Cover image for What is natural? : coral reef crisis
What is natural? : coral reef crisis
Sapp, Jan.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xv, 275 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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QL384.A8 S27 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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During the late 1960s and 1970s, massive herds of poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish suddenly began to infest coral reef communities around the world, leaving in their wake devastation comparable to a burnt-out rainforest. In What is Natural?, Jan Sapp both examines this ecologicalcatastrophe and captures the intense debate among scientists about what caused the crisis, and how it should be handled. The crown-of-thorns story takes readers on tropical expeditions around the world, and into both marine laboratories and government committees, where scientists rigorously search for answers to the many profound questions surrounding this event. Were these fierce starfish outbreaks the kind ofmanmade disaster heralded by such environmentalists as Rachel Carson in Silent Spring? Indeed, discussions of the cause of the starfish plagues have involved virtually every environmental issue of our timeover-fishing, pesticide use, atomic testing, rain forest depletion, and over-population, butmany marine biologists maintain that the epidemic is a natural feature of coral-reef life, an ecological "balance of nature" that should not to be tampered with until we know the scientific truth of the crisis. But should we search for the scientific truth before taking action? And what if anenvironmental emergency cannot wait for a rigorous scientific search for "the truth?" The starfish plagues are arguably one of most mysterious ecological phenomena of this century. Through the window of this singular event, What is Natural lucidly illustrates the complexity of environmental issues while probing the most fundamental questions about the relationship between man andnature.

Author Notes

Jan Sapp is Canada Research Chair in the History of Science, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Why has a once-obscure starfish destroyed swaths of coral reefs all over the Pacific? What should we do about it? Sapp, a professor of the history of science at York University in Canada, offers few answers in this digressive, poorly focused study. The spiny, poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish mystified biologists by turning up in great numbers on Australia's Green Island Reef in the early 1960s, injuring tourists and eating the coral. By 1970, crown-of-thorns infestations were laying waste to reefs from Australia to Guam. Sapp follows the intense scientific debates over whether human activity caused the starfish booms, and whether and how to save the coral. Sometimes he explains the reefs' travails in detail; other times he treats the crown-of-thorns outbreaks as case studies in ecological policy, comparing them to later, larger debates about, for example, El Niño. Sapp has collected plenty of scientific articles, government reports and conference proceedings from each stage of the starfish debate. But he fails to tie his sources together. Instead, he jumps from one broad topic to another: should scientists interfere with natural processes they don't fully understand? How do the media and public react to environmental crises? How have these reactions changed since the 1960s? How should coral-reef experts "behave in the midst of global environmental uncertainties?" What can those starfish outbreaks teach us about other, newer threats to coral reefs? It's hard to tell, in this sometimes technical, jumbled and very academic book, which problem Sapp wants most to solve, or whether he even offers any solutions. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Sapp, a history of science professor at York University in Canada and author of other natural history books, including Evolution by Association (Oxford Univ., 1994), provides thought-provoking insight on questions surrounding the "balance of nature." Beginning with a discussion of the means by which environmental knowledge is collected, evaluated, and disseminated, Sapp leads the reader through an unbiased examination of the devastation of coral reef communities directly caused by the poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish. Are these crown-of-thorn outbreaks natural occurrences? The political controversy surrounding this environmental concern is highlighted as scientists and governmental committees debate scientific objectivity and decide whether to intervene. In focusing on this mysterious ecological event, Sapp captures the essence of the complex relationship between humans and nature. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.‘Trisha Stevenson, Pepperdine Univ., Malibu, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
1 Green Islandp. 1
2 Guam, 1968-1969p. 13
3 The War of the Worldsp. 35
4 Under Capricornp. 49
5 Crown-of-thorns Inquisitionp. 65
6 A Tree Fell in the Forest ...p. 77
7 Knowledge and Actionp. 95
8 Oceans Apartp. 115
9 Remote Controlp. 127
10 Complexity and Stabilityp. 141
11 Cyclical Outcriesp. 163
12 Crossroadsp. 175
13 Coral Bleaching and Global Warmingp. 189
14 Cassandra and the Seastarp. 203
Notesp. 217
Indexp. 267