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Macaulay discussion details new environmental books by faculty

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Professors from across the CUNY system convened at Macaulay Honors College on the evening of Nov. 28 to discuss several new books revolving around nature and the environment. The presentation, which was moderated by Macaulay Dean Mary C. Pearl, also featured discussion about the efforts of environmentalists and how environmental conservation is affected by economic, political and social factors.

Among the authors present were professor A. Alonso Aguirre, John Jay College Macaulay Director Nathan Lents, Brooklyn College Macaulay Director Tammy Lewis and professor Raman Sukumar.

Pearl opened up the discussion by introducing the authors to the approximately two dozen attendees and then giving the floor over to Lents. Lents’ book, Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, details how evolutionary forces have shaped humans and animals.

“I started to wonder how humans became so different if only seven million years separated us from our closest ancestor. So I set out to write a book about why [humans and animals] are so different. Of course, after three years of research and reading, I came to the exact opposite conclusion that I started with, which is that we are not so different at all,” said Lents, who is a professor of molecular biology.

At first glance, a reader might believe that the book details animal behavior, though upon closer inspection, he or she will discover that the book is almost entirely about the evolution of human behavior. Lents went on to explain that most human behavior could be boiled down to simple appetites, drives and urges.

Ecuador's Environmental Revolutions details the sustainable development movement within the country and environmental activists efforts to protect biodiversity there. Photo by: Calvin Rong

Animals are crucial tools in understanding human behavior due to the fact that animals can be manipulated in ways that humans cannot. By manipulating an animal’s behavior and environment by way of ethical experimentation, animals can be used as a way of understanding otherwise complex human behavioral traits.

“What I found is that the parallels between human and animal behavior are haunting. That is when I decided that the title of the book was all backwards and I switched it to Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals. After that the book wrote itself,” said Lents.

The next author to speak was Lewis, an environmental sociologist who penned Ecuador’s Environmental Revolutions. The 296-page book lays out the sustainable development movement that has been ongoing in the country since 1978.

Lewis set about crafting the book in order to shed light on how environmental activists were preserving one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. According to Lewis, Ecuador is home to approximately 20,000 different plant species, accounting for 10 percent of all plant species in the world. In contrast, New York has approximately 4,000 different plant species.

In addition to plant life, Ecuador boasts 17 percent of the world’s bird species. These facts are even more impressive considering the fact that Ecuador is approximately the size of Colorado, making up 0.2 percent of Earth’s total landmass.

“What I look at in Ecuador’s environmental revolutions is 40 years of environmentalism. That is local environmentalism and also transnational environmentalism from groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International,” said Lewis.

Lewis went on to explain that Ecuador’s history of oil exploration and development highlights the tension between protecting the environment while also giving the country’s citizens the tools necessary to rise out of poverty. Lewis noted that Ecuador’s indigenous population suffered the most due to environmental pollution, while companies such as Texaco and Chevron profited. Rather than use oil money to benefit its inhabitants, Ecuador used it to pay off debt.

It was not until 2006 that environmental and indigenous activists were able to make strides in maintaining the health of Ecuador’s environment, electing Rafael Correa as president. Correa went on to adopt several environmentalist proposals, although the current and future state of Ecuador’s environment is still being threatened. Still, environmental and indigenous coalitions were invaluable in furthering environmental consciousness in Ecuador.

A book edited by Aguirre and Sukumar, Tropical Conservation: Perspectives on Local and Global Priorities, was the final book that was presented at the event.

The conservation textbook, which featured 56 different authors—including Pearl—touched on the policy advances and research needed in tropical areas. In addition, the book mentioned the difficulties of integrating environmental conservation into the development agendas of a variety of countries.

“When you go into real world situations, achieving conservation is very different. It’s a hotbed of economic issues, of social issues of politics. You really have to navigate through a lot of this to achieve conservation,” said Sukumar.

Sukumar made it clear that not all humans were necessarily responsible for harming the environment, citing the centuries-long existence of indigenous people in those areas.

All three books are currently available to purchase.

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