Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Once and Future World - a book review.

By Maayan Kreitzman

Our lab copy of the book

At the time that British Romantics invented the notion of wilderness as a spiritual sanctuary, the British landscape had already been transformed into docile parkland, and was starting to bear the violent marks of the industrial revolution. In the Once and Future World, J. B. McKinnon suggests that this is not a coincidence. Is romantic nature-loving only possible in a world that has already been transformed by humans through the eradication of species and changing of landscapes? I'd definitely never thought about that before. But now that I am, the ability to walk through the forest unarmed (unthinkable before the mass predator and megafauna extinctions caused by man) seems pretty necessary for the benign, loving, beautiful nature we relate to today, not to mention for the production of iconic works of nature-loving romanticism like “Tintern Abbey”. Wait then - were those extinctions a good thing?

In the Once and Future World, which I just finished reading, there are many examples of how humans have transformed wild nature. More interesting though, are the ways that humans have pretty much been ok with that. The book tells the story of how nature gets continuously subdued and redefined by man. How social collapse due to ecological change is relatively rare. What's more common, instead, is the adaptation of humans to progressively denuded states of nature.

As McKinnon writes, the world today is a ruin – a beautiful ruin, but a ruin nonetheless. By itself this sentence makes you expect yet another doom-and-gloom environmentalist manifesto, preaching about the past glories of nature and the destruction human societies have wreaked. But that's not what this book is about at all. Without context, you might think that living in a ruin is a bad thing – but as you slowly figure out, McKinnon doesn't actually see things this way. Take Europe – a continent-sized wasteland, or in other words, a pastoral paradise. It used to be a place infested with lions, wooly rhinoceros, and giant ground sloth. Now, it is a pleasant, relaxing, human-scale landscape, where nothing bigger than a lynx or wild boar is likely to harass you. Certainly, it is orders of magnitude less diverse, less wild, and less rich (in terms of collecting wild food off the land) than it used to be. But with other ways to feed ourselves, maybe nature (such as it is) is more enjoyable and more functional (from a human perspective) in the Europe of today than it ever could have been in wilder times. McKinnon clearly isn't on this side of the argument either. On the contrary, overall he makes a heartfelt plea in favor of a wilder world. At the same time, the alternative is valid too - from contemporary Europe to the Hawaiian islands, history shows that humans can thrive on a poorer, tamer world. But do we want to?

The Once and Future World is a more nuanced take on the concepts of conservation and rewilding than your typical rah-rah environmentalist nonfiction. McKinnon mines history and prehistory to track the correlations between events in human demography/migration with changes in wild plants and animals. This includes destruction, butchering, and collapse. But McKinnon also takes care in exploring the patterns of this destruction. For example, the pattern of “we ate the big ones first”, as well as the pattern of “unimaginable abundance to extinction”, everywhere in the world, over and over again. Yet there is also reciprocity, and apparent sustainability at certain times in history. And there is technology and ingenuity (from prehistory to the present), allowing humans to live very happily in an environment that is a ruin of its former self.

Compared to the abundance of life on this planet that existed, it is irrefutable that even what we think of as wilderness today is denuded - of megafauna (all over the world) and of the sheer amounts of everything else that has not gone extinct. The book explores the concept of shifting baselines in depth – that is, progressively reduced states of nature become the 'real' or 'normal' nature. Sometimes this happens so drastically that the return of an animal or community from the distant past is viewed as unnatural. The book tells fascinating histories of species, from grizzlies and foxes on the North American prairie, to giant turtles, sharks, and whales in the Southern Ocean. These natural histories open up the imagination to the abundance of life that existed and perhaps could exist, yet are so far outside of our current frame of reference. The stories of grizzlies (which used to be a plains animal, now thought of as a remote mountain animal), whales (formerly huge carbon sinks and ecosystem engineers that fertilized the entire ocean with iron), and sharks (in really thriving reef ecosystems, they compose 75% of reef biomass), stunningly reveal baselines that have shifted so massively that we need active acts of imagination to shift them in reverse.

Yet this book isn't an outright depressing read at all. Humans aren't anachronistic opposites to nature for McKinnon. Rather, we can choose to want to live in a wilder world - wilder internally and wilder externally. What does internal wildness mean exactly? It might start from seeking to pay attention to the feeling that when you go outside, you are not exactly safe. It might be to engage the alertness of all your senses, and know, that like other creatures on this planet, you could die. On the more practical side, McKinnon only scratches the surface of the questions of feeding and maintaining 7 (not to mention 10) billion people in a wilder world. But quantitative forecasting or playing with numbers isn't the point of this book. Its strength is psychological, reflective - it argues a nuanced point that isn't so easy to grasp: that we can thrive on this planet and still desire a wilder world where other species do too. That rewilding and conservation aren't self-abnegating, all-or-nothing, futile aspirations to go backwards. Rather, they can be a contemporary way forward for humans to thrive with wild and abundant nature, made up of both dangerous and pastoral landscapes, and inhabited by many creatures, both deadly and docile.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writing Maayan! Let's invite the author to talk in our department's speaker series.