Understanding Environmental Pollution, A Primer (2nd Edition).
Understanding Environmental Pollution is rich in general information about most forms of pollution at the household, local, and global level. It is written for the non-scientist and non-science student, but is also good reading for those who want generic environmental information beyond their level of expertise. The book's 18 chapters discuss methodically, pollution concepts; major pollutants in air, water and soil; pollution sources; climate change; toxicity and risk assessment, and concepts and efforts to reduce pollution. The concept of pollution is not presented in isolation but rather as a consequence of the integrated actions of society. It is, in this sense, that energy generation and use and its relationship to pollution are presented.
The presentation of material is clear and lively but perhaps, also controversial. Typically, each chapter begins with an appropriate quotation about the right direction forward. This sets the tone for the accuracy about the present situation, which is explained by first presenting the basic concepts about a pollutant e.g., acid deposition, and then by recounting the history of the research and critical debate that have led to our current understanding of the problem--including the skeptics point of view.
The review of each topic spices the reading by adding the human element to what can otherwise be dry material. Also, it goes a long way to explaining the culture of science to the uninformed. For example, in the section on ozone depletion, Hill says, "However, as happens with many environmental issues, there are skeptics. And often, as with ozone, researchers respond to skeptics by doing more research."
Another effective feature of the book is its inset boxes. These appear as context-relevant, self-contained "asides" throughout the book and are full of attention grabbing statistics, ideas, quotations, and scientific explanations.
Each section ends with a set of open-ended questions that forces a certain amount of understanding and analysis and allows the reader to evaluate the issues for themselves; this is very good for students and for initiating discussions. The questions range from very basic ones about the science behind pollution to ethical questions about human behaviour and pollution. The ethical questions are thoughtful and provocative. Geoscience educators might Find the latter to be helpful in making their lectures more relevant to students.
On the negative side, the upbeat tone of the book sometimes leads to alarmist and melodramatic statements which diminish the otherwise good writing. An example from chapter 5 on air pollution: "disastrous fires and mammoth dust storms may appear from space as gigantic yellow blobs."
The book claims to be more international than the first edition but remains highly US-centric. Partly, this is unavoidable, simply because so much research has been undertaken in the US, as compared to elsewhere. However, many of the examples provided in the book tend to reinforce the notion that it is in the developing world where the pollution problem lies, and hence the solution, although the contribution to pollution by developed societies and their higher level of consumerism and waste-generation is repeatedly discussed.
In some cases, the description of scientific principles in the introduction has been so oversimplified that it borders on being incorrect. For example, energy is described as something that cannot be created or destroyed, just "dissipated"--rather than converted from one form to another. And organic versus inorganic chemicals are defined based on whether or not they can be destroyed as follows: "Organic chemicals even those difficult to degrade can be destroyed when conditions are right. However, inorganic substances, although they can be converted into other compounds are not destroyed." I suppose Hill was referring to the 92 elements, although it is not clear, as the box on inorganic chemicals that follows includes sodium bicarbonate and sea salts. This is very misleading--particularly as it applies to geochemistry.
The geoscientist, generally, will find this book lacking in scientific rigour, particularly in how it addresses the issues in geoscience; nevertheless, the main attraction is its broad scope and effective teaching format. Most of the material that touches on the geosciences--climate change, metals in the environment, atmospheric chemistry, mining, oil and gas, others--just scrapes the surface and is not presented in a quantitative manner. For example, when the book discusses natural sources of metals in the environment, it borders on being negligent and dismissive. In the discussion on lead, there is actually a subtitle called "some lead is natural" which sounds promising, but the ensuing statement is not: "But remember that lead, like all metals, is a natural element. We cannot totally eliminate it." There is another subtitle called "natural sources" that uses only two sentences to describe them: "Natural sources: these include volcanoes, forest fires, and sea-salt sprays. These are significant but it is human activities that are increasing the environmental load of metals". No further information is provided.
Newspaper articles generally give the subject more attention.
Scientists will find the book to be disappointing in its lack of discussion of the methods used to discover the information that is presented, and in its poor referencing. Many points are presented simply as known facts, and worse, these are not referenced. The only references given in the book are provided under the "further reading" section at the end of each chapter. This seems an unnecessary weakness considering the ease of modern citation software. It greatly limits the use of the book as a research tool.
Reviewed by Kevin Telmer School of Earth and Ocean Sciences University of Victoria British Columbia, Canada
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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