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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Pimm's World

Air Date: Week of November 2, 2001

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Book reviewer Bruce Barcott examines an author's environmental audit of the world, in "The World According to Pimm."

Transcript

CURWOOD: From climate change to loss of species, one author has decided to tally every environmental assault he can find into a new book. Bruce Barcott has this review of "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth."

BARCOTT: Stuart Pimm makes his living as a biology professor at Columbia University. But within his white lab coat beats the heart of an accountant. In "The World According to Pimm," a terrific book with a terrible title, he attempts nothing less than an environmental audit of the planet Earth. Using estimates published in the most rigorous scientific journals, Pimm calculates how much stuff the planet grows and how much of it humans consume. The figures are not pretty.

Every year we harvest about 42 percent of the fresh bio-mass grown on land, we use 60 percent of the planet's fresh water run-off, and we catch 35 percent of the ocean's fish. The six billion of us, writes Pimm, are inflicting continuing damage on the Earth.

This is nothing we haven't heard before, but Pimm makes it newly compelling with vivid explanations of the facts behind his figures. In the Tennessee woods, he measures the amount of tree litter that collects every year by letting the leaves and branches fall into plastic buckets. Off the coast of Costa Rica, he helps inventory dolphins, tuna and sea birds in an effort to calculate the productivity of the deep blue ocean. In Siberia, he chokes on industrial pollution while checking the health of the world's largest single block of boreal forest. Pimm's writing can sometimes be more pretentious than charming, but he's smart enough to realize that his readers approach the book like math teachers. We aren't interested in the final answers so much as how he got them. And Pimm does an excellent job of showing his work, producing a book that grounds the global environmental debate in solid figures. Those figures indicate that we're using more than the Earth can give. But Pimm's reaction isn't all whine and wail. If we correct our ways, he says, the fisheries can recover and the forests can regenerate.

When it comes to the planet's rising rate of extinction, however, he can't hide the red ink. For example, there are 10,000 known species of birds, and Pimm estimates their historical rate of extinction at one per century. In the past decade, however, birds have gone extinct at a rate of one per year. Stuart Pimm has also calculated the chance of those lost species ever coming back. That figure is zero.

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CURWOOD: The book is "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth." Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about environmental issues for Outside Magazine.

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Links

Order "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth" from amazon.com
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