UCL News


Review: 'Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise'

19 June 2007

Author: Professor Steve Jones (UCL Biology) The notion that reef-fringed islands are tropical idylls is dismantled polyp by polyp by Steve Jones [UCL Biology], dubbed "the Alan Bennett of science writing" by Britain's Financial Times.

While clearly enchanted by the beauty and ecological value of reefs, Jones, who describes himself variously as "an academic hack" and "a land-bound scion of ancient mariners", is deeply pessimistic about their fate.

Such places, he explains, are "biology in miniature, a microcosm of existence on the edge". Coral, in particular, has become "a canary in the ecological coal mine".

Its days are numbered and so, too, he suggests, are ours: "The future of the reefs is bleak indeed. Their end presages a catastrophe that will spread far beyond their bounds and reminds us that we too are far from safe." …

Jones' intricately spun and highly eclectic narrative spans a little politics and economics and quite a lot of literature, philosophy and even art (many of French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin's paintings reflect his years on the Society Islands' Tahiti in the southern Pacific). …

In the 1950s, Jones notes, roughly one-third of the Great Barrier Reef was in pretty good nick. When he first visited it a decade ago, just a quarter was OK; now, he reckons, the figure is one part in five. "Life has seen five major extinctions since it began," he records. "The reefs have been witnesses to them all and are now horrified onlookers to the sixth. They remind us of our own fragility and of how a Garden of Eden can so easily be destroyed." …

If you need cheering up, don't bother with this book. But it has merit indeed if you feel up to an ecological reality check - and can cope with the attendant angst.

Peter Spinks, 'The Age' (Australia)