JB MacKinnon, The Once and Future World

It was already on the top of my reading list, but this clinched it for me:

Like I wasn't going to read a book subtitled Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, but when you're busy, a kick can be useful.

Unfortunately for everyone around me, I've been consumed by The Once and Future World: unfortunately, I say, because when I'm consumed by well-researched environmental non-fiction, it means that I'm a fountain of unusual and off-putting facts, and MacKinnon's book is stuffed with them. More later on that, but let me assure you right away that this book stands apart from eco-catalogues like Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder (which I really enjoyed) or focused works like Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (also loved), no matter how well-meaning and well-written.

It's a prologue to a movement, this book, and I'm saying right now, the day after finishing it for the first time, that it'll be the backbone to my annual course next year bringing together literature and environment: more activist this year than last, and next year, who knows, we might end up hitting the barricades.

As MacKinnon puts it, we're living through "alterations to the pattern of nature [that] are less the 'environmental challenges' we speak of today than they are breaches of the space-time continuum" (p.63). Humans are cataclysmic, like glaciers two miles thick, or killer asteroids, not "environmental challenges." As a small example, the winning bouquet at a 1925 British flower fair contained 22 marsh helleborine orchids: which were already known to exist only in a single three-hectare bog. It's tempting to obsess about climate change and peak oil and the carbon economy, but we've always been wilfully ignorant.
Via the Guardian

One of the crucial chapters has to do with incidents where humans have stepped in to replace the activities of a depleted nature, like the orchards in China where the bees no longer live. Humans pollinate these pear trees by hand now now, with rudimentary Goldberg devices involving feathers, cigarette filters, and chopsticks, but the startling thing is that the humans have turned out to be more efficient than the bees, as well as economically more productive (in the sense that human pollinators get paid, and spend their money in local businesses).

Very clearly, there can be an economic benefit to blowing up nature, maybe even a lasting benefit. There's no point pretending otherwise. Purely material human interests can in some cases be best served by a denuded and shattered but still functioning nature.

This is where revolution needs to come from, and the economists behind the study MacKinnon cites move to reject this purely economic analysis. Economics, the economists say, are inadequate to capture our relations with the rest of nature.

MacKinnon's vision of rewilding is thoughtful and brilliant, and I'd love to be able to say, years from now, that his was one of the key statements that helped us find our way.

(Side note: Any press is good press, I suppose, but NPR's Robert Krulwich has blogged the HELL out of The Once and Future World, swiping a half-dozen of MacKinnon's chapters for separate blog posts. At a certain point, it becomes inadequate to give the standard little acknowledgements to the author, doesn't it? I'm really pleased that Krulwich seems so enamoured of this book, but dude. Leave something for new readers!)


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