Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Book for the Tree Huggers

I have mixed feelings about Earth Matters: An Encyclopedia of Ecology. Consultant editor David de Rothschild compiled a lot of good information with plenty of beautiful illustrations, but the book also contains factual errors.

In the introduction, we read the current scientific explanation of our planet's development -- life flourished, creating the biosphere, which consists of various biomes (polar regions, temperate forests, deserts, grasslands, tropical forests, mountains, freshwater, and oceans). Readers learn about each one's climate, natural history, and ecology. Threats from human activity are discussed, and the final part of each biome presented is "Making a Difference," a two-page spread showing us how to reduce, reuse, recycle, and otherwise protect the diversity of life.

Full disclosure: I have hugged trees, and will do so again. I sniff newts and mushrooms, and I love snakes, spiders, and insects. I want tigers, polar bears, rhinos, gorillas, and sea turtles around for countless generations. If global warming is the problem many scientists think it is, then we need reliable information. I continue looking at the evidence, which is pretty convincing, that human-produced greenhouse gases are contributing to this warming.

So I was disappointed by some factual errors in Earth Matters: 1) The sun is not 865,000 million miles in diameter (p. 14); 2) heights of mountains reported on page 169 are apparently off by a factor of ten; and 3) "The result (of the Big Bang) was the birth of a billion stars..." (p. 11) In fact, there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and our Milky Way galaxy alone contains perhaps 200 billion stars, maybe 400 billion.*

Twenty years ago, James Hansen, a NASA climatologist, reported to Congress about global warming. Dr. Hansen testified there again this year that, "Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking... I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding ninety-nine percent." He warned that there would be no practical way to prevent disastrous climate change unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed quickly.

Long-time activist Scott Nearing told interviewer Studs Terkel, in American Dreams: Lost & Found, "The job is to keep your head above water and to do your share in making the dying society as tolerable as possible." With timely information, maybe the society won't die, after all.

* DK is aware of the errors - one was a typo (the sun's diameter), one was missed by copy editors (the mountain elevations) and one was kind of a miscommunication - "They were using 'a billion' in a sort of loose, unscientific way here to mean 'a lot.' It will be changed to 'billions' for reprints." All are slated to be corrected in future editions and we understand how stuff like this happens. Please don't let it diminish the overall impressive nature of the book, or its significance as an eco-title. - Colleen Mondor

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