Art of the Wild
Nature Books for Kids
On the Brink
The venerable impresario of doomsday scenarios such as the population “explosion” returns to sound the warning bell again about saving the earth.
The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment
By Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich
Island Press, 440 pages, $35
Paul R. Ehrlich has never shied away from calling it like he sees it, no matter how gloomy his perspective might be. For four decades the Stanford biologist has been evangelizing about the interrelated problems of overpopulation, overconsumption, and environmental degradation (including climate change), often as a lonely voice shouting into the wind.
The specific doomsday prediction that Ehrlich laid out in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb—namely, that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s—set him up for ridicule when it failed to materialize. But the bulk of his more generalized admonitions still hold up today and, in fact, can read as though they’re lifted from the pages of a contemporary newspaper editorial. Consider the following, from the 1990 book The Population Explosion, written with Anne H. Ehrlich, his wife and frequent collaborator: “Continued population growth and the drive for development in already badly overpopulated poor nations will make it exceedingly difficult to slow the greenhouse warming—and impossible to stop or reverse it—in this generation at least.”
Their latest book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, continues to drum home the message that humans are on a collision course with ecological catastrophe. But what’s new and notable is the dual biological and cultural lens the Ehrlichs use to diagnose the underlying cause of our predicament. The very technological advances that enabled humans to thrive and grow into the planet’s domineering species, they argue, have, paradoxically, put our own future in jeopardy. In a nutshell, “despite our dominance, we may have evolved ourselves into quite a mess,” they write.
There are endless ways in which our capacity for innovation may spell our demise. Take, for instance, the “cashmere-cough connection.” As the Ehrlichs describe it, one successful export from economically booming China is relatively inexpensive cashmere clothing. But China’s multiplying herds of goats produce something other than soft yarn for sweaters: desertification. Overgrazing is turning the grasslands of the Alashan Plateau to dust, blowing massive plumes as far away as the western United States. These plumes can exacerbate asthma and cause other respiratory problems. A similar ricochet effect is happening in other countries that produce beef, soy, wood, palm oil, rubber, and coffee grown in or extracted from the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Even as globalization seems to be lifting the living standards of China, India, and other perennially downtrodden regions, it is accelerating the rate of ecological degradation in these same countries.
The Ehrlichs are adept at describing these human-caused “intertwined dilemmas,” but that’s only part of their goal. They’re also after evolutionary answers to the bigger question: How did we arrive on the ecological brink? And they find one, to a degree, in the mismatched speeds of technological and cultural evolution.
More specifically, the astonishing rate of scientific advances in recent centuries has far outpaced our cultural adaptation to the resulting societal changes. For example, early humans were well attuned to their environment, possessing the ability to sense danger or opportunity. This, the Ehrlichs write, led over time to the development of “habituation,” the capacity for filtering environmental stimuli and eventually tuning out the nonessential background noise of our surroundings. Hence our tendency today not to notice the hum of our electrical appliances until the power goes out.
But while this behavior helped keep our ancestors on their toes, today it’s a liability, what the Ehrlichs call a “genetic evolutionary hangover.” The global climate, ecosystems, and natural processes are all changing, but we’re not programmed to react because the changes aren’t sudden enough. The environment is shifting too slowly for us to respond yet rapidly enough to pose a grave threat.
What may save us, the Ehrlichs conclude, is to consciously fast-forward our social development by organizing ourselves into a true, worldwide polity. Unfortunately, despite the globalization spurred by economic markets and the Internet, few of us consider the impacts of our daily actions on the planet’s ecological health.
Some fixes already in the works may help us stave off disaster, such as conservation, ecological restoration, and increasing the economic value of natural capital—i.e., the worth of clean soil, water, and air. But the Ehrlichs seem to think that planetary salvation requires some as-yet-undiscovered model of global cooperation. The Dominant Animal’s last chapter lays out the why, if not the how: We need “a massive change in human priorities,” nations have to cooperate in some sort of UN-with-teeth governing body, and we must stop discounting the future in our economic and policy decisions. If the present state of affairs is any indication, we are clearly doomed.
Still, as it ambles through discourses on topics ranging from prehistoric man to industrialization and, of course, global warming, The Dominant Animal is filled with astute ecological observations, like the comparison of humans to beavers that fabricate their ecological niches. “A burgeoning human population, perpetually trying to increase its consumption, is now reshaping the entire Earth to suit its own immediate needs—to be its niche.”
Nevertheless, at times the book left me wanting more—hungry for revolutionary new insights whose very existence would shine the right way forward. If we’d listened to Ehrlich 40 years ago, perhaps we’d already be on that path. Instead we’re in much the same place as we were back then, albeit with billions more people on the planet and a whacked-out global climate to boot. Which way we’ll head next is up to us—assuming, of course, that we can speed up our cognitive abilities to recognize the ecological mess our technological prowess has created.
Frequent Audubon contributor Hillary Rosner co-wrote the recent book Go Green, Live Rich. She has also written for The New York Times, Popular Science, and Seed.
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Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future
By Greg Melville
Algonquin Books, 266 pages, $15.95
Journalist Greg Melville and his college buddy Iggy are just a couple of regular (if quirky) guys on a cross-country road trip. Their goal: to drive Melville’s 1985 Mercedes, reconfigured to run on used fryer oil, from Vermont to California without stopping at the gas pump. It’s a mechanical challenge—breakdowns, while frequent, always manage to be just this side of catastrophic—and also a hilariously social one. Reluctantly, the pair begs (or, failing that, steals) waste oil from a string of fast-food restaurants, struggling to explain to observers and burrito-joint managers that their grease-stained clothes and French fry-scented vehicle are the wave of the future. Melville, who has written for Outside and Men’s Journal, has a breezy, unpretentious style as well as the ability to work in the occasional edifying digression—a brief history of wind power, for instance, or a discussion with a professor about cellulosic ethanol—without disrupting the book’s brisk, novelistic pace. At trip’s end, Melville explains to his pal that they have proven something important: “If two goobers like us can actually get in a car and drive across the country without fossil fuels or putting a lot of carbon into the air, the answers for sustainability are easier than people think.”—Alexa Schirtzinger
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A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All
By Luke Dempsey
Bloomsbury USA, 258 pages, $24.99
That A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All isn’t your ordinary ode to wildlife is clear from page one. There, explaining birding’s British origins, Luke Dempsey writes, “Because of the lousy weather and the unfair distribution of wealth, the place is filled with sad people with not much going for them. My homeland has a strong tradition, however, of inventing safe pursuits for all the losers.” A refreshingly irreverent Dempsey, relocated to New York City, proceeds to chronicle his pursuit of unique birds in all of this country’s corners, as well as the colorful people he and his equally colorful friends, Don and Donna Graffiti, meet along the way. The author’s alter ego, “Small Injustice Man,” also emerges as the discomforting hero of the trio’s frequent misadventures. Whether you’re a die-hard birder or can’t distinguish a dove from an osprey, you’ll enjoy this book for its biting humor alone. But it’s not all laughs. Dempsey, editor-in-chief of book publisher Hudson Street Press, does an admirable job of telling his birds’ stories, too, offering revealing histories of their habitats and the chronic threats they face. Throughout his successes (a rare elegant trogon sighting in Arizona) and failures (a fruitless, bug-ridden chase after a Kentucky warbler), Dempsey notes with grace those serene and surprising moments that drive his passion. After he describes identifying a marbled murrelet while getting soaked in a windy downpour on Puget Sound, he writes: “Nature had no moral imperative: nothing helped the bird; there was no fellow love for it out there; the other birds wouldn’t mourn its passing; the weather was just the weather. A man stood on the beach, watched it pass, and spoke out loud its name, in wonder and intense joy.”—Jessica Leber
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Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan . . . and the World
By Courtney Humphries
Smithsonian Books/Collins, 196 pages, $24.95
Most New York City residents feel little affection for the mottled, grayish bird scratching at the sidewalk next to a garbage can. But Courtney Humphries’s entertaining and thorough account of the bird’s colorful history gives the oft-maligned street pigeon its belated due. Domesticated as a food source around 3000 B.C. and later bred for show by the 19th century European bourgeoisie, pigeons have since been let loose, and ultimately resented, for the very robust proliferation and adaptive genius we once prized in them. Humphries, a Newsweek contributor, follows the bird’s trail wherever it may lead, from a Brooklyn gathering of cantankerous pro-pigeon activists to the cliffs of Sardinia and the majestically independent wild pigeons that roost there. Along the way, she explores the intertwined evolutionary histories of pigeons and people—and swoons for an abandoned squab, or juvenile pigeon, in a back alley in Boston. “If domestication were a millennia-long relationship, it’s no wonder the breakup is a little rocky,” she writes. “When an animal pleases us, our first instinct is to form a relationship. Children love to feed and play with wild things until they are told not to. Neutrality—letting wild things be wild—may actually be the most difficult thing for us to do.”—Alexa Schirtzinger
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Art of the Wild
Prior to the publication of Birds of America, John James Audubon spent decades honing his talents. Audubon: Early Drawings (Harvard University Press, $125) sheds insight into Audubon’s trajectory as an artist and naturalist, offering 116 bird and mammal images from the fledgling stages of his career. “The fascination comes in the comparison of these early works with what came later, and in the detection of the inklings of majesty in these modest, earnest efforts,” writes ornithologist Scott V. Edwards. Indeed, a wide-eyed belted kingfisher (above) is charming with a disheveled crown of slate blue plumes. Meanwhile, the composition of a Carolina parakeet perched among pecan branches is appealing not only for its organic symmetry but for its value as one of the few visual records of the now-extinct species—a reminder of Audubon’s timeless relevance.—Julie Leibach
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