The Once and Future World

By J. B. MacKinnon

Facing looming catastrophes brought on by global climate change, peak oil, or unmanageable levels of public debt, you have to wonder: even if we could make the switch to a truly sustainable world — one with a radically different economy and different lifeways — would it be one we’d want to live in?

That question lies, partly hidden, at the heart of this new book by environmental food movement guru J. B. MacKinnon (co-author of The 100-Mile Diet).

The book begins with an account of our long slide into what he calls a “10 percent world”: the ballpark figure he comes up with for the fraction of nature remaining today (in terms of number of species and extent of living systems). MacKinnon is very good when it comes to analysing our mental failures, from outright denial to a form of cultural amnesia that leads to a ratcheting effect of shifting baselines when it comes to imagining nature as it was, is, and can be. Young, urban dwellers with no personal connection to nature or memory of what the world used to be like take our current “10 percent world” as the new normal, making further declines less noticeable.

The resulting drift becomes a maxim of historical ecology: “we excuse, permit, adapt — and forget.”

Here, for MacKinnon, “is the most uncomfortable lesson to be taken from the history of nature: that we can survive — thrive, even — in a degraded natural world.” We don’t really need brown bears or buffalo. “Large areas of the globe have lost all or nearly all of their largest animals and most ancient forests, and yet they remain desirable locations for people to live.”

How we got here may only be the result of unconscious, or at least ill-informed choices, but they have been choices none the less. MacKinnon is slippery on this point. He describes our 10-percent world as “a tastefully appointed ecological wasteland,” the result of our having “been adrift as a species, making choices without remembering what our options are.”

But to put the blame on drift rather than choice is to excuse too much.

For example, MacKinnon asks us to consider the fact that most people today “eat next to nothing that is hunted or gathered from the terrestrial surface of the earth.” Our ancestors might have considered such an outcome “bizarre if not apocalyptic,” but MacKinnon goes too far when he says the present situation “can’t be said to be the product of choice” and that “we drifted to this point, generation by generation.”

On the contrary: billions of consumer choices are exactly what got us here. And it’s not at all clear that we would choose to go back, even if we could, to hunting and gathering.

One can sympathize with MacKinnon’s point of view. But in his yearning for “a single crowning reason that we should live with more natural abundance, not less, a richer rather than a poorer state of nature” he falls back upon the notion that we “simply prefer a wilder world” and will make a choice for change.

Which is only true up to a point. All other things being equal, we’d like to live in a more abundant natural world. But all other things aren’t equal, and we have made the choice to go in another direction: toward greater personal comfort, convenience and high-consumption lifestyles, and to hell with the long-term costs. This is an inconvenient truth.

The Once and Future World is vital reading, but also typical of a lot of books about the environment today. It presents a clear-eyed description of the current, truly desperate situation. It then offers an arguable account of how we got in this mess (the drift theory), and concludes on a vague, trying-to-be-hopeful note. We can’t recover a mythical, pristine nature, MacKinnon writes, but we may be able to proceed “more carefully and consciously” into a future world “true to the past and unlike anything seen before.”

That final note, at least, is hard to disagree with. The future will be unlike anything humanity has experienced before.

Just remember this much: you were warned.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 10, 2013.

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