Millipedes and Moon Tigers: Science and Policy in an Age of Extinction

March 24, 2009

 

By Steve Nash
University of Virginia Press, $22.95

Reviewed by Christine Heinrichs

Environmental change manifests in ways so different, its fragments can seem unrelated. Steve Nash's 15 feature articles, brought together in book form, stitches the fragments together, telling a dramatic story of the changes rippling through our world.

His subject material ranges from Civil War history to genetic engineering, and covers a spectrum of conservation issues reflecting contemporary pressures such as development, commerce and scientific advances. Nash, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, discusses practicalities, such as how historic battlefields and old-growth forests can be preserved and the philosophical questions of why they should be. The millipedes of the title appear in a feature about the difficulties inherent in conservation of invertebrates, with their humble lack of charisma.

He explores all the angles, such as whether preserving Civil War battlegrounds is locking up too much land, cramping the economy or stifling creation of new jobs, considering that the amount of land in question is 280,000 acres, a quarter the size of a single national forest, of which there are 155. He weighs financial and political realities: the $100 million cost to purchase the land— prospectively half from Congress and half from state, local and private sources—is about equal to the production cost of Cold Mountain, Hollywood's CivilWar epic.

His reportorial affection for numbers provides good context. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual national Breeding Bird Survey figures, for example, are a chilling documentation of population losses that are not otherwise obvious. Migratory songbirds by definition are present during only some seasons of the year, and their populations vary widely even under normal conditions. But reliable numbers, now available, show these populations are in free fall. Several of the best-documented songbird species are projected nearly to disappear in the next century. A Silent Spring, indeed.

Figures for damage from invasive species, $137 billion annually, including $80 billion in agricultural losses, show the true significance of small critters like the emerald ash borer. And what about more subtle damages to natural systems that are more difficult to tally in dollars? Nash says the reactive, fragmented one-species-at-atime approach is failing to protect the U.S. from exotic critters and other countries from ours.

I can't end this review without a mention of the Glofish, a genetically engineered pet fish, which certainly swam under my radar until I read about it here. Prohibited in California because of lack of a formal ecological review, these fluorescent fish are on sale everywhere else. The Glofish fell through the cracks of federal oversight because of a lack of regulations to address transgenic animals, Nash writes.

In the age of specialized reporting, Nash has specialized in reporting. He starts with a problem, researches the background and finds the sources to tell the story. His work demonstrates that solid reporting can illuminate any subject. In an era when reporting can be as fragmented as deep forest habitat, his 20 years of writing illustrates how a conservation ethic can pervade our life and work, saving what is precious to enrich our collective future.

Christine Heinrichs is a freelance reporter in California's Central Coast, where she is writing her second book, How to Raise Poultry. Outdoors, she is a docent at the local Elephant Seal rookery.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue