Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Lost and Left Behind

It is amazing what you can pick up by blogging. My invitation to join the Drink-soaked Trots introduced me to the work of the Canadian author and journalist Terry Glavin. I have always been impressed with his anti-totalitarianism and his passionate defence of Canada's presence in Afghanistan. However, this is only a small part of his output, and I have just finished reading something more substantial, his new book, The Lost and Left Behind. Without my blog it would have been a book that passed me by. What a loss that would have been.

Subtitled, Stories from the Age of Extinctions, the book examines the huge destruction of species and loss of diversity in a world becoming blanketed by "sameness" – the sixth great extinction. The scale of the devastation is staggering. The book is not a dry ecological text, nor is it a Green polemic, Terry is a far better writer than that. It consists of what it says, stories. This is important because when he writes of extinctions, he means more than the loss of animal or plant species. He is as concerned with the loss of human cultures, of languages, of mythologies, and of stories – the stories that enable us to interpret and understand our place in the world. And so Terry takes us on a series of journeys to places that symbolise loss and, on occasions, regeneration.

He is a fine story teller but just as the world is complex, each story is too. Each chapter is like a Russian doll, within every tale is another, and, as you open it up, yet another appears underneath it, and many smaller stories spill out from the shell of the narrative about the places he visits and the people he meets. History, politics, science, anthropology and more are encompassed with a deftness that entertains and a touch of humour that always amuses. Yet this layered approach is more profound than a literary device; it is the key to his understanding of ecology.

In the great vortex of extinction, there are always those cycles within cycles. There are ecological forces, cultural forces, and demographic forces. (p.278).

Stories help us to understand those cycles and show that our attachment to bio-diversity is more than utilitarian, it is aesthetic. We find life and nature beautiful, and we capture that beauty in our folk tales and urban myths, and in symbolisms, like the giving of flowers and taking pleasure in wild places.

Terry is no romantic though, he doesn't celebrate a mythical wilderness. His ecology is a landscape shaped and populated by human beings. And whilst humans are the main cause of the extent of current extinctions, he doesn't lapse into crude misanthropy. We are here to stay. Instead, there is a strong political strand running as a sub-text throughout the book until it surfaces in his powerful and emotional conclusion. Where societies collapse, so does ecology. The greatest cause of collapse is exploitation. And thus this book is about something that should be central to the democratic left, it is about human self-determination, resistance to both totalitarianism and an exploitative modernism that diminishes human diversity and thereby destroys human liberty. It makes him as determined to defend sustainable whaling communities and slash and burn agriculture as he would the habitat of a rare and beautiful bird. He concludes:

If it's some great insight you are after, all I can say is that the great insights lie only in the rich variety of humanity's stories, the specific and the particular stories, and the great multiplicity and diversity of our ideas. Our best hopes lie in strengthening the conditions that allow the flourishing of a diversity of living things, a diversity of ideas, and a diversity of choices. (p.306)

I read this book as being firmly in the tradition of the great Anarchist geographers and scientists, Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes. All advocated the importance of the integration of human and natural ecology and saw that as being part of a political project for human emancipation.

And what does Terry expect of us in the current crisis? "You do what you can ... you do whatever you can". And the least of what you can do is to read this fine, committed, and beautifully written book.


Francis Sedgemore said...

Interesting review; it sounds like a book I should be reading. Anyway, tomorrow I shall finally meet the author, and your good self, in a Sarf London hostelry. See you then.

Anonymous said...

You really need to put a recommended reading column on your blog!

Graeme said...

I'll have to read this--Glavin is always excellent. Perhaps I'll read it after I'm done The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, another book that I came across via blogging, thanks to Comrade Will. I also second putting a recommended reading list up.

Anonymous said...

"I also second putting a recommended reading list up."

I reckon this might be a good idea for the DSTPFW as well. We could do a joint one!

And no Sedgey! You can't include anything by Olly Kamm!

The Plump said...

OK. I like the idea of a reading list - though I am notoriously lax about putting them together at work!

I might do some sidebar links to the ones I have reviewed on this site as well.

Just as Francis will be the first to add this one and
Will will certainly recommend this favourite