Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind / Terry Glavin -- NY: St. Martin's Press, 2006

In The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind, Terry Glavin provides a moving narration of the world we are losing. The book is most statistical in its first few pages, where Glavin lays out how the pace and scope of extinctions we face today is comparable to five historical periods of significant extinction. The book's seven chapters are stories of risk and resilience among (as the subtitles outline): a tiger, a bird, a fish, a lion, a whale, a flower, and a world.

While the highly readable narrative style is commendable on its own, the book also is satisfying for its geographic scope - taking readers to varied cultures and ecosystems - and several strains of analysis woven throughout the text. Glavin borrows an analytical tool from the United Nations Environment Programme, which developed four scenarios of how humans might respond to loss of biodiversity, dubbed the "security first," "markets first," "policy first," and "sustainability first" options. Introducing their basic tenets in the prologue, Glavin further elucidates the scenarios in his chapters by pointing to ways in which the movements he documents might be categorized. Although the set of possible future conditions is virtually infinite and inevitably messier than is suggested by scenario analyses, I find them useful tools for understanding likely consequences of different sets of values. The scenarios Glavin borrows are relevant to responses underway today, and his use of them enriches both the scenarios set forth and his narratives of biodiversity challenges.

The book understands extinctions to be complex phenomena, with a variety of proximate and ultimate causes. Glavin both implicates humans and goes easy on us, identifying human actions as the critical factor in the current wave of extinctions, but noting that it was not our intention and that humans have made many noble efforts to reverse or mitigate this impact. Human actions have lead to extinctions not only by directly killing animals but also by destroying habitat and by introducing exotic species that crowd out natives. Glavin seems to imply that because our destructiveness is a secondary effect of our actions, we are somehow less culpable for their results. In the long span of history, there may be something to this argument, but we now have the ability to anticipate secondary effects and do have responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our actions. On the other hand, the evidence the book provides that humans do value the natural world is a source of hope that we might in fact take responsibility for and change our actions.

Another recurring theme is Glavin's assertion that humans (and environmentalists in particular) have made false distinctions between humans and nature, civilization and wilderness. Although this is an intriguing and on some level compelling assertion, Glavin does a mediocre job of substantiating it in his writing. His illustration of how societies in different times and places have had various relationships with nature successfully casts doubt on the notion that there is one Right Relationship or that we have found it (although I don't think either of these beliefs are widely held), but does not successfully breakdown distinctions between human society and the natural world. Moreover, the writing style, while enjoyable, tends to re-enforce the us/them dichotomy. In telling the story of endangered species, the style tends to exoticize the animals and conveys an almost voyeuristic sense of watching them in their habitat (almost like a National Geographic special) rather than relating to them in the world we share, as I might expect from someone trying to break down arbitrary distinctions.

The strongest way in which Glavin establishes a unitary sense of nature is by addressing both species loss and the loss of diversity in human cultures as part of the same "dark and gathering sameness." Having the stories of losses of human languages, history, and local knowledge and lore woven with the stories of habitat and species loss adds richness to the storytelling. However, the analysis of the association of these two phenomena is a bit shallow. In the examples provided, their causes and consequences seem a bit distinct (e.g., cultural repression in Soviet Russia led to losses in human culture while fish species fared better in Soviet days). Also, while the text draws on a fairly well established literature regarding the benefits of biodiversity (especially as laid forth by E.O. Wilson), it does not provide comparable references or well formed arguments regarding the benefits of diverse human cultures. Glavin asserts that the human species is more "resilient" for having diverse cultures, in parallel to an example about crops with diverse sub-species being more resilient to diseases. However, the book does not grapple with the fact that cultures are not static artifacts under any conditions (gathering sameness or otherwise) nor compare the benefits of diverse cultures to those of a more homogeneous culture which is also more complex. Perhaps he will explore the connections more fully in another work.

Another area that was not adequately addressed was climate change. Glavin makes mention of climate change a few times in the book, as something that will worsen the current period of extinction. Indeed, other reading I've done (e.g., The Rough Guide to Climate Change: Symptoms, Science, Solutions by Robert Henson (London: Rough Guides, 2008) has pointed to the biodiversity impacts of climate change that we already are experiencing and expect to intensify in the coming decades. While The Sixth Extinction is more historic than predictive and I would not expect Glavin to include a great deal of anticipatory evidence of the impact of climate change, devoting a couple of solid paragraphs would be a worthwhile addition to the book, as considering an expanded set of causes for extinctions has a significant impact on the set of responses we should be preparing.

What most disappointed me about the book is Glavin's rejecting environmentalism and the "language of environmentalism."  He defines these terms in fairly broad brush early on, and goes on to repeat his criticism at several points in the book. This troubles me because of the suggestion that the environmental movement is some solid, well defined structure of a white liberal elite walking in lock step and speaking with one voice. It's not. And while I might enjoy watching Carl Pope, Wangari Maathai, and Van Jones duke it out to claim the microphone of Environmentalism, the reality is that these are just a few figures inside a big tent of people that come with diverse values and proposed solutions. They form alliances. They have arguments. The behavior among the various groups and activities that I would include as part of today's environmental movement look an awful lot like the whole rest of the world. Perhaps defining an environmental movement within human society at all is a false distinction on the order of considering nature as "other."

The reason this is more than a minor irritation to me is that it seems a familiar tactic. Writers decry environmentalism in an effort to have their environmental arguments taken seriously by a public they believe are not environmentalists. That the naysayers draw arbitrary distinctions is illustrated, conveniently, by an article that appeared in the New York Review of Books while I was reading The Sixth Extinction. John Terborgh's review of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (15 July 2010) sets forward a different notion about what humans' relationship with nature is and should be. In the Rewilding analysis, conservation is best achieved when humans are willing to respect a separate space for wildlife, giving up the "romantic" and "fanciful" European/American idea that people and nature can co-exist peaceably (perhaps that we are in fact one...?). This group of romantic westerns sounds an awful lot like Glavin's environmentalists, the ones who draw false distinctions between humans and nature, society and wilderness. Hmmm...

A similar ploy has been used in works like "The Death of Environmentalism" (Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004). I've argued against the environmental movement's being viewed as a uniform, cohesive group, but do think there is some valid criticism of the power structure within parts of the movement and manner in which groups have chosen to talk about and address environmental issues. Certainly the movement has as yet been insufficient to the task of changing our course or transforming our ethos. Still, I would call on critics not to wholly dismiss environmentalism but rather to identify allies within the movement and to call on everyone to think deeply about their relationship with the world we live in and how to appropriately act on their own values. Drawing arbitrary lines among people will no more get us to our goal of living in a just, peaceful, and flourishing world than will drawing arbitrary lines between humans and nature.

The Sixth Extinction is an enjoyable and thought provoking read. I hope to find other books that draw on Glavin's style and theme to explore our relationship with and impact on the planet.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. In the Last Child In The Woods, the author makes much of the new evidence showing how unsupervised play in natural settings influences child development..... and our view of nature.