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The World Wildlife Fund Atlas of the Environment.

The World Wildlife Fund Atlas of the Environment, by Geoffrey Lean, Don Hinrichsen, and Adam Markham. Prentice Hall Press, 15 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10023 (1990). Large format, color maps and graphs, 195 pp. Hardcover, $29.95; softcover, $19.95.

Until a few years ago mapmakers in the Soviet Union were forbidden to draw the accurate locations of certain rivers and cities. Economic and environmental statistics were a state monopoly. It was all for noble purposes, mind you. In our society, private organizations have cornered a large part of the map and numbers market. Does a reviewer dare say that a nonprofit whose symbol is the cuddly panda has cooked a lot of the numbers for its own noble purposes?

The subversiveness of this book is its comfortable layout, colorful maps, and its distilled information. This distillation is the kind of stuff that may intoxicate readers, and they will then demand to drive spaceship earth while under the influence.

Tropical deforestation is today's hot topic and points up the confusion in this book. A map of "Going" and Gone" forests lists the percentages of destruction for several small countries, but Brazil's label simply notes 4.8 million hectares burned in 1988. No matter whose figure you accept for the total Amazonian forest, this is still less than 1 percent. (U.N. sources estimated 0.4 percent per year between 1981-1985, and a 1988 Smithsonian publication estimates 0.33 percent.)

Accompanying text tells us that Brazil uses most of its own timber, exporting only 7,000 cubic meters in 1980. Why even use this figure, since a subsequent graph estimates exports at 2.5 million cubic meters in 1987? (Is a 357 percent increase credible?)

The publisher trumpets this book as an easy-to-read analysis of the environment." Yet how easy is it for readers to reconcile these two claims;

* "Tropical rainforests alone contain a third of the world's plant matter, although they cover only about 7 percent of its surface. "

* Old-growth conifer forests alone contain more than twice as much plant matter as the most productive tropical rainforests. "

Since the world contains much more conifer and deciduous forest than tropical rainforest, assigning a third of the world's plant biomass to rainforests doesn't compute, especially when one considers all the world's grasses, algae, and seaweeds.

Some obvious biases are revealed in the language of the pesticide discussion. The authors prefer "up to" and "as many as" when estimating cancer deaths and people drinking contaminated water. They don't bother with levels of contamination or distinguishing kinds of pesticides. We are told that "nearly 300 UK water supplies are contaminated," but we don't know if these are individual home wells or urban reservoirs. And what can we really conclude from the "fact" that "20 years ago virtually no plant pathogens resisted pesticides, now more than 100 appear to be immune?" Is it because our pesticides have become milder, because we test more pathogens, or because pests developed immunity?

Having listed so many flaws, I hesitate to use the maps to suggest a solid conclusion of any sort. Some provide interesting ideas that could temper the book's clear dislike for large corporations and market economics in general. For instance, cities with the worst air pollution seem to be concentrated in socialist or formerly communist societies (many of which have only begun to measure their problems).

The publisher proudly claims that these 195 pages are "the perfect way" to understand over 200 environmental topics. " If books like this fuel the environmental movement the way sound bites stimulate voters, the best we can hope for is that an upwelling of ignorance will call forth an outpouring of willing educators and editors.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kaufman, Wallace
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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