The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma

From Alternatives Journal 37.3: EcoBooks, published May 2011

If I were asked by a visitor from outer space for the best information on the history and ecology of life on Earth, I’d offer this book. Deservedly short-listed for the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize, The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma: An Exploration into How Life Organizes and Supports Itself covers all the bases, bridging the authors’ decades of research into animal ecology and their many engaging encounters with animals. Their belief that science matters if we are to learn to live harmoniously with nature is illustrated by their investigations of the adaptive musicology of birdsong, and why sagebrush proliferates in pastured grassland. The writing is first rate, often lyrical and joyful.

This is a wondering, questioning book, buoyed by the married authors’ relentless curiosity about how life “kaleidoscoped through the ages to arrive at what we have today.” How do ptarmigan mothers make critical decisions in raising their chicks? Why do some animals gather in herds or flocks? How does life organize and sustain itself? Does an “underlying commonality” account for success in nature? And – more somberly – how close are we to ecological catastrophe due to human abuse?

The book begins with the basics: genetics, evolution and environmental adaptation. The Theberges then introduce us to higher levels of organization (populations, ecosystems, and the biosphere) by considering “that cunning, cruel, magnanimous force – natural selection.” We are left with a deeper understanding of the resilience of healthy natural systems, but also their vulnerability to human muddling and destruction. “Just one environmental bullet can kill us,” the Theberges warn. “We need a way to call off the firing squad, a last-minute reprieve. Is there one?”

(McClelland and Stewart. 2010. 416 pages)

Greg Michalenko is a member of Alternatives’ editorial board, and an assistant professor emeritus of environment and resource studies at the University of Waterloo.

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