Cop15 essential reading: seven books that explain the biodiversity crisis

Ahead of December’s conference our writers select titles that explain the issues at stake, from animal extinction to marine degradation and loss of habitat

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

Chosen by Patrick Barkham

Imagine a fine Persian carpet, 12ft by 18ft. Now imagine brandishing a razor-sharp hunting knife and cutting it into 36 equal pieces. When you’ve finished cutting, there is still nearly 216 sq feet of recognisably carpet-like stuff. But are they nice Persian rugs? No. Each one is small, worthless, and fraying at the edges.

This arresting image opens David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, a prescient, global tour of extinction published just over 25 years ago. The metaphor of an unravelling rug has been used many times since to explain the fate of ecosystem tapestries in an age of extinction; how we pull one thread and the whole system unravels; how we hack away a habitat and fragmented life forms diminish and disappear.

The cover of the Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

The Song of the Dodo brilliantly showcases island biogeography and tells stories of evolution, destruction and extinction. It explains why losses start on small islands and why they are spreading across the globe as we sequester other species on ever-tinier fragments of wild habitat. We are all small islanders now.

It is a work of diagnosis, not prescription, and there has since grown new awareness of what we must do to halt the catastrophic loss of life on Earth. But the space for non-human nature continues to shrink and extinction races on. Quammen’s slim concluding hopes must today be even slimmer.

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts

Selected by George Monbiot

The cover of the Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts is a magnificent ecological investigation of what we have lost. It draws on a vast body of historical research to reveal what the UK’s seas are missing: cod the length of an adult human, plaice like tabletops, shoals of herring several miles long being harried within sight of the English shore by packs of bluefin tuna, giant sharks, fin whales and sperm whales …

Only when we understand what once lived here can we begin to restore these natural wonders, mostly by declaring large parts of our seas off-limits to commercial fishing. But because policymakers and the public know so little about what a thriving marine ecosystem looks like, we accept and normalise a state of extreme degradation. It is time to restore the lost glories of the ocean.

The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli

Chosen by Phoebe Weston

Cover of The Hidden Universe: Adventures in biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli

I love the idea of biodiversity as a hidden universe. An estimated 8.7 million species live on land and sea, and this number is probably an underestimate. When you include bacteria and archaea, it could be more like a trillion. But an estimated 99.99% of species which have ever lived have already gone. It makes the 100-400bn stars in the Milky Way look like a pretty paltry number.

This book encourages readers not to look up but down, at the universe below our feet. It speaks of a world that is more complex, abundant and interwoven than you could dream of. And it reads like an adventure, with lots of details about the author’s own travels. It’s free from jargon yet manages to navigate all the typically hard-to-communicate points, such as genes, ecosystems and species.

For anyone who still needs winning around to our planet’s beauty – and wants to know how we can save it – this is the book they should read.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Chosen by Anna Turns

Cover of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is as relevant today as it was when American environmentalist Rachel Carson first published her seminal work 60 years ago. Every chapter is a reminder that we aren’t above nature, or able to control it. When we harm biodiversity, we ultimately harm ourselves. As Carson wrote, “in nature nothing exists alone”.

This is a wake-up call to the blanket use of dangerously toxic agricultural chemicals. So meticulously informed, rigorously researched, yet accessible to the mainstream, Carson’s writing paints two evocative pictures through her suite of characters, from the robin to the gypsy moth. Yes, the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides such as DDT was detrimental to this planet’s ecology and our own health. Yet Silent Springemphasises that we have the power to call for change.

“The choice, after all, is ours to make,” she writes. Silent Spring sparked the dawn of a new environmental movement, the banning of DDT and the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Yet production of hazardous chemicals continues to rise exponentially. Banned pesticides linger. Decades on, I have traces of DDT in my own blood. This alarm bell still rings loud. We must listen to it.

The Value of a Whale by Adrienne Buller

Chosen by Patrick Greenfield

Cover of The Value of a Whale by Adrienne Buller

As nature takes centre stage at Cop15, so too will market-based solutions to the ecological collapse of life on Earth. Biodiversity offsets have become law in the UK, while conservation NGOs are teaming up with investment banks, asset managers and private equity firms to make nature an investable asset. But do these solutions actually work? Can green capitalism help avert the dual climate and nature crises?

Canadian author Adrienne Buller, director of research at the thinktank Common Wealth, provides a clear, accessible critique of these concepts in The Value of a Whale. The title is based on a 2019 IMF paper that assigned a $1tn-plus value to the world’s living “stock” of whales – about $2m a whale – and Buller explores why, despite apparent overwhelming recognition of the crisis in nature and the climate, humanity is so far from actually responding to the problem.

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

Chosen by Stephen Moss

Cover of Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

What I love about Rebirding is its positivity. Quite rightly, Benedict Macdonald acknowledges that we face a double whammy of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, which threatens not just Britain’s birds but also our own existence on this planet. But instead of wringing his hands in despair, he offers positive and practical strategies that could be put into practice right now. These are backed up with facts and figures that show exactly how this could be done. He neatly skewers the oft-quoted notion that Britain “doesn’t have enough space”, by pointing out that the Scottish Highland estates are more than twice the size of Yellowstone, while Snowdonia – one of the most nature-deprived places in the country – is larger than Kenya’s Masai Mara. At a time when the UK government seems hell-bent on destroying our natural heritage, and the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and RSPB are turning into the militant wing of the conservation movement, Macdonald offers us what we need if we are to reverse the damage already done: not just hope, but solutions.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Chosen by Max Benato

Cover of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

For anyone paying attention to the biodiversity crisis it will come as no surprise that some scientists are calling it the sixth extinction. That is the title Elizabeth Kolbert, a seasoned journalist with a gift for writing, adopted for her 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which lays out in stark terms exactly what we are facing. But this is not some dry account of how humans are destroying the natural world, though it certainly makes for sober reading. It is a gripping story of the fate of species we have lost, and those we stand to lose if we sit idly by and do nothing. From the demise of the American mastodon and great auk to the threats that loom over the planet today, from the Amazon to the Great Barrier Reef, Kolbert asks the question: “In an extinction event of our own making, what happens to us?”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Guardian writers

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