Quirky snippets best lost at sea

The Essentials of the Environment
October 28, 2005

It should be a first rule of reference books that they are easy to refer to. Sadly, this one is not. It is a hotchpotch of about 200 sometimes worthy, sometimes quirky, sometimes boring and sometimes bizarre alphabetically listed snippets of information, written by ten contributors who do not show much sign of having discussed the project among themselves.

Certainly, there are few signs of any agreed rationale for the choice of subjects. And, given the jumble of themes and authorial voices, it would have been doubly useful to have had an index. At least then some of the interesting little case studies and side bars could be located.

The subject listings are admittedly eclectic: from adiabatic heating to acid rain, biomes to battery farming, catalytic converters to caves. But I can see little logic in the choices.

Why amensalism (a sort of sado-masochistic form of symbiosis) but not the Arctic? Why famine but not drought, which is surely the environmental end of that issue? Why mutualism and neutralism but not marine biology? Why survivorship and sex ratio but not savannah or Silent Spring ? Why rain shadow but not rain?

Or take rivers. The Nile and the Mississippi both appear under their own headings, but why them alone? Surely the Amazon deserves more than a listing for its length?

I like quirkiness, but I found this compendium plain undisciplined and indulgent. Theoretical ecology gets an especially good shout, with ten successive pages of entries covering ecological efficiency, ecological pyramids, ecological succession, ecology, ecosystems and ecotones, though the distinctions will surely be lost on most readers. A single narrative would have been better.

With such an eclectic mix and no index, cross-referencing between items should be crucial. Sadly, here it is pathetic. There is nothing to indicate that the section on agriculture can be augmented by reading that on contour ploughing, for instance. Readers of the entry on artesian basins are referred to that on water supply, but not to the one on ground waters and aquifers. Readers of the anti-cyclones entry are referred to pollution but not to air masses and fronts.

And there is doubling up. Dams and reservoirs get separate entries, apparently written by different people but otherwise indistinguishable. I perked up when I saw the long list of web addresses. But of the first ten I checked, five links failed. Of the three listed under sea levels, two failed and the third was an unsigned paragraph of gibberish that the authors cannot have read.

There was some light relief to be found among the URLs. A book entry on life zone - which apparently "refers to elevational bands of life on mountains" - sent me to an entertaining website on outlaw women of the Wild West. But I did not think globalisation was especially well served by a link to a US newspaper for "affluent Asian Indians" with no evident globalisation content.

What appears in the text of this book seems generally sound. But most readers will never be able to find the information they seek.

Fred Pearce is environment consultant, New Scientist .

The Essentials of the Environment

Author - Joseph Kerski and Simon Ross
Publisher - Hodder Arnold
Pages - 318
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 340 81632 5

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