The Once and Future World

Can you blame me if I let this book sit on my nightstand for just a little too long? I would take any excuse not to read another depressing book about the environment. The World Without Us and my AP Environmental Science textbook were quite enough in that department.

I shouldn’t have judged this book by its cover. (Interestingly, I have a version with a much uglier dust jacket than the one shown here, featuring a green ball with trees growing out of all sides.) As soon as I cracked The Once and Future World and flipped to the first page, I was sucked into a lyrical and intensely fascinating natural history of the world.

OK, there are parts where you want to go on a killing rampage through Walmart. But before he evens drops the usual, “We’re killing everything and humans suck” factoid anvil on your head, J. B. MacKinnon lays out his main, counterintuitive theme: What we consider “wild” isn’t wild at all. For example, North America hasn’t been in its “natural” state since long before the white man arrived on the Mayflower. That’s right, Indians did some damage, too, overhunting and overfishing. In fact, Indians might have come up with their much-lauded conservation culture and respect for the land because they killed off a few big species and thought they should slow down a bit.

This book is refreshingly light on statistics. They are there, of course, but slyly tucked inside story after anecdote after cultural myth. It is like reading one very long, New Yorker article. And I love New Yorker articles. Speaking of the New Yorker, MacKinnon actually touches upon several subjects that the magazine has covered in the past year or so. Like the Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project in The Netherlands, the odd story of passenger pigeons in North America, and the new paleontological and geological evidence that we are, to the rest of the planet’s citizens, as catastrophic as the asteroid that slammed into earth and caused a mass extinction. (You knew that on some level, didn’t you?)

We are essentially living in a new Paleolithic era, which might soon come to be known as the anthropocene era, the era of humans. Seen in this light, the movie Armageddon seems ironic. Instead of sending astronauts out to space to save us from an asteroid, we need to save us from ourselves.

Not that it’s obvious, as MacKinnon asserts. Sadly, as each generation royally fucks up our ecosystems in a new way, the next is born into a slightly more sterile, more toxic environment. But they don’t know that. To them, this is normal. And so each generation forgets the abundance and greenery that used to be there, and fails to be alarmed, or even pissed at our parents. We’re always talking about how when our children inherit the earth, they will be shocked and angry, and then they will stop the madness and make it better, but it just never happens.

That’s why it’s so hard to turn the tide against suburban development, un-dam the rivers, or even provide affordable, fresh, non-processed food to our population. We have forgotten that there used to be whales swimming up the bay, that there was a lake here before we paved it over, that you could easily get hormone-free, pasture-raised meat wrapped up in paper and tied with twine without someone calling you a rich elitist. When someone proposes to cut down another few acres for some McMansions, we barely raise an eyebrow. By the time 30 years has passed, a whole forest is gone, without anyone noticing. Oh, and Yosemite, in all its glory? A poor approximation of what it was 500 years ago. As MacKinnon says:

Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.

It’s called “shifting baseline syndrome.” Each generation forgets the baseline, and before you know it, your city looks like Blade Runner, smog is part of the weather report, and we are all OK with it. In fact, you try to tell people what a place used to look like, “They used to catch fish that were this big here!” and they will call you a liar. To acknowledge the reality is too painful. It’s easier to deny and keep on overfishing, overeating, overdeveloping.

Even more unpleasant surprises await, like the long, long, long list of extinct species. Yeah, there was the famously stupid dodo from Mauritius, but also several other birds, mammals, and tortoises that we know of, just from that one island. We forget this. MacKinnon uses some form of the word extirpation [To destroy totally; exterminate] repeatedly in this book.

Extirpation is the great, sucking retreat of the tide of life.

MacKinnon spends the rest of the book trying and failing to establish a baseline of perfectly healthy nature. But the failing is the point. Left to their own devices, ecosystems never “fulfill” their purpose and find perfect balance. They flux, change, and move around across the land. Add humans to the equation, first as hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago, exterminating megafauna like flightless moa and huge armadillos, then mowing down forest to plant farms, and finally damning rivers, building cities and trawling the ocean floor, and there’s never been a time that we can point to and say, “There. That is when things were good and we should aspire to that.”

Of course, there were times that were better than they are now. But it would be foolish to try to turn back the clock to a time before humans existed. There would be too many man-eating predators, and way too many mosquitoes.

Fun fact: did you know honeybees are not natural to North America? They are bad for our ecosystems. Take that, NYC beehive owners. Another interesting point that is counter to prevailing hipster-environmentalist wisdom: eating large game animals, and only keeping fish and shellfish that are big enough, can actually be bad for the entire species. Animals need elders to survive, that possess knowledge of watering holes during drought, the migration path down south, and where the spawning ground is. Without the big ones, a whole species can collapse, and quickly. Farm-raised meat and fish is looking pretty good right now.

And paradoxically, despite warnings, humans have been adept at surviving on less and less abundance. Even with the sky dark with migrating birds and waters teeming with fish, the first settlers struggled to get a foothold. Now, with more efficient ways of extracting nutrients from the earth and from the sea, we’re living on 10% of what we had before. And here’s a radical idea: the society of Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, as you probably know it) didn’t collapse because the people there cut down all the trees. They were actually doing just fine, feasting on a large population of rats and harvesting moss for their greens. It collapsed because of disease brought by the conquistadors. Typical.

Those who put the living planet as a whole ahead of short-term human interests remain a small minority.

MacKinnon concedes that there are limits to our exploitation of the earth, but asserts that we’re are not bumping up against them … quite yet.

We can survive—thrive, even—in a degraded world … Many more of the 4,000 species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies as critically endangered could wink out of existence without the slightest ripple being felt around the world.

Also eye-opening is the suggestion that, contrary to popular lore touted by Tea Partiers and business interests, freedom in the United States isn’t achieved by letting us build, dam, raze, and dump wherever we want. It’s still having places left to go that aren’t crowded on all sides by humans and manmade structures. Should we have the freedom to visit a park and go hiking, drink clean water, or see animals in their natural habitat? People and businesses who take away this chance from us, are the ones encroaching on our freedoms.

So, as MacKinnon suggests, perhaps it is better to stop wringing our hands and hoping to go back to nature, and instead do the best we can. Reintroduce species to the habitats they once roamed in, try to get toxins out of nature, and tamp down on the overfishing.

And live symbiotically with nature the best we can, because we–whether we like it or not–are part of this ecosystem. Not its overlord.