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posted 09/17/01

The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth
Stuart Pimm's new book argues that all is not lost, much can be saved

Stuart Pimm leans on a book case

By Danielle Bizzarro (212) 854-7893

Stuart Pimm is an optimist. In his new book "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth," Pimm forecasts that unless proactive measures are taken, 50% of the species on the earth will be on a path to extinction by the middle of the 21st century.

In the face of this grim assessment, Pimm, a professor in Columbia University's newly-formed department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) and senior research scientist at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) at Columbia's Earth Institute, shows his optimism when he writes, "By the time you read the Epilogue you will know that our world is not doomed, it is not fatally wounded, but neither is it really healthy.... It needs attention." If conservation of the top-ranked biodiversity hotspots around the world is given a high priority now, Pimm argues, humanity could avoid the loss of 20% - and perhaps much more - of the variety of life on Earth.

book cover

Pimm's research, like the mission of the Columbia Earth Institute itself, extends from basic science to the study of implications for decision makers in the real world. His research begins with a tabulation of species, their habitat and its rate of decline. To illustrate the numbers, "The World According to Pimm" takes readers on a tour from Hawaii to the Amazon, Australia to the Everglades. While reveling in the wonders of the natural world, Pimm raises and investigates pointed questions such as how can we understand accelerated extinction until we understand what "normal" extinction means, and how can we decide what population an ecosystem can bear until we understand the dynamics of that system's resources?

Pimm's overall focus is on human interactions in the environment. By describing how the natural world has been affected by human activity over time - sometimes over hundreds or even thousands of years - Pimm aims to enable planners to address human needs in the future while remaining sensitive to the requirements of biodiversity. By acting responsibly to conserve so-called hotspots where species are particularly endangered, Pimm hopes we can avoid a mass extinction on a scale not seen since the time of the dinosaurs.

"Today Hawaii, tomorrow the world" is how Pimm describes the theme of his new book. Hawaii, once host to more unique species than the Galapagos, has been so changed since its colonization by Polynesians that few native plant or animal species survive except in upland forests that are still "marvelous and precious." While studying Hawaii, Pimm realized that as a scientist he had an obligation to try to save the remaining diversity, and not merely to watch it as it disappeared.

As Pimm writes, "Scientists, Hawaii taught me, have a crucial role in measuring human impacts, understanding their effects on the variety of life, and doing something about the problems. We cannot...retire to our ivory towers pretending that scientists are specially exempt from the obligations of citizenship and stewardship."

The World According to Pimm is published in the tradition of Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring, a book of science with rather overt social policy implications. Most people are aware of the term "biodiversity." Most are familiar with the concept that habitat loss can lead to the extinction of endangered species. But there is still vigorous debate over how urgent the problem is compared to other human needs, and what sacrifices it warrants. Pimm's book quantifies the variables in this debate, aiming to make it easier to assess the benefits of urgently needed conservation practices.

A native of Derby, England, Pimm graduated from Oxford in 1971 and received his Ph.D. 3 years later from the University of New Mexico. Pimm was a pioneer in his field, becoming a conservation biologist before the term was yet invented. Pimm first came to Columbia in 1999, the first senior appointment in a then emerging E3B department. He remains actively involved in fieldwork, dividing his time this summer between Australia and India.

Pimm testified in the Congressional debate leading up to the renewal of the Endangered Species Act in 1993. His last book was "The Balance of Nature? Ecological Issues in the Conservation of Species and Communities," published in 1991 by the University of Chicago Press. Pimm is also active on several advisory boards and reviewing boards for publications.

CERC, a research unit of the Columbia Earth Institute, is a consortium of Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wildlife Trust. CERC is located on Columbia's Morningside campus.

Related sites and articles:

The Pimm Research Group
The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit