Sunday, July 20, 2014

H. H. Shugart's "Foundations of the Earth"

H. H. “Hank” Shugart holds the W. W. Corcoran Chair in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and has produced more than 400 scientific publications that largely involve systems ecology and ecosystems modeling strongly focused on regional and global change. His book How the Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of Unbalanced Nature is considered a classic in modern ecology.

Shugart applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and The Book of Job is the penultimate page of Chapter 4, “Freeing the Onager: Feral and Introduced Animals.” Foundations of the Earth poses global environmental problems in the context of a set of biblical questions, the Whirlwind Speech, found in Job: 38-40. The Joban questions initiate chapter discussions on such topics as, “Where did the solar system come from? How were animals domesticated? How do changes in the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere imply global warming? How do climate and its change alter the world’s vegetation and vice versa?” Foundations of the Earth intends to demonstrate the intrinsic connectedness of the Earth’s systems, their dynamic change and their interactions with humans using these divine questions as a framework to provide additional connectedness. The book emphasizes environmental synthesis at large scales — regional to global scales in space; century to millennia to even longer scales in time. The mutual interactions among different Earth systems provide a unity to the text, so does the framework provided by the extraordinary questions from Job.

Page 99 does a very good job of representing the intent of Foundations of the Earth. The Joban questions motivating Chapter 4 are:
Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place? It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
--Job 39:5-7 (New Revised Standard Version)
The chapter uses the wild ass, Equus hemionus, as an ecological icon for introduced and invasive species, a significant consideration in domains ranging from agriculture and horticulture (weeds) to conservation (introduced species replacing native species of animals) to medicine (introduced diseases and vectors for diseases).

Page 99 initiates the summary of the chapter’s earlier discussions of the evolution of weeds, domestication of draft animals, the creation of a human-dominated planet, and change due to introduced species may be doing to the Earth’s ecosystems. To quote page 99,
We know from the fossil and geological record that past ecosystems with different mixtures of species and different environment conditions coalesce, persist and eventually change over time. The instances in the geological past in which floras and faunas mingled after the formation of land bridges often have featured extinction of many species. For example with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama around 3 million years ago, the remarkably diverse marsupial mammal fauna of South America collapsed and was replaced by more advanced placental mammals from North America. Thus, we have reason to believe that the species we have loosed across the Earth will also change the planet.
But what will these new, ecosystems shaped by the actions of humanity be like? We would hope for optimistic outcomes, but there is cause for concern. Again from page 99,
We enjoy gardens and arboreta loaded with exotic plants from all over the world and find pleasure in this human-created biological diversity. There are also significant negatives. Many of these stem from feedback loops between the exotics and the ecosystems they inhabit. Fire-tolerant alien plants prosper under fires and create additional fuel for more frequent or hotter fires. Introduced fish eliminate natural fisheries that support coastal towns. Inedible or even poisonous weeds invade pastures and prosper…
Inadvertently or otherwise, we are creating new ecosystems comprised of some, often novel, species that have been selected for their capacity to resist our efforts to control them.

The alteration of the biota of Earth’s ecosystems, the themes of Chapter 4 and Page 99, occur and interweave on our dynamic and human-altered planet. The overarching themes of the Foundations of the Earth involve Earth-systems complexity and connectedness.. These are large themes for a small book and the diversity of disciplines considered is substantial. Page 99 provides a sample of the depth of the challenges before us.
Learn more about Foundations of the Earth at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue