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Reviews - February 2007

Hutton’s Arse: 3 billion years of extraordinary geology in Scotland’s Northern Highlands

Malcolm Rider
Published by: Rider-French
Publication date: 2005
ISBN: 0-9541906-1-0
List price: £16.99
214 pp

However much you may (or may not) have difficulty with the main title, this book is full of excellent writing from Malcolm Rider, a geologist who is well versed in specialist geological knowledge of the book’s chosen subjects. He has managed to interlace into the text many fascinating accounts of the geological history of the area, the current debate on global warming and the environmental lobby that has grown up alongside this, plus much, much, more. The latter includes opinionated exclamations, humorous outbursts, and not a few swipes at the establishment. This is clearly a personal book, but one full of scintillating erudition and detail. Rather than detract from the whole, the author’s passion only adds to what becomes an inspirational, tremendous read.

The chosen subjects are all based on aspects of Scotland’s North Western and Highland geology in six equal-length chapters, and in this respect the sub-title of the book is most apt. The structure and sediments of the Lewisian, Torridonian, Moine and Devonian are all explored. The pulses of Tertiary volcanism and the rhythms of the Ice Ages are vividly brought to life. A shorter seventh chapter digs a little further into the psyche of James Hutton, the “Father of Modern Geology”, before a final flourish of emotion in a short epilogue. Each chapter is concluded with suggested references neatly separated into ‘Books, Pamphlets’ on one side and ‘Scientific Papers’ on the other. In the text expect references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be juxtaposed alongside the high-Victorian pious tomes of the workers of The Geological Survey or the very latest scientific reference on detrital zircons. Each chapter has a further geological sub-plot where the author leads us to more all-encompassing discussion and consideration, on matters ranging from evolution to the origin of the crust and the uniqueness of our own planet. Malcolm Rider may not have all the answers to these mid-bending questions (although he is willing to try), but then neither necessarily did James Hutton.

This book should be read by all; from thorough-going specialists to those who have been touched by the magnificence and awe-inspiring nature of Scotland’s scenery and geology, and by anyone who appreciates well written work on an inspiring subject that is interspersed with wit, wisdom and emotion.

Ian Inglis
Kilrymont Geoscience Ltd, Aberdeen

Global Biodiversity Outlook 2

Published by: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, UNEP
Publication date: 2006
ISBN: 92-9225-040-X
81 pp

Available as a 8Mb PDF download from:

Loss of biodiversity will have a major impact on the environment throughout the 21st Century. This short volume is a welcome addition to the literature, because it shows that we are falling well short of the responsible stewardship of the environment that is essential for our continued long-term tenure of this planet. 

In 2002, the Parties to the ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ adopted a strategic plan to achieve a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity at the global, regional and national levels – as both a contribution to poverty alleviation and to benefit all life on Earth. This volume describes the essential role of biodiversity and the prospects, challenges and actions needed to achieve the 2010 Biodiversity Target. The study summarizes the work of over 1300 experts working in 95 countries. The major conclusion is that 15 out of the 24 ecosystem services assessed in this survey are currently in decline. 

Of fundamental importance is the fact that humankind used only about one half the Earth’s biocapacity in 1961, but by 2001 this had increased to 1.2 times the planet’s capacity. This means that global demand for natural resources now exceeds (by more than 20%) the biological capacity of the Earth to renew these resources. This is clearly unsustainable, even in the short term. 

In many cases, the value of ecosystems is not properly taken into consideration in assessing future developments. For example, the mangroves of Thailand offer substantial benefits to society but these are reduced to almost zero when the mangroves are converted to shrimp farms. In this case, private gain triumphs over public good. However, the world's ecosystem services actually contribute more to human welfare than global GDP. As a result, many investment decisions are flawed because conventional economics very much undervalues the contribution of the natural environment. 

The main conclusion of this study is that unprecedented additional effort will be required to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. This situation is hardly likely to improve after 2010. Unfortunately, the three main drivers of environment change (increases in world population, consumption and global climate change), “the triple whammy”, are all set to increase significantly throughout this century. Loss of biodiversity is just part of the price we have to pay for not paying attention to the fundamentals.
It has been said that the English countryside was at its most beautiful in late Victorian times, after one thousand years of gardening. Globally, we are no longer gardening the environment; we are mining it.

Geoffrey P Glasby
University of Göttingen