Book Review

Sustaining Life: How Human Life Depends on Biodiversity, edited by Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, Oxford University Press, 2008.

This remarkable book by two doctors at the Center for Health and the Global Environment has a foreword by E.O. Wilson and a prologue by Kofi Annan indicating the breadth of its analysis of biodiversity. A recent report on business suggests that the authors of the report are very aware and concerned about some aspects of the environment, particularly climate change, but see little connection between business and biodiversity. This book illustrates exactly why this viewpoint is wrong. As Chivian and Bernstein comment:

"Most people understand very well the dire effects of toxic pollution on their health. They also know that the ozone hole in the upper atmosphere is not a good thing and that global warming, destruction of forests, and depletion of freshwater reserves are serious global threats. What is harder to grasp, not only by the general public but also by most scientists, is the profound influence biodiversity has on human health."

Topics in the book include habitat loss, infectious disease, pollution, war and conflict, and climate change. The editors’ broad range of topics consists of chapters on medicines from nature, biodiversity and biomedical research, biodiversity and food production, genetically modified food, and more. This is a fascinating book, accessible to the general reader and with spectacularly beautiful photography, including a picture of the presumed extinct Golden Toad, whose demise has been attributed by some researchers to climate change. At first sight, this looks like a coffee table book with astonishing photographs. It is actually a profoundly insightful analysis of biodiversity, not only as a natural phenomenon but also an integrative concept that connects, sometimes in a most unexpected way, with the health and well-being of humanity.

Review by John Betton. Recommended Reading *****