How our estrangement from Nature has led to collapse and extinction of entire ways of life.
I had assumed that a book entitled On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature was going to be all about how terrible the human race is, waxing lyrical about the countless wonderful species we are undoubtedly destroying. But this isn't that sort of book; it's far better than that.
Melanie Challenger does talk about a small number of endangered species—indeed, whales and the history of whaling is a theme which runs through the book—but the best clue as to what this book is really about is in its subtitle: the word estranged. On Extinction is primarily about us: about how we have lost touch with Nature; about how we have continued, wittingly and unwittingly, to live beyond our means, over-exploiting the world's natural resources—even on a relatively local scale. It is about how this over-exploitation of resources has led to the decline and collapse of the communities and industries which relied on them: Cornish mining, international whaling, the salt-marshes of the Fens, etc. The extinction Challenger is primarily interested in is the extinction of entire ways of life.
As part of her research, Challenger visits a number of threatened and abandoned communities: the moorland of the former Cornish mining industry, South Atlantic whaling stations, an Antarctic research station, an Inuit settlement, the former whaling port of Whitby. In all of them, she finds evidence of our estrangement from Nature.
In an uplifting final chapter, we see Challenger making a conscious effort to become more familiar with—less estranged from—the nature in her own local environment. It wouldn't do all of us any harm to take a leaf out of her book.
It seems mean to point out a couple of minor mistakes made in this book: our greatest anatomist, the British Cuvier, Richard Owen was not an American; Charles Darwin did not reflect on competition for resources between species while aboard HMS Beagle—that element of his theory came later, after Darwin read Malthus, back in Blighty; and it is meaningless to state that Temperatures had risen by around 1 per cent, unless you are using the absolute temperature scale—which I assume Challenger is not.
But don't let these petty quibbles put you off. Melanie Challenger is an extremely talented new writer in the currently highly popular field of Nature Writing. I shall follow her career with great interest, and look forward immensely to her next book.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers.