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Title: Fundamental Processes in Ecology: an Earth Systems Approach
Author(s): David M Wilkinson
Date of Publication: 2006 Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages:xi + 182 ISBN: 0 19 856846 0
Price: Format:Hardcover
Target Readership Educator







Content: 1 – Introducing the thought experiment; 2 - Energy flow; 3 - Multiple guilds; 4 - Tradeoffs and biodiversity; 5 - Ecological hypercycles - covering the planet with life; 6 - Merging of organismal and ecological physiology; 7 - Photosynthesis; 8 - Carbon sequestration; 9 - Nutrient cycling as an emergent property; 10 - Historical contingency and the development of planetary ecosystems; 11 - From processes to systems.

Review: Every so often a text is published which makes the reader stand back and start to question some very fundamental points. This is the case here. The book starts with a deceptively simple idea: given a blank planet, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for life to flourish? Now, take any of the standard texts on ecology and start to wade through the various chapters. Which ones might be included/excluded? Would there be an order of importance?

Perhaps this is the wrong way to go about it. Start again and add the most basic processes one at a time until duplication of function or process appears. It's at this point we join the author in his "thought experiment". The first chapter sets the question and suggests a few ways in which we might tackle the question. Next, we come to a section subtitled "the fundamental processes" i.e. the arguments for those systems without which life could not exist. First one up for discussion in chapter two is energy. Starting with a brief look at thermodynamics we are asked to consider energy as the key factor. Given that ecosystems can be described purely in energy terms (think Odum here) then one can see the justice of the case. Next we need to add a range of organisms (referred to here as guilds). The object would be to create waste such that it could be recycled. It would also be necessary to have some checks in the system e.g. parasites. Here, biodiversity is a way of getting energy recycled and having some redundancy in the system to cope with failure (extinction). Chapter four adds biodiversity to the list. Of course, biodiversity requires energy and is therefore a tradeoff between large numbers of a few species and fewer numbers of a large range of species. The argument comes down in favour of the latter. Chapter five moves on to consider self-reinforcing systems - the idea that ecosystems alter the environment for the benefit of other species. If we take this one stage further then this biological alteration with have physical ramifications (chapter six). Although one might argue that it should have been mentioned earlier, photosynthesis comes in as vital in chapter seven. The value of oxygen-release and use of "external" energy sources is key to colonising a planet. Although global warming is such a key topic currently, the basic idea - that the levels of CO2 control temperature - is vital especially as it also regulates plant growth. So, these are the fundamental eight processes. Now, these processes interact and in so doing, new properties emerge from this new system. The final part of the book studies puts forward the key ones. First is nutrient cycling - a follow-on from biodiversity. History is also important. As the system develops so historical processes will become more important in shaping the biosphere. A final chapter reviews some of the key points.

This is a remarkable book at many levels. It can be used as a guide to produce a simple ecology course although the idea of 'simple' in the context of the ideas presented here might need some explanation! More importantly it forces the reader to question the most fundamental assumptions about what is really important in ecology. As the author states one might agree or disagree with any choice or explanation but the key point is that one is thinking. It is this that gives the text its edge. Put simply, this should be seen as a key text in any undergraduate ecology/environment course. It's one of the most interesting texts published for some time - a must-buy for the library.





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