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We can save Earth after all: the environmentalist writers seeding a narrative of hope

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet
Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams
Viking, €23.80

Abundance: Nature in Recovery
Karen Lloyd
Bloomsbury, €23.79

Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery
Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe
Icon Books, €26.60

Just as the climate crisis has accelerated, there has in recent years been a rise in books that explore our fraught relationship with nature. With COP26 – the UN climate change conference – due to start today in Glasgow, some writers are asking if there might be reason for hope – and arguing that hope, in some form, will play a key role in our response to the crisis.

The Book of Hope recounts conversations between the renowned naturalist Jane Goodall and the author Douglas Abrams. In dialogue with Abrams, Goodall (87) describes the incredible trajectory of her career, which began when she took a job as secretary to Dr Louis Leakey as a young girl. Leakey, who also mentored the gorilla expert Dian Fossey, spotted Goodall’s talent, and asked her to study the behaviour of chimpanzees in Tanzania.

The young woman had not been able to afford to go to college, but later obtained a doctorate from Cambridge University on the basis of her groundbreaking work, in which she proved – contrary to standard views at the time – that the chimps used tools, had emotions, and were not as different from us as scientists had believed.

Abrams has collaborated on books with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Sections of The Book of Hope have a decidedly spiritual tone, and the discussions of near-death experiences will be of little interest to some readers.

We get a sense of Goodall as a charming woman with a great sense of humour – she jokes at one point that “Tarzan clearly married the wrong Jane” – but those seeking more detailed information might be advised to look up her own back catalogue of dozens of books, including her first, published in 1967, My Friends: the Wild Chimpanzees.

When it comes to hope, Goodall explains why it is important to believe that the actions of individuals can effect change. “Many people understand the dire state of the planet – but do nothing about it because they feel helpless and hopeless. That is why this book is important, as it will, I hope (!), help people realise that their actions, however small they may seem, will truly make a difference.” 

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It’s a sentiment touched on delicately in Karen Lloyd’s set of essays, Abundance. The title is deceptive, because Lloyd has crafted an exquisite elegy on the losses occurring in the natural world around us; abundance lies in the past, or in a wishful, distant future. This is a poignant and thoughtful book, and those suffering from climate anxiety may find themselves feeling angstier as they read.

Travelling to different spots where preservation projects are taking place, Lloyd pinpoints the conflicts in our relationship with nature. In Spain, she enjoys olives and beer at a tapas bar, before learning that olive groves are replacing the vegetation needed by native birds to survive.

Later, she observes that even “green energy is not necessarily clean: there will always be collateral damage,” like the 150,000 seabirds killed by wind turbines in the North Sea each year. But, she adds, “I have chosen to be more upfront with myself about this. I still want electricity. I still want to eat olives.”

On a trip to Transylvania, Lloyd learns how Romania’s forests were decimated after the fall of communism, when logging companies from rich European countries poured in. She travels to a region of Northern Greece, where fishermen, anxious about their livelihoods and seeing the birds as their enemies, at one point slaughtered hundreds of pelicans.

Ecologists persuaded the Greek government to respond and a nature reserve was created, a wildlife haven now full of “unaccustomed abundance”. Lloyd’s descriptions are jewels of detail and specificity. When she finally sees the pelicans they are, “like atomized particles, getting on in their unassuming way of being, their slow-time swirling together, each a tiny part of a more significant whole”. 

For Lloyd, nature flourishes when its elements are preserved and held in place; for the authors of Rewilding, alternatives and new solutions are an entirely viable possibility. In this aptly described “radical” book, Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe lay out a fresh path for environmental activism, and propose a strategy that substitutes action for despair.

Jepson, a scientist based at Oxford, and Blythe, a professional ecologist, suggest that rewilding will allow us to create, “a new, hopeful and empowering environmental narrative”.  

Biodiversity science has become too depressing, they argue. In contrast with traditional conservation – which “appeals to decision-making elites to act morally … amid a growing sense of despair”, rewilding focuses on “new ways of thinking and grounded action, intertwined with ideas of nature as a creative force and visions of a better future for all life”. 

It is a compelling prospect. Jepson and Blythe offer examples of the unexpected cascades of regeneration that can occur, as when wolves were reintroduced at Yellowstone National Park.

The predators had disappeared from North America after extermination campaigns by ranchers but over time, the impact of their absence in Yellowstone became clear: elk were grazing along waterways and destroying riverside plants, while coyotes ran wild, attacking all sorts of smaller creatures.

When the wolves returned, elk numbers fell, allowing willow trees to flourish. Coyotes were displaced (or killed), which enabled other species to recover.

As a science, rewilding opens up a set of intriguing avenues for enriching nature, some of which may seem extreme.

Researchers are exploring the prospect of de-extinction – recreating lost breeds like the European auroch by breeding different forms of domestic cow.

Pushing boundaries further, a team at Harvard is working to produce, “a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo and implant this in an Asian elephant in the hope that she will give birth to an elephant with mammoth-like characteristics – a creation sometimes referred to as a ‘mammophant’”.

Developments like this would raise ethical and moral questions, as Jepson and Blythe point out.

These three books offer diverging but equally valid models for responding to the ecological crisis – Goodall’s tenacious ingenuity, Lloyd’s poetic celebration of nature, and the determined pragmatism of the authors of Rewilding, who point to the stories of “eco-optimism” that are, they say, increasingly common.

When we consider melting glaciers, rising temperatures and the fragile state of the natural world, hope may feel a long way off; but by turning their focus to the environmental challenge ahead, these authors show how new directions are possible.

 


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