Book Report: Nature Returns to America's Cities

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Some creatures, such as rats, never really left the city. Today, an estimated 28 million rats—which are non-native, like much of the city's human population—inhabit New York. The greater New York area is home to eight million people, which means there are more than three rats to every person. Matthews explains how it happened.

"Rats are smart," she writes. "Although a fast-forward version of natural selection has made rats in many big cities immune to nearly all conventional poisons, they still may press one pack member into service as a taster; if the test rat dies, the others resolutely avoid the bait."

Matthews says the strong adaptive ability of non-native species has begun to change the definition of wilderness. Rats were introduced into U.S. cities in the 1700s after arriving as stowaways on merchant ships. Zebra mussels, which have caused major problems in the Great Lakes by clogging intake pipes, were imported in the ballast water of international ships.

"The most important thing is to realize that a city is wilder than we tend to imagine and the land we think of as untouched or wild really isn't," says Matthews. "There has been so much human interference and reshaping that we really don't know what a pristine planet is."

Change in Attitude

Matthews thinks people should not try to undo the effects of this increased interference with wildlife, but to improve their understanding of it and continue to make room for nature in their lives.

In the end, nature will prevail, Matthews predicts. Without human interference, she says, glaciers will creep southward and, by 15,000 years from now, cover New York City in ice.

More immediately, however, Matthews says it's crucial that people consider what kind of world they want their grandchildren to inherit, and act to ensure that such a world will exist.

One immediate concern is what the impacts of global warming will be in 50 years. Citing the results of computer models showing future conditions if no action is taken to mitigate global warming, Matthews says much of New York will be under water, as sea levels rise three feet. New Orleans, Louisiana, already eight feet below sea level, might become the next Atlantis.

What can we do?

"What you can do is as small as don't use air conditioning as much, don't use your gas-guzzling [sport utility vehicle], walk more," says Matthews. "On the macro level, urge your congressperson to do something about environmental issues."

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