As I read this book, I was sure I could hear the distant laughter of a wee leprechaun. What else should I expect from an eclectic collection of essays based on a 2004 forum on ecological sustainability held in Limerick, Ireland? Complete with puckish limerick poems by the authors, Gaining Ground: In Pursuit of Ecological Sustainability brings the reader into serious territory without taking itself too seriously.
The serious territory is, of course, ecological sustainability, and the philosophical tone is set in the opening and closing chapters. The first essay, by David Lavigne, the book’s editor, provides a concise overview of conservation biology, sustainability and the often difficult relationship between humans and their use of natural resources. Lavigne, a respected marine mammal zoologist, is senior science advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which convened the 2004 Limerick forum. Lavigne traces the history of ecological sustainability from the origins of Western environmentalism through to today’s co-opting of “wise use” concepts by commercial and political vested interests. It is Lavigne’s definition of ecological sustainability, taken from the 1980 “World Conservation Strategy,” which forms the basis for this book: “Species and ecosystems should not be so heavily exploited that they decline to levels or conditions from which they cannot easily recover.”
The other 24 essays address whether humans are able to interact with natural systems, from individual species to ecosystems, in a way that realizes this definition. Beginning with a section that sets the global context, the text moves to a discussion of examples of sustainable use, to one about the underlying factors that affect ecological sustainability. Finally, the editor treats readers to a series of essays that suggest how society can move towards the World Conservation Strategy objective.
More than one of the authors touch on the problem of our own success as the ultimate ecological generalist – a species able to substitute one food source, form of shelter, or raw material for another almost at will. Can such a generalist species, these scientists ponder, restrain itself from overexploiting one resource before moving on to the next? Do we know enough about our own evolutionary baggage to achieve this? They suggest this may be our evolutionary dilemma.
Several essays spend considerable time discussing sustainability itself. Ashok Kumar and Vivek Menon, both from the Wildlife Trust of India, consider the sustainability of the ivory trade, noting that it’s an oxymoron. Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, tackles the bushmeat trade, suggesting it is “exceedingly complex” and currently unsustainable. Lilly Ajarova and Arthur Mugisha from the Uganda Wildlife Authority believe deliberate steps are needed for their country’s efforts with ecotourism to even approach ecological sustainability. And the Bioacoustics Research Program’s Peter Corkeron looks at whale-watching and wonders: “is no ocean wilderness any more?”
Several chapters approach human attitudes and behaviours relative to conservation, including a thoughtful essay by William Rees (co-developer of the ecological footprint concept). Rees wades into whether conventional economies can ever approach the standard of ecological sustainability. A contribution by zoologist Ronald Brooks paints convincing pictures that the romantic ecology movement and the economic-positivism of many economists are myths. Brooks takes aim, in particular, at the belief that gardeners are close to nature. He argues that rather than cultivating nature – another oxymoron – gardeners are ruthlessly extending their phenotypes. Brooks concludes “Our own power has expanded, but there is no evidence of progress toward purposeful ends except wealth, security and eternal life. All these goals conflict with the pursuit of ecological sustainability.”
A series of essays examines attempts to change both public opinion and the effectiveness of conventional models of wildlife conservation. Non-governmental organizations are accused of standing in the way of progress, and William de la Mare compares the professional paradigm of fisheries and wildlife managers to that of engineers. The overall assessment is that wildlife managers need to improve professional standards of practice if they are to regain the confidence of the public and decision makers.
Gaining Ground closes with a summary chapter that proposes to reinvent wildlife conservation for the 21st century by bringing together political, economic and scientific foundations that promote the realization of ecological sustainability in human affairs. Such a shift, the essay’s authors conclude, will require time, effort and a major shift in our ideologies.
Although some chapters could be used as introductions to specific concepts, this volume is not intended, nor is it structured, as a textbook. It is recommended for anyone interested in the ecological and evolutionary issues generated by our own species. Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to judge whether or not we are “gaining ground” in pursuit of ecological sustainability.
David Galbraith is head of scientific development at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario. He also serves as executive director of the Canadian Botanical Conservation Network.