The Global Casino


Rating: ★★★★½

Nick Middleton. 2013. The Global Casino: an introduction to environmental issues.5e.  Routledge. ISBN. 978 1 4441 4662 2

At a time when there are so many specialist texts on matters dealing with environmental issues (usually with only one topic in mind) it’s good to see one that tackles so many different ones and impressive to see it through 5 editions and 18 years. Having seen a few of these earlier incarnations, a new arrival always piques interest. The basic aim might remain the same – outline the workings of the environment and show how a range of issues are affecting it but the issues have changed somewhat and the information about them certainly has. In fact, one of the challenges for any book of this type is to cover sufficient information to make the case understandable and (potentially) soluble or at least amenable to discussion whilst making the book light enough to carry!

In essence, the book can be divided into two unequal parts. The first deals with the basic principles of the physical and human environment whilst the second covers 18 of the major issues facing us today. The work opens with a chapter looking at the physical environment.  We start with biome classification moving to natural cycles and scalar responses and finishing with a look at the state of our understanding. A first response is that it covers the main elements but a breakneck speed providing the reader with a very basic overview. The second chapter continues the overview but with an examination of human drivers of change, resource exploitation and environmental awareness. Given that sustainable development is often hailed as a solution to some environmental issues, the third chapter focusses on this. It’s targets are socio-ecological systems, sustainable development and environmental valuation. To this point the reader gets a very brief, simple overview of the backdrop for the issues that are the remainder of the text.

From this point, a series of issues are examined. The list is extensive and certainly covers all the major topics that are currently under discussion in general environmental courses which are the book’s target audience. We start with a major topic that has been with us for decades – tropical deforestation. Having outlined the reasons for tropical forest being a concern, the chapter turns to a logical sequence of questions – what is the rate of loss, what causes it, what impacts does it have and how we can manage it. The immediate question, of course, is the extent to which the 23 pages the subject is given can hope to encapsulate all the points. Of course, there is no way this can be achieved but perhaps it’s the wrong question because none of the subjects mentioned in the book are amenable to brief overviews (anyway, many would be classed as wicked problems) so we need to re-phrase. Try this – does the work capture the key points and allow the target reader to get a sufficiently informed view to further study? For this chapter, one would have to say ‘yes’. The rates are accurate, problems are acknowledged and a set of references given. All the key drivers of deforestation are mentioned. The management is a good overview with the possible exception of the need for a greater focus on conservation and indigenous use and management. Certainly, having read this one could get a grasp of the topic and have enough understanding to delve further into the subject.

The next topic is desertification which starts the same way but concludes by discussing the implications rather than management. Oceans changes focus once again by examining a few issues in more depth – in this case the Southern Ocean and whaling.  By now, it’s clear we have a pattern of sorts with an overview, the size of the issue and causes with final aspects dependant on the topic under discussion. Rather than just type a list, it’s more revealing to see what highlights can be found (and there are several).  Dams are often left out of similar texts and this case of the Nile with its excellent diagrams of the delta changes makes an interesting change. Dams had the reputation of being environmentally neutral, alongside hydropower but that is now, thankfully, past and we can study the problems such schemes create (pity the Three Gorges project couldn’t fit in!). Urban environments adds sustainability as a planning issue to the discussion. Not all of the ideas just add great examples. The use of images of the Himalayas and Venice in ‘climate change’ could be seen as controversial given the debate surrounding the statistics of the former and the general sinking of the city in the latter. In ‘biodiversity loss’ we get numerous examples from around the world, not just the more obvious cases but new ones (e.g. Saiga antelope) which help to highlight the universality of the problem. Then there are the topics you just don’t normally get of which ‘warfare’ is the best case.

The text finishes with a conclusion which not only wraps up the debate but considers impacts at regional, national and global scales. A glossary and significant bibliography complete the book.

Of course, the value of any book lies not just in its information but the extent to which it draws the reader in and engages them. A major part of this is both ease of reading and overall production. It is in these items that the book is most impressive. A simple, clean layout with a short list of topics at the beginning and a set of question and resources at the end guide the reader through the topic. The choice of examples is one of the widest seen in this type of text. All regions are covered, all scales are noted (often in the same chapter). Unlike many texts in this area it is hard to pin down its country of origin which is significant – these are global problems after all. The full-colour, well-illustrated layout just adds to the readability. It’s very clear that the text has matured over the various editions and we now have one of the most accessible and impressive introductory texts on this topic. It’s an excellent text for senior students and undergraduates.

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