Review of Sustaining Life by Dr. Eric Chivian:
If you have not had the mind stretching pleasure of reading this book  (Eric Chivian MD and Aaron Bernstein MD Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, Oxford University Press, New York 2008 available on Amazon) you are in for a real treat.  My review, all inadequate but my best effort, is going to be in four parts: 1) Thoughts about reading it.  2) Micro-0rganisms.  3) Fish stocks.  4) Waterfront condos.  Of them I think the third is the most important from my own standpoint.

  1. Thoughts about reading the book. 

The book is about the need for maintaining diversity in the natural and modified world in order to maintain human health. 

Some time in the early 1970’s  I stumbled across an article that described scientist taking a gene from one organism and placing it into another.  I enthusiastically showed it to my father and said that if it can happen in the lab it happens in the wild so the idea that people are made by genes which are only inherited from the parents and only change by mutation no longer holds.  We exchange 0ur genes like our atoms with the environment only much more slowly.  Since we do it, perhaps we are obliged to do it.  A reduction in the diversity of the environment would reduce our access, or rare occasions, to new genes we might one day need.  We simply must maintain the wild environment.  His voice said, “Anything that would encourage people to care for the environment would be most welcome.”  His eyes said, “My son keeps having the strangest ideas.”  And I think that progress in genomics has pretty well put paid to my notion but not to his; and this book certainly encourages that care.

Another warm memory the book brings up for me is that my favorite book for a time in childhood was Wild Animals of North America.  Each page was a photo of a native animal and a short description.  When I pointed out to my father that the book was amazingly good he said that it had been written during the depression as a make-work project by the federal government.  Excellent talent was available at the time.  Well this book is the first book of natural history that competes, and it totally blows the older one away.  It is lavishly illustrated; nay could beguile one into delirium.  It is written in gentle prose despite the often grim nature of the subject matter and the tone is of high seriousness, enviable by me with my urge to lapse into farce no matter how important an issue.  It makes no demands of prior knowledge of the field but enormous demands on retention; I’d say it is a book to be savored as well as a call to arms.  Well done Dr. Chivian.

  1. Micro-organisms.   

It is rare to read a book from which you learn new things about what confronts you as you step from your door.  Now as you know a lawn is classically a monoculture crops.  It’s all the same grass throughout.  Mind leans toward greater biodiversity:

Pink, white and yellow flowers; there was a bee buzzing about when I went out to get the picture, but she hurried away.  If I read the book aright, slide in a trowel, pull up some loam, subject it to the appropriate studies and there will be evidence for an enormous number of different species, and only about 1% can be cultured.  There is something profound in that.  It’s not that only that many have been; only that many can be cultured. 

The microbes have spoken.  Life exists only in community.  One suspects that some of those microbes are performing metabolic tasks that others cannot; they represent in macrocosm – sort of – our own cells in which various organelles were once free living forms that now share their metabolic abilities.  Had I not important issues to attend I would just sit and think about that one for a long, long time.

On the subject of microbes, Dr. Chivian considers bacteria when estimating the proportion of species that are threatened.  He isn’t much worried about them.  Would you worry about an armored tank that had to cross a field of petunias?  A problem for estimating such a proportion is that if bacteria reproduce only by division, it’s hard to define a species.  You can do it, but the ultimate test – can individuals in the population selected mate and have fertile offspring – becomes problematic.  But according to the splendid Chapter 19 “Marry in or Die Out” by Robin Fox in Handbook on Evolution and Society, things are not so simple.  Hold your hat, now; years after Sustaining Life was published it was found (Pathak, D. T., X. Wei, A. Dey, and D. Wall. 2013.  “Molecular Recognition by a Cell Surface Receptor Governs Cooperative Behavior in Bacteria.” PloS Genet. 9 (11): e1003891. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen. 1003891)  (nothing more refreshing than a complete reference stuck right in the middle of the sentence, eh?) … it was found that certain bacteria can recognize for reproductive purposes not only conspecifics but kin.  Of course they favor kin. 

In other words there is biologically important diversity down there we never dreamed of. 

  1. Fish stocks.

Along with the beauty, the vulnerability, the splendor of life, along with the demands on retention, abstract reasoning (and it’s not just, “We have to have these things so we jolly well need to keep them.”) and the call to action there is on page 46 a collection of raw data on the number of catches per 100 commercially deployed hooks in nine major oceanic fisheries over a time scale of 40 years.  (Drawn from R. A. Meyers and B. Worm Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature, 2003:423:280 – 283. © 2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.)

In every graph there is a precipitous drop followed by a sustained remaining catch at a low level.  None ever recovers … well there is a trifling rise in the Temperate Pacific fishery.  To me it looks like what the market speculators call rather gruesomely a “dead cat bounce.” 

Forty years, nine environments and always there is the same result.  Raw data.  That’s my game.

So what is going on?  There seems no doubt that the global precipitous decline in catch reflects a global precipitous decline in fish populations and was caused by industrial scale fishing.  A bottom trawl, which damages the sea floor as well as scooping up fish has been called a “miles-long wall of death.”   Pity the poor fish.  But then comes a much longer period of time of apparent stability.  The population no longer falls.  If fishing is the whole story then the professional fishermen are adjusting the number of hooks they are setting with extreme care to avoid further depletion of stock.  But if commentators are to be believed, the fisher folk don’t care at all.  They just set more hooks and campaign vigorously against any attempt for governments to regulate that. 

If it’s not the fisher’s it’s Something Else.  And that something is unrecognized.  Yet it functions in a stereotyped way.  It is a new law of nature.  But it’s not new.  Check it out at
The bottom line is that the closer the kin you marry, the more children, and the more grandchildren until you get to second cousin or closer, which is still better than tenth cousin or more distant.  And it doesn’t matter how distant.  What matters is how many generations you pursue this ill advised mating strategy.  The height of the bounce is not how far out you throw the can but how many floors it falls.  (I hate the analogy.  I like cats.  But this is a revolting, indeed terrifying issue.) 

For anybody who is following the most important numbers there are, how many babies get born to whom, will find the Meyers curve to be hideously familiar.  It is the same as the birth rate of every rich country in the world; it is the birth rate of the middle class.  That birth rate has fallen, mildly worrying those who understand that overpopulation is not the only conceivable demographic problem, and then appears to stabilize, just like those fish.  Everybody heaves a sigh of relief and goes about other business.  But in fact we know a bit more about human social behavior than about fish.  Humans marry. 

So go to and piddle around until you can get it to graph age at first marriage for women against birth rate and follow that out over time for every country they have data for.  Both numbers dance around as you might expect with a little response to wars but pretty much at random until one by one birth rates all plunge.  The richest go first.  And, excluding China, once the birth rate drops below replacement, say 2.1 children per woman, age at first marriage starts upwards.  And once it has done that it never looks back, not for decades of record, not for hundreds of countries, that age never falls, never pauses it its fatal upward rise. 

Consider Sweden as being typical of the world’s middle class.  Status only come up to ten years ago, but I would not trust them after that anyway.  The picture is blurred by the birth of immigrants.  It would be easy to fix that, but nobody is power is about to do that.  “People might panic.”  They might do something.  And that might threaten the power of those who have it.  Go figure.  So looking at the old stats, the average age of marriage of Swedish women has been going up about a year for every three calendar years that pass.  Births over 40 are rarish, and we will ignore them.  So if, as in 1996 through 1998, the age of first marriage is 30, there are not a lot of people under 20 getting married.  In 2004 the age of average marriage was 32 so effectively first marriage was age 24.  That number has been going up a year every eighteen months.  Unless something very new happens, and it hasn’t over hundreds of nation-years, age of average marriage, age of youngest marriage and age 40 all crash into each other at a time in the predictable future.  Births fall very abruptly to zero, like over a year or two.  (I’ll get into margin of error in a bit.)  You know it’s not choice.  (Unless you haven’t read that link to, in which case you need to.) 

Go back to the fish.  The Something Else holding the population down isn’t fishing.  It stays down even if all fishing is suspended.  So what has been going on is that enthusiastic fishing has depleted stocks.  The survivors must seek farther afield (asea?) to find mates.  And out there somewhere there are mates, but they are not related.  Like Swedes and everybody else in the middle class, they are not marrying cousins.  Expect a precipitous drop in fish stocks worse than what went before.

I mentioned China.  They have this one child policy thing.  In fact it went into effect after the birth rate had already fallen to about one per couple, so nobody had any business thinking the policy was having an effect.  Now, faced with an ageing population, the government has responded by making it legal for about two million couples to apply to have a second child.  They expected maybe a million would be for it in the first year.  In the event, only 6% of those eligible applied for the permit.  I shall be surprised if half that many actually are able to have that child.  So feel free to temper my extravagant seeming claims by 3% is you like.  Once the fall starts, the real fall, you can try to figure out how to pass along our high tech civilization with a loss of 97% of your middle class, you know STEM: science, technology, engineering, math, every generation. 

But it is a dreamer’s quest.  Years ago somebody created an urban population of mice.  He put some in a cage and counted them for years:

Roughly drawn from John Calhoun, Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 66, January 1973 page 80. 
There was a period of rapid exponential growth.  Then the rate fell.  Don’t tell me those mice wore worried about their environmental footprint or how they were going to put the kids through college.  Then on a day, bang, no more baby mice, just as you can predict for the middle class.

So I have two emotional reactions to Dr. Chivian’s graphs.  One is the urge to vomit because it is yet another independent confirmation of what I already know and have been saying.  The other urge is to cry, because it looks like after this there will be no more important laws of nature to discover.

But I love the book.  It’s intense.  It has its gloom.  That was built in from the get go.  This is just a bit more gloom.

  1. Waterfront condos.

That view of the lawn was out the front door.  In back things are wetter, and the grass has choked out the flowers. 

You notice the water of course and seawalls.  The seawall isolated the seawater from the land.  A few barnacles and such grow on the concrete, but life takes little advantage of the sea-land interface.  Such borders are generally places where life flourishes.  So in this case we are looking at a real “wall of death.”  Except for a small bridge, likewise walled, the near and far walls are about continuous.  In fact there are a few houses between me and the bridge, which lots have no wall.  But in the other direction you could walk the wall for a distance far greater than any bottom trawl.  And this wall of death is there twenty-four, seven.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  I have some small springs that tend to turn the yard into marsh.  Prior owners had treated that as a “drainage problem” with extensive work and huge underground plastic sheets to make the springs invisible.  I took another approach and diverted them into the small pond you see with a spill over the top of the wall.  It once worked better than it does now and it no longer flows constantly.  But when it did, the featureless mud below the wall burst into green.  I daresay that a proper study of the effluent would again have showed it teaming with life, mostly impossible to culture.  That was the magic that transformed my mud. 

I was thrilled.  I called Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District) and babbled that if everybody captured the rainwater from their roofs, held it in cisterns that steadily released it to ponds and then spilt them over the wall we could transform the endless, sterile canals.  Okay, maybe we should pile rocks against the concrete up to a level between high and low tide.  But the vegetation would flourish, fish would come, manatee and dolphins would visit us, and a vast desert would become a paradise.  I didn’t have much luck.  The Swiftmud person whose job was talking to the public had never had a call that wasn’t a complaint.  He couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept of good news.  (Recent rains go through a drainage pipe rather than the pond and have no such effect.  Of course spring water may be different from rainwater or even well water or the whole thing could be a fluke.)

So we build on the water, and the result is not good for biodiversity.  They build on the beaches, too, great high rise condos that are generally vacant year round.  People consider them status symbols, investments, maybe a toe hold in America if they ever try to come here, but they don’t actually live in them.  There are places where you can drive for miles without seeing a breakfast nook.  There’s no market.  Empty condos don’t go out for a meal.

Now “Old Florida” was a passing phenomenon I remember dearly.  The beach had a few scattered bungalows.  Teenagers would build a fire at night above the high tide line.  Little children wandered the beach unattended as children used to in nice suburban neighborhoods.  The pace was slow.  Now those little houses have been replaced by the giant high rises.  A survey would list both as “developed,” but from a gulls eye view things have changed.  Fiddler crabs that might have scurried under floorboards find little welcome at the base of buildings rated for a category three storm.  Where there were little clumps of sea oats among scattered dunes there are now nothing but the occasional big expanse of dunes kept as “natural,” which of course are most welcome, but remember nature loves edges. 

So the footprint my be the same size, but is a lot deeper.  Of course the bungalows were bulldozed and dumped in ever larger landfills.  And the process is not limited to the beach itself.  To the extent that those condos are occupied, older houses are abandoned to be bulldozed in their turn, dumped and the whole cycle repeats.  This activity is counted as “economic growth.”  And all of this activity is financed, so the process seems to be one of turning biodiversity into debt.   Am I supposed to cheer now?

In addition new construction breaks up little neighborhood communities where just possibly one might find the distant cousins who might marry and have another generation of fertile children who might be rich enough to buy the book and come from the kind of caring background needed to take the book to heart. 

To break the logic of the review, there’s something I wish somebody would do.  I go into the store looking for something to eat and generally grab a can of high value food.  What I wish I could find is a section on which all the food is prepared by means of less wasteful farming, selected so that every package is nutritionally balanced, washed and already cooked so it is dependably wholesome and packaged in 250 callories cans, 5oo’s, 1,ooo’s and so forth so my only thoughts have to be, find the aisle and grab the right number of cans.  It won’t replace the friendly seasonal farmer’s market, but for many of us it would be welcome. 

All in all it is Sustaining Life is a fantastic book, deserving to sit beside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring like a precocious little brother.  Dr. Chivian’s accomplishment is magnificent.  One can only hope that its impact is proportional to its good intentions, its scholarship and its beauty.  Also thanks to Aaron Bernstein MD and the hundred others who actively contributed to this marvelous book,

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