cover image Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity

Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity

. Oxford University Press, USA, $34.95 (542pp) ISBN 978-0-19-517509-7

In 1992, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School agreed to coordinate a massive, international scientific effort under the direction of Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and author Chivian (Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment) to catalog ""what was known about how other species contribute to human health."" The result of that extraordinary collaboration, involving more than 100 contributors, is this thorough volume, an invaluable resource for policy makers and a fascinating exploration for general readers of their hyper-connected biosphere. Species diversity, it turns out, acts as a kind of insurance policy for humans, by buffering stresses to the environment. The ""mosaic of ecosystems"" provide ""services"" (food, timber, air and water purification, waste decomposition, climate regulation) necessary for life that, due to their complexity and scale, are almost impossible to substitute. Naturally, the system is robust but vulnerable: the vultures of southern Asia, for instance, are threatened with extinction because their natural diet-carrion-has been poisoned with medicine routinely prescribed for livestock and humans. Another ""service"" contributed by the ecosystem is the highly useful E. coli bacteria, used in biomedical research to develop new medications and provide insight into Alzheimer's and other diseases. This book represents a landmark addition to our understanding of our ecological heritage, and the importance of preserving it. 175 color illus.