The last day of 2021, this will be a brief post. I promise myself I will not fall so far behind next year! In brief, my best read of 2021 was David Quammen’s Spillover: Emerging Diseases, Animal Hosts, and the Future of Human Health this extraordinary book examines in detail the emergence in recent years of several horrifying new threats to human health and the way in which our destruction of ancient ecosystems has allowed the threat to emerge and unfold. If you think covid is bad, read Quammen and be afraid, coronavirus is not the worst thing out there waiting for the opportunity to get a foothold in a new host; humans.
Quammen takes detailed and complex science makes it accessible to the common reader and presents it in such a way that you turn the pages like you are reading a thriller. He starts the book with the outbreak in 1994 of the mysterious illness killing horses and eventually humans intimately involved with horses. The disease that, went on to be named after the suburb where it first emerged; Hendra.
Hendra struck fear into the heart of every horse owner in Queensland, especially in the Brisbane region, it certainly scared the hell out of me, not so much for my safety but for my horses. The disease was a death sentence for any horse that contracted it, prognosis was little better for humans. Quammen’s account bought the whole original outbreak back in vivid and horrifying detail and yet his writing is not sensationalist, just compelling. That first chapter is hard reading if you are a horse lover. We are lucky that hendra is not as virulent as covid although it does share a similar origin to covid, in that both infections almost certainly originate in wild bat populations. Hendra definitely does and I believe the general consensus is that covid originates in bats as well. The disease is certainly not the bat’s fault, if anything it is ours, as it has been our actions that have provided the opportunity for spillover into domestic species and ourselves. Quammen goes on to examine a host of other deadly zoonotic infections, AIDS, ebola, nipah, and the mystery of their origins. SARS, and influenza also feature.
Infection and pandemic is a numbers game and Quammen even makes the statistical part of the story easy to follow, explaining mathematical modelling in a way that does not put you to sleep or dumb down the complexity. He takes you out into the field with researchers monitoring wild populations, investigating potential future threats. He interviews experts in human and animal health, enviromental scientists and ecologists. He writes with intelligence and empathy and he spells out in no uncertain terms the nature of the threat we face and have largelly bought upon ourselves. Spillover is an exceptional example of long form scientific journalism and I cannot reccomend this book highly enough. Perhaps if more people read this book we would not have the vaccine hesitancy and confusion over public health requirements we have at the moment.
Just as compelling and frightening is Dave Goulson’s most recent book Silent earth: averting the Insect apocalypse. Like Quammen, Goulson wants us to understand just how interconnected all life is on this planet and how we must start taking responsibility for the ecocide that is being perpetrated all around us, ultimately what we do now will impact on our own survival. Goulson is a scientist of considerable merit and yet he has been the subject of attacks by companies with clear vested interests. It is accounts of attempts to discredit him and other scientists that is perhaps most disturbing. Truth is not something we can choose to suit our greed, it is a consequence which will eventually catch up with us and demand a reckoning.
Dave Goulson may be an academic but he has a long track record of making entomology accessible and irresistible, I have read a couple of his previous books and his passion for insects is contagious and empowering. Silent earth is perhaps the most serious and demanding book yet from Goulson for a general reader but it is accessible, compelling and empowering. He wants us to be better informed and to demand more of our leaders and ourselves. While the task Goulson presents us with may seem herculean, he also gives us a tool kit to use in order to bring about change. The final chapter Actions for everyone sets out clear and actionable steps that may yet turn things around before it is too late.
The other really exceptional read of the year was The Winter Road by Kate Holden which I have written about previously here. I won’t repeat myself here except to say The Winter road is an exceptional read and I highly recommend it.
One last highly recommended read is Gum: the story of eucalypts and their champions by Ashley Hay. I recently read a new 2021 edition of this lyrical account of our iconic trees, more history than botany it is a great account of a species that really defines Australia, there are over 800 species, all adapted to the unique and different environments that make up our unique continent. Hay recounts early western responses to the eponymous tree and forestry enthusiasms which saw eucalypts spread across the globe but perhaps most interesting to me was the chapter; The ancient kingdom of fire, which examined the species undeniable relationship with fire and what that may mean in a future where catastrophic fire is a norm. The implications of changing climate is clearly the impetus for the new edition and it makes for fascinating reading.
I have failed to record all my reading this year but I will make sure I stay on top things in 2022. The Gaia/nature challenge is back for 2022 and I look forward to discovering some great reads through the year.
Happy reading and happy new year!