Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
The Eternal Frontier

Book Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

The Eternal FrontierThe Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is an Australian paleontologist who visited the United States during his graduate study for a professional conference. He fell in love with the continent, and particularly with its vast trove of fossilized remains from the past.

In this book he describes the ecological history of North America since approximately 65 million years ago – when a small asteroid plowed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, creating a vast firestorm that leveled most of the trees on the continent and created a tsunami that swept far inland.

The continent was reshaped in an instant, and most of its species of animal and plant life were wiped out. The debris from the asteroid hung in the air, creating a winter that lasted ten years, plunging the planet into freezing temperatures worldwide.

This is the drama that begins Flannery’s account of the ecology of North America. As he advances the story through time, he tells of the shifting arrangements of the world’s continents as they slowly slip and slide over their tectonic underpinnings. North America was once divided down the middle by a shallow sea, where the Mississippi River valley is today; North, South and Central America only joined up relatively recently, geologically speaking; and land bridges between North America and Asia and Europe opened and closed over time, allowing migrations of flora and fauna to occur, then blocking them.

When humans first arrived via the Bering land bridge some 13,200 years ago they found a vast paradise, filled with large animals that had no fear of tiny humans. These species (mammoth, mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, a camel, the North American horse, a large flightless bird called Titanis, the Shasta ground sloth, a tapir, a giant sloth, the flat-headed peccary, the short-faced bear, a giant beaver) quickly succumbed to the fierce hunting skills of the Clovis culture people, who left their finely-wrought flint spearheads among the skeletons of the slaughtered animals – to be found 13 millenia later by archaeologists.

Flannery makes a convincing case that the extinctions of all the large fauna of North America are primarily due to human hunting, rather than climate change or other factors. He shows that there have been periods of climatic variability that did not result in massive extinctions; he also observes that the large fauna of the Caribbean islands (a ground sloth, large rodents, bird and bat species) went suddenly extinct about 6250 years ago – exactly coincident with human arrival there. He cites evidence from the fossil record in Australia that extinctions of the megafauna of that continent began after human arrival there, some 53,000 years ago.

The Eternal Frontier tells the story of the complex interactions between animals, humans and environment and does not romanticize indigenous peoples who somehow lived in complete harmony with Nature. Rather he shows that animals as well as humans have shaped the environment: the bison in their herds of millions, essentially created the prairies of the Great Plains by flattening all vegetation but the tall grasses, which thrived – and provided sustenance to the bison.

Native Americans used fire to keep the understory of New England forests clear, to allow for better hunting. But the major impacts over the past thirteen millennia have come from the extensive migration of Europeans to this continent, beginning in the early seventeenth century.

Flannery does not flinch from cataloging the ecological devastation wrought on the continent over the past 400 years: deforestation; erosion; eradication of over 90% of the Native population; extinction of species (passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Eskimo curlew, and many others); massive depletion of other animal species from overhunting or overfishing (menhaden, cod, bison, bear, wolves, raccoons, beaver, foxes, otters and more).

“By the 1950s North Americans had eliminated about four-fifths of the continent’s wildlife, cut more than half its timber, all but destroyed its native cultures, dammed most of its rivers, destroyed its most productive freshwater fisheries and depleted a good proportion of its soils.” He goes on: “By 1999 nearly 1200 native North American species had been placed on the official endangered list, and this is a gross underestimate, for it has been reliably estimated that 16,000 species are in grave danger of extinction on the continent.”

The frontier has been a compelling concept in American history, the march of settlement to the west often glamorized as Manifest Destiny. Flannery decries this view, instead seeing it as a sort of condoned pillage: “What is most worrying about this dismal history is that, on the frontier, ruthless exploitation, greed and senseless environmental destruction had become an honored tradition. All of the US’s defenses, both political and social, were traduced by the vast wealth and influence won by the rapers of the land. Perhaps the single most important aspect of ecological release in this regard was the breakdown of authority. Various states made laws to protect wildlife such as passenger pigeons and at various times Indians were granted respite from the reign of terror, yet frontiersmen ignored the laws that irked them, and they did so with impunity. Government departments did the same.” Quoting Marc Reisner: “It was a case of lawlessness becoming de facto policy, and it was to become more and more commonplace.”

Flannery acknowledges, paradoxically, the birth of the modern conservation movement in the United States, and the large tracts of land set aside for national parks. He also sees the resilience of nature, with forests moving in to reclaim abandoned farmland, and species such as the armadillo filling ecological niches vacated by extinctions.

While acknowledging the tremendous world dominance achieved by the United States as the reigning superpower, he questions the cost: “The fifty years of US pre-eminence have come at a high price, for they have cost the continent much of its natural wealth and ecological stability. Even now aggressive capitalism is sacrificing the rivers, soils and poorer people of North America at the altar of the god of fortune . . .”

This well-written book provides a useful overview of North American ecological history; written by an Aussie outsider, it provides an alternative view to the popular wisdom that glorifies capitalist extractive approaches to natural resources. Tim Flannery has given us a bracing corrective view that can help us make more enlightened choices in the care of our remaining natural resources.

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