect an ecosystem” (p. 9). Although all of these statements are ameliorated somewhat by the details and caveats in the rest of the book, the viewpoint is set early on.

Professional ecologists gave up this “balance of nature” approach some 30 years ago, but it still stands as probably the most common ecological misconception held by the general public. If the general public reads this book, that misconception can only be perpetuated. Thus, despite the virtues of this book, I am afraid that it may end up doing as much harm as good.

SAMUEL M. SCHEINER "Humans, Disasters, and Human Disasters," BioScience 58(1), 79-80, (1 January 2008).
Published: 1 January 2008

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