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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1995

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships
1995. 431 pages. ISBN: 0-697-15906-X (paperback), 0-697-15907-8 (hardback).
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

This Fine, Up-to-Date Book
Sometimes Asks Too Much

Max G. Rodel

Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships is an unpretentious, well focused and concisely written book, designed for use in a one-semester college course. It can serve equally well in a one-semester honors course for high-school students, especially a course arranged for students who are not majoring in science.

The book is organized into five parts and twenty chapters.

Part One, called "Interrelatedness," contains only two chapters. The first of these, titled "Environmental Interrelationships," starts by presenting the writers' conception of environmental science:

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary area of study that includes both applied and theoretical aspects of human impact on the world. Since humans are generally organized into groups, environmental science must deal with the areas of politics, social organization, economics, ethics, and philosophy. Thus, environmental science is a mixture of traditional science, societal values, and political awareness.

To the extent that this book deals with traditional science, the science consists largely of biology. There is almost no chemistry or physics, so high-school students can use the book even if their previous instruction in science has been limited to, say, a course in general science or in 10th-grade biology.

Having defined environmental science, the writers provide some historical context for their subject by offering a quotation from Henry David Thoreau. The quotation sets forth a theme -- the idea that our species as a part of nature -- which will unify the book throughout:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil . . . to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

The rest of the opening chapter is given to a survey of current environmental concerns in six regions of North America. The second chapter, "Environmental Ethics," discusses various moral attitudes that people express regarding environmental issues. In the main, the writers hold in check any tendency to preach.

Part Two, "Ecological Principles and Their Application," deals chiefly with how organisms interact with their physical environment. After introducing a tiny bit of chemistry, the writers turn to equipping the student with a grasp of basic ecology, including the concepts of communities and ecosystems. Then they provide a chapter about population dynamics and a chapter about human populations in particular.

Part Three, "Energy," contains three chapters, the first two of which give an overview of energy sources and consumption; particular attention is given to the historical role of fossil fuels in the development of the world's major economies. The third chapter is devoted entirely to nuclear power.

Part Four, "Human Influences on Ecosystems," looks at a broad range of issues, offering chapters about land-use planning, soil, agriculture (including the use and regulation of pesticides), and the management of water.

Part Five, "Pollution and Policy," opens with a chapter about assessing risks and using cost-benefit analyses. This is followed by chapters on air pollution, solid wastes, hazardous wastes, and the development of environmental policy.

Throughout the book, each chapter begins with a statement of objectives and a chapter outline. Each chapter ends with a half-page summary, a list of key terms, and a short set of questions that are not difficult. (I have seen no mathematical questions whatsoever.)

Near the end of almost every chapter, the writers present a boxed "Issues and Analysis" feature that requires students to ponder what they have learned and to try applying their knowledge to a real situation or problem. Topics considered in the "Issues and Analysis" exercises include the restoration of ecosystems, the population explosion in Mexico, soil erosion in Virginia, energy development in China, the California Water Plan, and the flow of air pollutants across national boundaries. These exercises seem to be the most challenging ones in the book, and they can be used as the bases for student essays or for lively class discussions. They also have some drawbacks. In many cases, students are asked to resolve complex questions that have no clear answers and that cause passionate debate among educated adults and even among experts in scientific, political and ethical affairs. In such instances, the students can do little but offer poorly informed, sophomoric opinions. Where is the science in that?

On page 90, for example, students are asked to decide whether "society" should bear the cost of removing land from cultivation and replanting it with prairie plants or temperate-forest trees. (The answer will depend chiefly on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, rather than on any scientific principles.) On page 123 students must decide whether the government of the United States should be involved in setting Mexico's population policy. (Really!) And on page 359: "Should there be a series of international agreements to control and regulate the movement of airborne pollutants across international boundaries?" Contemplation of such weighty questions may do something to promote the learning process, but (if I may judge by my own experience in high school) students will learn more, and will gain more intellectual satisfaction, by grappling problems that can actually be solved.

Perhaps, however, I am being too critical. There is much that is good in this book. It contains an abundance of useful photographs, maps, schematics and charts (but relatively few tables), and it has many informative sidebars, headlined "Global Perspective" or "Environmental Close-Up." Several of the "Global Perspective" items present eye-opening information that has come to light fairly recently, such as information about the ghastly generation and dumping of nuclear wastes in the Soviet Union (pages 182 and 183), the appalling environmental degradation fostered by communist regimes in Eastern Europe (pages 402 and 403), and the death of the Aral Sea as a result of Soviet water-diversion projects (page 310). Most of the "Environmental Close-Up" articles describe issues or case histories involving wildlife or fisheries, but the one on pages 114 and 115 deals with contraceptive technology and illustrates eight different contraceptive devices.

My complaint about the weighty "Issues and Answers" boxes notwithstanding, I regard Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships as a well written, well organized, up-to-date book. Modest in scope, even-handed its presentation of issues, it succeeds in presenting much information without being intimidating. It may not be the book of choice for a class of serious students who are majoring in science, but it is a fine book for most students who -- even if they lack a strong aptitude for science -- want to know something about how the world works.

To teachers who want a book that looks more deeply into basic science, I recommend Wadsworth's Environmental Science: Sustaining the Earth (1993) or -- even better -- Saunders's Environmental Science (1990), which remains my favorite. Teachers must be aware, however, that these two books project activist approaches to environmental ethics and environmental affairs. In this respect they are different from the book that I have reviewed here, which does not engage in much advocacy.

Sound Content and Writing,
Undermined by Bad Design

William J. Bennetta

Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships is a good book that could have been excellent. The writers have chosen their topics well, have produced a body of material that shows few serious blunders, and have succeeded in integrating scientific ideas and findings with economic, technological and cultural information. As far as content is concerned, Environmental Science is a good, concentrated account of what is happening on Earth during the current age of ecological collapse.

This textbook falls well short of excellence, however, because it has been poorly designed and is hard to read. Its pages are often so clumsily laid out, and so badly fragmented by synthetic sidebars and other boxed items, that the text is hard to follow and the logic of the material is obscured. To use this book successfully, I believe, students must be able to concentrate well and must be able to integrate material that has been needlessly and arbitrarily broken up.

According to the preface, Environmental Science was conceived as a book for a one-semester, introductory college course. In a high-school setting, I believe, it should be regarded as a book for an honors course that would span an entire school year and would include plenty of time for research projects and reports. If high-school teachers try to rush through this book in one semester, they will have to sacrifice much of its value: Almost every chapter presents topics and questions that merit deeper study, and students should be encouraged to dig into these.

Environmental Science is divided into five major parts. Part One offers a chapter about the scope and concerns of environmental science, followed by a chapter titled "Environmental Ethics." This second chapter is well done, in terms of ideas and exposition, and it includes a good passage that explains three fundamental approaches to nature: the development ethic, the preservation ethic, and the conservation ethic. But alas, it also provides an especially fierce demonstration of the fragmentation and irrational organization that characterize the book as a whole: Though the chapter spans only seventeen pages, it has nine boxed sidebars or feature articles. At least one boxed item turns up on every spread, and the nine together account for more than seven pages! Some of them have no particular relevance to the chapter's text, though they present interesting information which would have been appropriate in later parts of the book. Some others seem patently synthetic: Information that belongs in the text has been put into sidebars, for no evident reason except to make sidebars. Even the definition of the term ethics, which is surely essential to any discussion of "Environmental Ethics," has been shunted into a sidebar! Some designer, I guess, decided that the chapter had to have nine boxed items, no matter how badly this might degrade the writers' work or impede students' efforts to understand the material.

Part Two (5 chapters, 92 pages, 18 boxed items) is an introduction to ecology. It gets off to a lame start, but then it becomes good. The lame start is an absurd chapter in which the writers pretend to describe science, scientific thinking, basic chemistry and basic physics -- all in nine pages! Of course, they don't even come close, and the chapter is just a list of terms, virtually devoid of any explanation or exemplification. It presumably is intended to make Environmental Science more salable by implying that this book can be used even by students who haven't had a physics course or a chemistry course. I suspect, however, that such students will find the chapter baffling, discouraging and useless. Even if they read every word of it, it will not equip them to understand the bits of physics and chemistry that they will encounter in later chapters.

The rest of Part Two deals with biology, and it includes a lot of good work. The writers do a creditable job of outlining the major modes of interaction between organisms and environments, and they successfully introduce such basic concepts as the community and the ecosystem. However, some serious trouble emerges in chapter 6, "Population Principles," which purports to describe population dynamics and which reproduces the fundamental mistakes and misconceptions that often are seen in high-school biology books. The writers ignore the distinctions between global populations and local populations, and they say that the growth of any population is determined by the population's birth rate and death rate. That is true sometimes but not generally, and it doesn't provide a reliable basis for analyzing population dynamics. In the general case, the size of a population is influenced not only by births and deaths but also by immigration and emigration. No student can understand why populations expand or contract if he imagines that births and death are the only factors involved.

In chapter 7, "Human Population Issues," the writers try to rectify their mistake by making a vague reference to immigration -- but not to emigration -- as a "political" factor that can affect the growth of human populations. (In fact, immigration rates and emigration rates are no more "political" than birth rates or death rates are; governments regularly adopt policies aimed at influencing all of these.) At a time when immigration is playing a major role in the destructive expansion of the population of the United States, the trivialization of immigration in Environmental Science is quite unacceptable.

Also unacceptable is the "Environmental Close-Up" sidebar about methods of contraception. In trying to show how effective each method is, the writers give an "average pregnancy rate per 100 women per year," but some of the numbers are inscrutable. For contraceptive pills, the average rate is given as "0.1-1"; for intrauterine devices, "1-6"; for the combination of a diaphragm and a spermicidal jelly, "2-20"; for vaginal foams, "2-29"; for condoms, "3-36"; and so on. Each of these presumably denotes a range of averages, based on observations of several different populations, but there is no explanation of how the observed efficacy of a given technique can vary by 1,000% or more, even if different populations are involved. (The writers' nebulous allusion to "individual fertility differences and the degree of care employed in the use of each method" is utterly inadequate.)

Worse, the "average pregnancy rate" for abstinence is given as "0" -- which is patently silly. The reliability of abstinence, like the reliability of any other birth-control method, is finite: Efforts to practice abstinence will entail some failures, and some of the failures will result in pregnancies. The writers evidently don't grasp this.

On the other hand, the writers deserve praise for their alert, iconoclastic passage about the demographic-transition model of population growth. The demographic-transition model (a dubious construct based chiefly upon patterns of economic and social evolution in Europe and North America) suggests that if a human population becomes industrialized, its birth and death rates fall, and its size becomes stable. The writers of Environmental Science question whether such a model has significance in today's world:

Can the historical pattern exhibited by Europe and North America be repeated in the less-developed countries? Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia passed through this transition period when world population was lower and when energy and natural resources were still abundant. It is doubtful whether these supplies are adequate to allow for the industrialization of the major portion of the world currently classified as less developed.

A second concern is the time element. With the world population increasing as rapidly as it is, industrialization probably cannot occur fast enough to have a significant impact on population growth. . . .

When Europe and North America passed through the demographic transition, they had access to large expanses of unexploited lands, [either at home or in colonies]. This provided a safety valve for expanding populations during the early stages of the transition. Without this safety valve, it would have been impossible to deal adequately with the population while simultaneously encouraging economic development. Today, less-developed countries may be unable to accumulate the necessary capital to develop economically, since an ever-increasing population is a severe economic drain.

Here is an important topic indeed -- all the more important because notions about demographic transitions have figured in some of the sillier foreign-aid schemes that the United States has pursued from time to time. Teachers who would like to study this matter should be sure to read "Optimism and Overpopulation," by Virginia Abernethy, in The Atlantic Monthly for December 1994.

Part Three (3 chapters, 62 pages, 14 boxed items) is a sober survey of energy sources and energy-conversion technologies. The writers have avoided boosterism and gee-whizzing, and they seem not to have made any gross errors. Some of their statistics are obscure because the units of measurement aren't explained, and the passage about wind power (in chapter 9) doesn't tell that wind turbines are alarmingly destructive to large birds, but classroom teachers can easily provide their students with the information that the writers have omitted. Some of the sidebars in Part Three are legitimate and well done, and I particularly commend the ones titled "The James Bay Power Project" and "The Alaska Pipeline," both in chapter 9. Chapter 10, about nuclear power, is useful but jerky. The writers have tried to cover too much in 19 pages, and the designer has only made things worse. For example, the section called "Reactor Safety -- The Effects of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl" actually deals with Chernobyl alone; material about the Three Mile Island accident has been diverted to a sidebar, for no apparent reason but to satisfy the designer's whim. Similarly, the section on "Decommissioning Costs" is interrupted by a clumsy, misplaced sidebar called "The Nuclear Legacy of the Soviet Union."

Part Four (5 chapters, 132 pages, and 32 boxed items) is titled "Human Influences on Ecosystems." It starts with chapter 11, "Human Impact on Resources and Ecosystems," a mediocre effort that dwells on terrestrial and freshwater systems, virtually ignores the seas, and finally disintegrates into a pile of sidebars. The other chapters in Part Four -- dealing with land-use planning, soils, agriculture, and water management -- are better, and the water-management chapter has good, legitimate sidebars about the collapse of fisheries in Lake Victoria and about attempts to clean up the Ganges. What is disappointing is that the writers have failed to introduce the tragedy of the commons, the explanatory principle that is essential for understanding a lot of the material that Part Four presents. If the writers had understood how important that principle is, they could have used it as a unifying theme.

Part Five (5 chapters, 86 pages, and 30 boxed items) is called "Pollution and Policy." It begins with chapter 16, a cogent examination of approaches to assessing risks, costs and benefits. I especially like the section "Concerns About the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis," in which the writers cite a famous observation by E.F. Schumacher:

Cost-benefit analysis is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price. All it can do is lead to self-deception or the deception of others; for to undertake to measure the immeasurable is absurd . . . what is worse, and destructive of civilization, is the pretense that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values.

Another highlight of chapter 16 is the sidebar that alerts students to fake "green" advertising claims. I wish that the writers had also told about fake "green" organizations -- i.e., organizations which oppose environmental legislation and controls while hiding behind deceptive names that suggest pro-environmental sentiments. (Some of these outfits are described in The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, which can be ordered from Odonian Press, P.O. Box 7776, Berkeley, California 94707.)

The tragedy of the commons shows up eventually, and much too late, on page 336. And predictably, this basic principle has been stuck into a sidebar! That is sheer absurdity. If the person who designed Environmental Science were designing a physics book, would he turn the conservation of momentum into a sideshow?

As I said at the outset, Environmental Science is a good book that could have been excellent. I recommend it, but only for use by students who can cope with its quirks.


Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist and a registered environmental assessor in the state of California. His major professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives and works in Mill Valley.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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