Author Spotlight: Anthony Barnosky (author of Dodging Extinction)

 

 
Anthony D. Barnosky is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, a curator at the Museum of Paleontology, and a research paleoecologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has spent three decades conducting research related to past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes Planet Earth faces in the next few decades.

The author of books, numerous scientific publications, op-eds, and blog posts, Barnosky speaks regularly about climate change, extinction, and environmental tipping points in a variety of public and academic venues.

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For a scientist who’s considered an expert in the dynamics of mass extinctions, Anthony Barnosky is a surprisingly upbeat guy. He brings that same attitude to his newest book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth, which eschews doom-and-gloom soapboxing for can-do approaches to pulling us back from the brink of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

Given the scope of the book’s subtitle, it’s not surprising that UC Press calls Dodging Extinction “nothing less than a guidebook for saving the planet.” First, what IS a mass extinction?

Barnosky explains:

Mass extinction means that at least three out of every four species you are familiar with die out. Forever. Extinction of that magnitude has happened only five times in the past 540 million years, most recently 66 million years ago, when the last big dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid strike.

Calibrating current extinction from previous epochs is vital, says Barnosky, especially as we confront the current state of biodiversity: in the last 40 years we have killed a staggering half of all wildlife on earth—and more than 20,000 species are “at risk.” The accelerated rates of extinctions, says Barnosky, far exceed those in the fossil record, “before people got into the act.” From climate change to food production, human behaviors are triggering vast, incalculable losses, but it’s a negative feedback loop that can be rejiggered to halt declines without great sacrifice to creature comforts, and it’s a story he wants everyone to know.

Lay readers will be happy to know that Barnosky writes in an engaging style, summarizing terms “you might have learned (and forgotten) in high-school biology” so that non-specialists understand what’s at stake. He takes readers into the trenches—both past and present—to share the story of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Through his book, invited lectures around the world, and most recently in the Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink (which also features UC Berkeley’s Walter Alvarez), Barnosky explains that the “tipping point” comes down to one question: “How do we provide for the needs of people while still providing for the needs of other species?”

We’ve completely plowed, paved, or otherwise transformed 50 percent of Earth’s lands, taking all those places out of play for the species that used to live there.

As Barnosky lays out the sobering facts about past epochs, the recent (human-inflected) past, and our current conundrum, he says continuing on our trajectory, regardless of what we now know, is equivalent to “being a train operator and seeing a school bus stalled on the tracks way off in the distance, knowing you can stop in time if you pull the brake lever hard now, but deciding what the heck, let’s not bother.”

That might sound like a fatalistic analogy but Barnosky, a self-described realist and optimist, is confident about our ability to change things:

We know how to save species when we put our minds to it. That’s one thing that is very hopeful going into the future… We know the underlying drivers of what’s causing all these extinctions, and we know ways to fix that, too. We have to also think about that very big picture as well as the specific ways to save certain species and ecosystems …

Grandson of a coal miner, son of a butcher, and himself a coal geologist-turned paleontologist, Barnosky says wryly, “fossil fuels have been very good to me.” He doesn’t demonize industries, policy-makers, or our current un-checked proclivities, but he is clear-eyed about where we need to go: “We are at a crossroads.”

The good news, Barnosky declares, is that we have the technology to address our problems. Change is possible in such diverse but interrelated arenas as power (energy), food (agricultural land use, yield efficiency), and money (the economics of habitat destruction, and integrating the full valuation of all ecosystem services into the global economy).

One of Barnosky’s many strengths is offering cogent solutions to seemingly intractable issues such as, say, how to feed 10 billion people without further harming biodiversity. The short answer is:

1. Improve the efficiencies of the yields in places we already have under cultivation—in environmentally sustainable ways.

Improve yields where they are below capacity.
Improve yields where they are below capacity.

2. Convert all of the croplands that are now used to grow feed for cattle, pigs, etc. and put those into production for growing crops that people would eat directly. (“We would increase the number of calories available to the world by 50% to 70%. That’s enough to feed a couple more billion people.”)

3. Stop wasting food. (Barnosky calls this “incredibly obvious,” noting that in developed countries, “we waste about 30% of what we grow.”)

Wary of the hard science and statistics behind these accessible sound bites? No need. Barnosky’s deep erudition is tempered by both humor and a journalistic writing style that includes lively drive-by introductions to such diverse topics as the “Cretaceous Barbeque” the Goldilocks Principle, and “de-extincting” passenger pigeons. (Is re-creating the latter equivalent to what “Dr. Frankenstein attempted to do with the leftover parts of dead people?”)

After you’ve absorbed Barnosky’s data and arguments, what’s next?

Awareness is the first step. As Barnosky reminds students, when he was their age, 300 million across the world were connected via land-lines, now more than 3.5 billion humans (over half the human population) are connected via the internet, smart phones, and social media. Because the first step is communicating these issues, connected Millennials are especially well situated to tackle the first of Barnosky’s Top 10:

Top 10 Ways You Can Help Avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction

  1. Spread the word that the extinction crisis is real.
  2. Reduce your carbon footprint.
  3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.
  4. Eat fish only from healthy fisheries.
  5. Eat less meat.
  6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory—or from any other product derived from threatened species.
  7. Enjoy nature.
  8. Become a citizen scientist.
  9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women’s rights to education and healthcare.
  10. Don’t give up.

Simple, right?

As one of his chapter titles states: It’s Not Too Late (Yet).

Follow Anthony D. Barnosky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tonybarnosky

 

 


Sara Shostak Talks Environmental Health with Human Capital

Sara Shostak’s book, Exposed Science: Genes, the Environment, and the Politics of Population Health, recently received two huge honors from the American Sociological Association: the Eliot Freidson Outstanding Publication Award from the Medical Sociology Section and the Robert K. Merton Book Award from the section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology (SKAT). In this interview with Human Capital, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s blog, Shostak talks about what the awards mean for her, both personally and professionally. She also elaborates on the subject of her book, gene-environment interaction, and its ascendance within the field of environmental health science. The book’s central argument, Shostak explains, is that “scientists’ perceptions of and responses to the structural vulnerabilities of the field of environmental health science have both intended and unintended consequences for what we know about the somatic vulnerabilities of our bodies to environmental exposures.” 

Read the full interview at Human Capital.


Join us at GSA 2014

Rock out with University of California Press this fall at the 2014 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting and Exposition in Vancouver, British Columbia. The 2014 meeting convenes October 19-22 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Please visit us at booth 940 in the Vancouver Convention Centre to purchase our latest geology and earth science publications for the following offers:

  • 30% conference discount and free worldwide shipping
  • Request exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes
  • Win $100 worth of books! Join our eNews subscription

Our GSA booth will feature our latest titles in earth science, environmental history, ecology, and viticulture. Please see our conference program ad for our latest offerings. Acquisitions and marketing staff will be available for your publishing questions.

Follow GSA’s Twitter @geosociety and hashtag #GSA2014 for current meeting news.


Jon Christensen Interviewed in BayNature

I tell all of our writers that what we want to do in the pages of the magazine is, once a quarter, host one of the most lively, interesting, fun, and provocative dinner party conversations in California. It’s as if you’d invited a dozen of your friends, from all walks of life, over for dinner, and you’re having a super passionate conversation about the things you all care about. That’s the voice of Boom.

Boom: A Journal of California editor Jon Christensen talks to BayNature about his editorial vision for the quarterly journal, why he loves both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and what intrigues him about people’s connection to the environment. Read the full interview here, then head over to Boom to browse the new Fall 2014 issue.


ESA 2014 Is Coming to California!

University of California Press welcomes attendees and visitors to the Golden State for the 2014 Ecological Society of America meeting in Sacramento, California. This year’s ESA meeting convenes August 10-15 at the Sacramento Convention Center.

Please visit us at Sacramento Convention Center booths 300 and 302 to purchase our latest ecology and environment publications for the following offers:

  • 30% off conference discount and free worldwide shipping.
  • Request exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes.
  • Win $100 worth of books! Join our eNews subscription list for contest eligibility.

The 2014 ESA meeting theme “From Oceans to Mountains: It’s All Ecology” speaks accordingly to the diverse list of titles published by University of California Press. Our booth will feature display copies ranging from ecology, conservation, marine biology, and environmental history.

Follow ESA’s Twitter @esa_org and hashtag #ESA2014 for current meeting news.


Join Boom at L.A.’s Natural History Museum for Just Add Water: The Discussions

Boom Editor Jon Christensen is moderating a series of discussions on water issues at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles this summer. Just Add Water: The Discussions, presented in conjunction with the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Boom: A Journal of California, focuses on the most important water issues facing Los Angeles today, and how the city will adapt to water shortages in the future.

Covering topics ranging from the L.A. river to climate change, the series explores possibilities for living in harmony with the region’s natural resources. Don’t miss this Thursday’s discussion (July 24th) on the subject, “Chinatown, Revisited.”


Greenfriar Calls Boom The Best Magazine In Many Years

The best new magazine I’ve seen in decades…It’s just very good stuff, filled with some of my favorite Golden State writers and characters. And it’s beautiful to hold and look at, too—a digital version might have all the same ideas, but each issue of Boom is really one for the bookshelf.” – Ken Layne, Greenfriar.com

Read the full review here.

 


California on Track for Worst Drought in 500 Years, Says B. Lynn Ingram

Dry riverbed in California. Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

We Californians know the weather has been dry, but exactly how dry? B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, authors of The West Without Water, provide some historical context for the current drought in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. Ingram and Malamud-Roam look back further than the 119 years of climate data we have on record for California, to the geologic past. Measuring tree ring patterns throughout the Western United States, the authors determined that the last drought this severe occurred in AD 1580. If our current water shortage continues apace, we will have had the driest year in half a millennium.

Learn more about the authors’ paleoclimatic predictions and the future of California’s water in the New York Times, Time Magazine, KTVN.com, and the UC Berkeley News Center.

 


Boom Editor Jon Christensen Sees Green Future for L.A.

Bike lane in downtown Los Angeles
Bike lane in downtown Los Angeles (via Wikimedia Commons)

On KCRW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand (segment starts at 41:30), Boom Editor Jon Christensen argues that despite popular perception, Los Angeles is now becoming a model for urban sustainability. Echoing arguments made in his recent High Country News article, “Brave new L.A.”, Christensen points to L.A.’s progress on water conservation, solar energy, bike lanes, and denser development as positive signs that the city is on its way to a less car-centered, more livable future. He cautions, however, that there is still more to be done and Los Angeles should “hold [Mayor Eric Garcetti’s] feet to the fire” on these issues.

Listen now for the full story and to hear freelance journalist Emily Green’s counterargument to Christensen’s optimism.

 


Boom Editor Jon Christensen on the L.A. Aqueduct at 100

Last weekend, All Things Considered interviewed Boom editor Jon Christensen about the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Boom’s Fall issue looks at the Aqueduct at 100, exploring how the project transformed the American West, and arguably, the world. Many people remember the Aqueduct from the 1974 film, Chinatown. However, Polanski’s film gets the environmental politics of the deal wrong, Christensen argues. Listen to the interview to hear the real backstory of the city of Los Angeles’s relationship with the rural Owens Valley. For more on the Aqueduct, listen to Christensen’s interviews on KCRW and KPCC.

And below, watch a short video produced by the UCLA Newsroom about this important anniversary and what it means for the future of Los Angeles’s water.