Terry Glavin, Waiting for the Macaws

I've admired Terry Glavin for a long time, so when I saw it on BC Ferries last trip to Vancouver I started leafing through the new one I saw at the store - Waiting for the Macaws, and other stories from the age of extinctions. When I happened on some comments about how the language of environmentalism isn't adequate for our current crisis, I knew I needed it.

And WHAT an educational book. My goodness. I think of myself as reasonably well informed, but I learned so much -- not just about Russian fish species, whaling, that sort of exotica -- but also about stuff I think I know already, North American animals since European contact in particular but also the vast changes in agricultural diversity. I'm used to the sense of crisis, but not with so much data behind it.
So much is uncertain in the world, but one thing we can say with some certainty is that we are living in an age when we will at last discover the answer to the question that has haunted philosophers from time out of mind. It's the question about whether humanity is capable of determining its own destiny. We should know that by about 2030, they say. Certainly not much later. (280)
Glavin does a great job of linking the data to individual stories. His kids steal unidentifiable breeds of apples from abandoned orchards on Mayne Island; over 6,000 breeds of apples grown commercially in the US vanished between 1903 and 1983. That's roughly 90% of them, and two-thirds of American apple production consists of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. The story's the same for corn (307 to 12), carrots (287 to 21), watermelons (223 to 20). The next step is to link monocultural agriculture to the Irish potato famine, which he does persuasively. Yikes.

But it's not a depressing read, because throughout Glavin keeps an eye on one core idea: human-driven extinctions have always come when we didn't really understand what has happening and what the consequences were of our actions. Whenever we've recognized crisis, we've almost always made heroic efforts to halt it, and what's coming is the largest crisis we've faced -- but with the most lead time we've ever had, too.

Wide-ranging and brilliantly written. Glavin's such an alert writer, opinionated but willing to let the research do the heavy lifting, that I envy his every word.


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