The best books on biodiversity change

Chris D. Thomas Author Of Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction
By Chris D. Thomas

Who am I?

Chris Thomas is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who is interested in how people are changing the Earth’s biodiversity. He has written over 300 scientific articles on topics as varied as showing that animal species have shifted their distributions closer to the poles as the climate has warmed, how butterflies navigate fragments of remaining habitats as they move through human-altered landscapes, and how invasive plants are increasing rather than reducing biological diversity. Chris is today Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity at the University of York in England. His popular book Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction was among The Times, Economist & Guardian Books of the Year for 2017.

I wrote...

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction

By Chris D. Thomas,

Book cover of Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction

What is my book about?

It is accepted wisdom today that human beings have irrevocably damaged the natural world. Yet what if this narrative obscures a more hopeful truth? In Inheritors of the Earth, Chris D. Thomas overturns the accepted story, revealing how nature is fighting back. Many animals and plants actually benefit from our presence, raising biological diversity in most parts of the world and increasing the rate at which new species are formed, perhaps to the highest level in Earth's history. 

Thomas takes us on a gripping round-the-world journey to meet the enterprising creatures that are thriving in the Anthropocene, from York's ochre-coloured comma butterfly to hybrid bison in North America, scarlet-beaked pukekos in New Zealand, and Asian palms forming thickets in the European Alps. He questions our irrational persecution of so-called 'invasive species', and shows us that we should not treat the Earth as a faded masterpiece that we need to restore. After all, if life can recover from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, might it not be able to survive the onslaughts of a technological ape?

The books I picked & why

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why this book?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a fantastic writer, in this book encapsulating the challenges that biodiversity faces in modern times. She entwines narratives about endangered species, about the people trying to discover why they are threatened, and contemplating how - if at all - it might be possible to repair some of the damage. A sixth extinction would indeed be an extraordinary outcome of the evolution of humans - if it comes to pass. Understanding how it may be emerging is something every concerned (and not so concerned) person should know. Where Elizabeth Kolbert succeeds so well is by revealing such a potentially dismal tale in such a fascinating and engaging way. It is a pleasure to read.

Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad

By Ken Thompson,

Book cover of Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad

Why this book?

This book is full of surprises, taking on the thorny issue of where different species come from, where people think they belong, and what people are doing about it. Written in an entertaining way, Ken Thompson takes on those who hate and try to kill species simply because they perceive them to be in the wrong place. First, he establishes the science, pointing out that many species evolved in places that you wouldn't guess…. Camels did not evolve in western Asia or North Africa originally, but I won’t spoil the story. 

Most species evolved somewhere but today survive somewhere else.  This is obvious to someone like Thompson, whose career has been based in Sheffield in England, which was at the edge of an ice sheet a mere 20,000 years ago. Virtually all of the species that live in and around Sheffield today only colonised the area in the last 10,000 years or so, a blink of an eye in geological terms. They evolved somewhere else. Full of anecdotes, and fascinating natural history, Ken Thompson takes aim at a cadre of scientists - invasion biologists - who take a holier-than-thou attitude to where species should be allowed to live and who, amazingly, have persuaded policymakers to try and keep ‘foreign species’ out of their native lands, wherever possible.

Ken Thompson reveals not only the contradictions of this stance but the impossibility as well as the stupidity of this stance. If you are interested in natural history, conservation, or how people are changing the world, this is a great read.

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life

By George Monbiot,

Book cover of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life

Why this book?

This is entertaining, a mixture of exasperation at the bizarre behaviour of some conservationists, excitement about the natural world, and environmental hope. Conservation has for too long tried to maintain a ‘just so’ version of the world, confining wildlife to particular places, and managing ecosystems to generate just the ‘right’ set of species living in a particular place. George Monbiot asks why?

His tale of visiting a nature reserve in the Welsh hills left me crying with laughter, the managed landscape overgrazed by fluffy white balls of wool (sheep), a dull vision, until just outside the reserve he spots a grassy bank beyond the reach of the tearing teeth - and there he sees a profusion of flowers, in stark contrast to the brown land inside the reserve. Of course, there was probably a good reason for the management, and I would have undoubtedly been furious if I had been the reserve manager, but Monbiot makes a point.

Why do we, humans, think that there should somehow be an ‘approved’ version of nature (often one that only existed because our ancestors managed it a certain way in centuries past) and that we should constantly intervene to make it like that. Why not just trust animals and plants to live and grow where they can, with the shackles off, and allow nature to take its place in and around us. Since writing the book, the idea of rewilding has indeed started to take off. This book is still a wonderful read, venting frustration and explaining why giving nature a chance makes sense.

Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

By Emma Marris,

Book cover of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Why this book?

This is my favourite ever environmental book. Superbly written in an engaging narrative, Emma Marris explores the complex realities and contradictions of living in a world where the human and non-human components can no longer be separated. And she finds that this mixture is not so bad. If the only way that we can keep wild nature the way it used to be (or rather, the way we usually mistakenly imagine it to have been) is to manage it ever more intensively, then we might as well accept the inevitable. Humans are part of our planet, not separate, and the reality is that all nature everywhere has at least partly been touched by the hand of humans, and in this sense, we are already living in a planetary garden.

She describes it as rambunctious because wildlife does not simply sit back and take the medicine, it grows and lives where it can and when it can, a version of human-modified nature that is always likely to be rather more out of our control than under our thumb. And if everywhere has already been altered by people, why not intervene a bit more, in imaginative ways, like rewilding, transporting species to save them from climate change, and recreating extinct species from fragments of their ancient DNA. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You will think a bit, and possibly a lot, differently once you have read it.

Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction

By Britt Wray,

Book cover of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction

Why this book?

You have heard of extinction for sure - people are on the streets protesting about it. But what about de-extinction?  Maybe. But perhaps not in sufficient detail to really understand what the issues are, ranging from ethical to environmental, through to the sheer joy at the prospect of actually being able to go and see something that looks pretty much like a wooly mammoth. Britt Wray does a tremendous job of tiptoeing through the ideas and potential pitfalls of bringing extinct species back to life, justifying its inclusion as one of the best books of the year (2019) by The New Yorker. Yet, there are real challenges. Where are we supposed to put herds of mammoths? Shouldn’t we try to save the endangered species that still survive before we heap resources into trying to bring back passenger pigeons? And so on.

The conundrums keep coming. But, this is a new science and it is undoubtedly going to happen - at least for a few species - and so everyone who is interested in science, biodiversity, or the environment should start to think about the pros and cons of this approach, and its implications. For myself, I’ll be on the first plane available to go and see a mammoth (-like) animal but others may be less than enthusiastic and fear for the consequences. This is an exciting new area, and this book is a great way in.

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