The New Atlas of Planet Management. Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, eds. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005. 304 pp., illus. $39.95 (ISBN 0520238796 paper).
The authors of The New Atlas of Planet Management, Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, are an honorary visiting fellow and an environmental researcher and analyst, respectively, at Green College, Oxford University. Each has an admirable résumé of writing about the global environment. Myers has been recognized for his efforts with membership in the US National Academy of Sciences, an ambassadorship for WWF–UK (the United Kingdom branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature), and numerous awards. Kent has coauthored four books with Myers on the interrelationships between the economy and the environment on a global scale. Together the two of them bring vast experience in the global environmental arena to this important text.
My first thought when opening this massive volume was that it is simply loaded with information, a real tour de force. This elegantly illustrated book covers a huge breadth of environmental topics. It is also obvious that the editors have done much work to avoid a biased perspective (i.e., looking at these issues solely from the viewpoint of citizens of the developed world). The developing world perspective is well represented. The major topic divisions are introduced by the leading researchers in conservation and sustainability. Within each of these topics (“Land,” “Ocean,” “Elements,” “Evolution,” “Humankind,” “Civilization,” and “Management”), there are wide-ranging discussions with a great deal of cross-referencing.
This text would not make an effective textbook for a beginning environmental studies course, however. Given the breadth of discussion, no one topic is covered in the depth typically associated with a course. In addition, the format is extremely difficult to follow. Information is given in small sound bites, with side boxes, complex figures and figure legends, and the main text jumbled together on each page. The font differences between the different texts are minute, making it difficult to distinguish the main text from the very busy and diverse group of other types of texts. I thought that perhaps it was only as an old fuddy-duddy that I was unable to follow the information, and asked two of my undergraduate students to read a chapter and tell me what they thought. They too had difficulties following the message, but, after finishing the chapter, pronounced it fascinating. Both agreed that they learned a great deal, yet given the immense number of facts crammed onto each page, they learned the most after they had finished reading, as they sat and digested the material.
I am also concerned by what appears to be a bias on the part of the authors in terms of biomes. Grasslands are given short shrift, although they are one of the most endangered biomes on Earth. They are dealt with primarily in the section on food production. Only at one point in the text, a sentence on page 168, is the plight of grasslands discussed (“We shall plough up enormous areas of grassland”). This lack of understanding of grasslands and grassland processes is revealed also in a section concerning fire. The authors decry the abundance of fires that are destroying forests, particularly in the tropics, but ignore the fact that fire is a critical process in grasslands and that its absence actually threatens the preservation of this habitat type.
In the section on food production, the authors deal with desertification primarily as a function of the production of new areas with moving dunes, rather than treating deserts as systems with lower productivity and diversity than the system that was replaced. Not all deserts are composed of moving sand dunes, and desertification can result in systems with low diversity, low productivity, and no sand dunes. I was also concerned that the authors backed the currently fashionable thought that the best systems for terrestrial carbon sequestration are forests, again ignoring grasslands as critical carbon sinks. Indeed, much of the world's desertification occurs when arid grasslands are converted to desert and their potential to sequester carbon is diminished.
With these critical caveats, I cannot recommend this book as a beginning text for environmental studies, but its myriad figures and facts could be an important resource for the instructor of such a course, providing important data to help illustrate points for students. In addition, some of the figures can be used as templates for instructors seeking a way to illustrate key points in their lectures or course notes.
This volume's strongest points are the chapters at the end, which explain global political and economic systems in great detail. These issues are typically given short shrift in environmental science texts, because most of these texts are written by ecologists who have little training in either politics or economics. The chapters here give tremendous insights into how environmental issues are intimately tied to human politics and economic decisions, which is indeed the primary theme of this entire atlas. This is elegantly illustrated by a sentence in the “Managing Our Civilization” section: “Bottom line: …we'll never attain the imperative of Sustainable Development without radical reform of the GNP concept.” Many of us have heard about the importance of no-growth economies, but seldom do we learn about this from the perspectives of both the developed and the developing worlds.
Not only is The New Atlas of Planet Management a critical resource for those teaching environmental science or environmental studies courses, it is also critical for those in positions of power. Governmental decisionmakers, politicians, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations all would benefit by having this atlas on their desks—not their bookshelves.