Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains by Dan L. Flores
I disagree with the assertion that, just because aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies didn't practice (efficient) resource management or population control, aboriginal peoples share our modern day ecological failings. For, despite the causes of the Pleistocene extinctions, it does appear that Native Americans lived in North America for 12,000 years without bumping off many, or even any, of their animal neighbors (an achievement we moderns seem unlikely to match).

Flores argues that the disparity in environmental damage between Moderns and aboriginals is merely one of degree, and that somehow this ecological disharmony is hardwired into the 'carnivorous, clan and kin-centered primate brain'.

I would like to point out that all animals create or accumulate additional or enhanced habitat for their neighbors. Modern humans, not hunter-gatherers, are the only exception to this rule, with out urban deserts and suburban shopping centers. Aboriginal peoples, as long as they utilized local resources, invariably created more habitat and enhanced ecologies. Of course, the proof of this assertion is (hundreds of?) years of back-breaking ecological fieldwork measuring productivity and species richness.

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery
What's the difference between centripetal and centrifugal evolution? Despite needing better editing and a careful cross-checking of important numbers (pre-1492 population of the Americas anyone?), this is an inspiring book with lots of grist for the mental mill. In the interest of Big Ideas this book (written at Harvard don't you know) plays loose and easy with facts and rhetoric, often glossing important points and proclaiming rather than analyzing. But the Big Ideas are worth it! The parallel between the 300 year heyday and collapse of Clovis culture (11,000BC-12,700BC) and the 300-year opening of the American frontier (1580AD -1880 AD), the influence that growing weeds (succesional colonizers) as crops had on creating r-selected (weedy) society, the placing in context of our own extinction event with the last 100 million years of extinction and colonization events...the analysis and structure are a bit thin but the gist is pure gold...plus hearing an Aussie psychoanalyze America is priceless. I can't wait to read his parallel account of Australia's last 300 million years, "The Future Eaters."

Flanery asks whether a "nation so conceived in liberty can long endure" and compares the mindset of "liberty" with that of a weed (which most of our crops are) that experiences "release" in a new environment before adaptation sets in. When will Americans adapt to America and become truly native? Maybe once we've all read this book...

It is only at the end of the book that we discover how all this history answers Aldo Leopold's assertion that we must "know what the world was like" in order to save the environment. Flanery comes out strongly in favor of restoring parts of America to pre-Clovis (pre-human, approximately 13,000 years ago) conditions. By reintroducing extirpated animals as well as analogs or homologs of extinct animals, he hopes to restore America to "rival Africa" in terms of large mammal diversity, as well as creating balanced and sustainable ecosystems. Its amazing to think that where we live used to look like the Serengeti, or the Costa Rican rainforest. But, according to Flanery, we still have the choice to put things back how they were. Wolf reintroduction anyone?


1 comment:

verity said...

third paragraph/eternal frontiers.
knowing what it was like before is a very real to me humm ... im going to do some research. fun thanks.