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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

September-October 2010

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Books of Note - September/October 2010

A PIVOTAL MOMENT: POPULATION, JUSTICE AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGE

Laurie mazur, Ed., washington, DC: Island Press, 2009, 432 pp.

While much attention has focused in recent years on the many signs of environmental change and the possibilities of “tipping points,” this book focuses on the other current “pivotal moment”—that of demographic change. As Laurie Mazur underlines in the introduction to the volume, the largest generation of young people is coming of age right now. The coming decade will decide what the maximum global population will be at around the middle of this century. To achieve the overall goals of sustainable development—reducing the impact of humans on the environment and the glaring inequalities that divide humanity—slowing population growth is of central importance.

According to many authors in this book, major advances were made at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, in particular with the focus on reproductive health, access to family planning, alleviating poverty, and the human rights of girls and women. The promises that were made in Cairo, however, have not been kept. As many chapters in this book demonstrate, by failing to implement the Cairo agenda, opportunities to slow population growth have been missed, and today the challenges that we face are therefore greater. As Timothy Wirth points out in his Foreword, the world chose precisely the wrong moment to neglect family planning and reproductive health.

As this edited volume clearly shows, the best way to slow population growth is not with “top-down population control” but by ensuring that all people have the means and the power to make real choices about childbearing. Access to family planning, addressing economic and gender inequities, and investing in the young generation are all steps that would contribute to this goal and to shaping a sustainable future.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part covers the basic quantitative aspects from demographic studies, including topics like migration and urbanization. The second part illustrates the range of complex issues connected to population issues, such as climate change, and food and water security. These are complemented by the final sections on population policy and on human rights. The short chapters by many of the experts in the field are easy to read, packed with detail, and present an extremely convincing case for the title of the book.

THE CHANGING ARCTIC LANDSCAPE

Ken D. Tape, Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 2010, 132 pp.

The Arctic region is considered to be a bellwether for early detection of climate change on both land and sea. Ken Tape, a scientist-photographer, crafts a fascinating story of how the work of several generations of earth scientists can be integrated into a picture of arctic Alaska landscapes that are responding to both natural and human influences. Decades-old photos from pioneering studies of the geology, vegetation, glaciers, and landforms of Brooks Range and North Slope were used to select specific environments for change detection.

The author carefully blends comparative photographs of landscapes past and present, interviews and biographies of preceding geologists and their explorations, and an easily understandable scientific analysis of why some landscapes have changed more dramatically than others. And some have not changed at all. The result is a story that will appeal to a broad audience, ranging from college students exploring the natural sciences to citizens with serious interests in understanding environmental change.

The author concludes that the changes are consistent with a warming climate, but the argument for warming is not as solid as the argument for the changes themselves.

This book makes a strong case for more attention to climate–landscape interactions in what may be one of our most sensitive natural ecosystems in North America.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead believed that most human thought contains contradictions that ultimately lead to its own decay and to the birth of its successor: “In this way mankind stumbles on in its task of understanding the world.” The Changing Arctic Landscape is an important account of a remote landscape fraying at the edges. We must hope that Ken Tape and other scientist-photographer experts will continue to carefully record environmental change in this remote region of arctic Alaska.

Jill Jäger works as a consultant in Vienna, Austria, where she also works for the Sustainable Europe Research Institute. Her recent research projects focus on environmental change and forced migration, integrated sustainability assessment and linking science and policy for sustainable development.

Robert Harriss is President of the Houston Advanced Research Center, located in The Woodlands, Texas.

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