Wildlife in the Balance by Simon Mustoe

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Animals aren’t commodities; they are the sole mechanism that delivers human life support.  Conservation can’t succeed until we’ve had this conversation, until everyone learns this.

In The Foreword to Wildlife in the Balance, Ian Redmond OBE, Ambassador to the UN Convention on Conservation, writes:

 Wildlife in the Balance is perhaps the most important book of our time.

In reading I can only take exception to ‘perhaps’; this is an urgent message, hopefully not delivered too late.

Whereas many of us deplore human disregard for wild animals, whether they be captured and cruelly used for asinine entertainment, slaughtered for superstitious medicinal purposes, or, hunted as a food source to the point of extinction, debates tend to be emotional, inspired by intuitive feelings of disquiet.  Thankfully, Simon Mustoe took the time to answer the question: What is the point of a turtle?  Or, for that matter, any wildlife.

And the answer is that the work wildlife does in our ecology systems is vital for our survival. He references many scientific sources from biology, zoology, ecology, conservation and more, which illustrates that the point of all creatures, from microbes to birds, elephants and whales, and everything in between, prevents the earth’s ecology from dissolving into chaos.  So, our very existence depends on all wildlife in its many forms.

Humanity’s best chance is a global change in human values, one by which we treat animals equally, because all animals have to work together equally in building a habitable world and future for each other. 

 Mustoe’s presentation is a pleasure to read, the material ranges widely and intricately, only a snap shot provided in this review.

Part 2, ‘How animals combat chaos’, Mustoe explains how all living creatures support us by stabilising ecological systems.  Referring to Einstein’s second law of thermodynamics that states that energy always descends into chaos under the influence of entropy.  Entropy is the framework for all life; it connects everything.  The total entropy of a system either increases or remains constant, never decreasing. He quotes Einstein:

It is the only physical theory of universal content which I am convinced that, within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts, will never be overthrown.

Mustoe explains how energy is distributed within our biosphere.  How it is directed to where it is useful, or ordered, rather than being dissipated into chaos via process of entropy.  His main thesis is that the collective action of all creatures prevents entropy by maintaining order in energy flows, which stabilises ecosystems.  There is a vast array of creatures in networks of energy transfer systems.  Removing even a tiny cog in the chain can have consequences.  Therefore, it is extremely concerning that two thirds of global species are now extinct.  He believes that there is urgency to understand all the factors that determine the shape and patterns of outcomes within ecosystems, rather than getting bogged down in single mechanisms.

Given the above, Mustoe emphasises the need to return creatures to ecosystems.  Forests, grasslands, mangroves and oceans cannot protect this Earth without wildlife that balances the forces of entropy.  He refers to a massive surplus of agricultural fertiliser that has caused a 2,000 kilometre stretch of dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that mimics the Devonian extinction process of some 383-359 million years ago. (Staggering!)

There’s a good chance we are facing a problem worse than climate change.

Therefore, he advocates reintroducing wolves or any other natural predator that has been removed from their habitat, giving creatures the necessary conditions to populate within their natural ecosystems.  This of course would take time and readers might wonder if humans have enough time to repair the damage caused by the loss of our precious wildlife.

It is clear that within politics and the legal system, or within agricultural, there is no idea of the value of wildlife.  Recently an Australian farmer was arrested for killing 406 wedge-tailed eagles, jailed for two weeks and fined $2500.  Wedge-tailed eagles are a top predator holding the ecosystem together.  Mustoe did a calculation of what might be the real cost using UN estimates of land degradation. The total cost of killing 406 eagles came to $43 million.

The difference between $2,500 and $43 million represents the degree of difference between what society thinks animals are worth and what they really are worth. 

He makes a valid point that it should not fall to conservationists to police this kind of behaviour when the impact is on national food security, also effecting neighbouring farmland their land being subject to degradation.

This book is not all doom and gloom, Mustoe provides some lovely personal anecdotes, also fascinating details of lesser-known creatures including microbes, and the extent of how migratory birds influence our lives.  A reader feels immersed in an amazing array of connections that span this planet.

Mustoe ends positively, saying we all have a part to play in this drama of life and he explains what we can do to protect our neighbouring ecosystems.  He feels that listening to Indigenous people, whose knowledge spans thousands of years, along with science can go a long way to saving us.  Personally, I can’t share his optimism unless there is a mass movement influencing politicians to pass laws that grant animals a legal status similar to a bill of human rights.  And that has to be done globally!

A highly recommended MUST READ book!

Wildlife in the Balance

by Simon Mustoe

(2022)

Wildiaries

Paperback

IBSN: 978 064545 350 8

$34.99; 333pp

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