The main idea of this book is that the current environmental obsession with saving species comes from really poor understanding of realities of the world and meaning of evolution. In reality the environment is constantly in process of change and it is always beneficial for some species and detrimental for others, so some go on to prosper and some go extinct. The idea that humans is some king of external factor in Earth’s ecosystem is ridiculous on its face because humans are part of environment and, as every other species that ever existed, they change environment by the simple fact of being alive. However, these changes caused by humans are on much higher scale than by other species and, most important, could be consciously controlled. So, the point is that human interaction should become more conscious and direct its impact to create much better environment with understanding that it is dynamic process and that extinction of some species and creation of new is natural and could not be possibly stopped.
PART I: Opportunity
Prologue: Gains and losses
This starts with the looking around out of window and seeing somewhat chaotic mix of species of everything alive from grass and trees to animals and birds, which is completely different from what it used to be even a several decades ago. Lots of species disappeared, pushed out by competition from other species and humans. But lots of new species showed, or old species invaded from faraway places and then prospered. Also, the human impact changed dramatically from killing animals to saving them not only for use in economy, but also for their own sake. The point here is that living world is complex, constantly changes, and humans should not attempt to stave off the change. They should rather ride the wave based on understanding of ecosystem dynamically then try to maintain status quo of the system based on the idea that it is perfect as it is.
Here author traces development and movement around the world of one specific specie: sparrows, that came from Asia and then moved elsewhere in close cooperation with movement of humans, in process evolving to fit different environments. Author uses this as example of coevolution and points out that it happens all the time with all kind of living things and that idea of environmentalists that there ever was a perfect condition, which was destroyed by unnatural humans, is just plainly not correct. His main point however is that even if humans decided to save environment as it is, it would not be possible due to complexity and variety of evolutionary processes that involves everything living.
PART II New Pangea; Prelude
Here author just states his purpose in this part to look at four human-caused changes in environment and demonstrate how some species become highly successful as result of these changes.
- Fall and rise
This chapter is about impact of humans killing animals for food and other products. The author starts with elephants and discusses reasons for their survival, unlike many other big animals that were extinct most probably by the human hunting. An interesting point here is that one of the reasons for this survival was their African roots where they developed in parallel with humans and learned how to avoid and overall deal with this extremely dangerous predator. Other big animals for example in America encountered humans when they arrived with already highly developed hunting skills, so these animals had no time to adjust. Here is a nice diagram of before and after:
Eventually human transformed the world and it is obvious now that everything alive, plants or animals are one way or another impacted by humans, some of them in very beneficial ways if they were found useful.
- Never had it so good
This chapter looks at impact of agriculture. Author starts it with discussion of butterflies, which are not directly useful to humans, but prospered by evolutionary adjusting to utilize abundance of cereals grown by humans. After reviewing this regular English agricultural environment author moves to tropical forest where he easily finds traces of human impact ,for example plants from other continents that would never get there without human interference. One of the most important inferences here is that humans, as well as all other animals and plant had never lived in harmony with surrounding environment by the virtue of being part of this environment continuously, at least until recently, trying to expand its own species as much as possible. The final important point here is that human impact changes environment by making winners and losers differently than would be without humans, but so everything else either alive or not so in these terms humans are not that different from any other natural phenomenon.
- Steaming ahead
This chapter looks at evolutionary success resulting from human-caused climate change. As example author uses other primates moving up into the mountings, wolves that move to areas they never inhabited before, and finally beetle that expanded to new areas on mass scale. However, author actually refers to general climate change that happens constantly, triggering huge changes in species distribution, evolution and even existence. Here is a nice illustration from the dig in very civilized area in England:
- Pangea reunited
This chapter is dealing with evolutionary changes caused by humans transporting everything conceivable, including all living things, all around the world. Author provides a number of examples of this process, but their number is infinite. In the last few hundred years humans developed tools for practically instant travel, so no wander that everything else uses these tools, whether they buy ticket or not to move around. As the result the whole ecosystem of the planet, actually more than that because it includes minerals, metals, and everything else, become much more dynamic so some species prosper in new environments, while others cannot survive in their original environment anymore because of new competition.
PART III: Genesis Six; Prelude
This part is about perception, which many people have, of current development as the sixth mass extinction caused by humans. The previous 5 extinctions were caused by geological and astronomical events. None of extinctions, however, was complete. At the time of the great many of extinct losers there were some successful winners, for example mammals after dinosaurs, so author here discusses who are survivals of current change and what new species this change brings to live.
- Heirs to the world
This starts with discussion of New Zealand’s successful conservation attempts to save original species that were endangered by new arrivals brought in by humans. Author points out an interesting fact that these animals actually consume plants brought in from Europe, making this the idea of conservation somewhat invalid. In reality it is not possible to recreate bygone environment, even if it is possible maintain parts of it alive, usually at high cost. Author then discusses various methods of regulating environment to bring it to the state preferable to humans, even if it would never be conservation of some original state.
- Evolution never gives up
This chapter reviews some very dramatic and massive changes of environment created by humans, but demonstrates that evolution often works in the complex and unpredictable way, resulting in unplanned and unexpected changes that sometime are beneficial for human objectives and sometimes not, but always uncontrollable.
- The Pangean archipelago.
Here author stresses that current changes do not really decrease diversity of environment, but just change the mix of this diversity making sometimes winners out of invaders, but sometime turning them into losers when local species develop successful adjustment.
The final chapter of this part is about hybridization that constantly producing new species out of old. He even refers to humans as one of such hybrid at least with Neanderthals for Europeans, but probably a great number of hybridization occurrences over millions years of human evolution. Author very reasonably rejects ideas of genetic purity with tree of live viewed with perfectly separated branches. Reality is very different with species forming, then merging, then splitting and always changing as long as environment changes. It is obviously possible for some species to maintaining themselves in environment when change is slow to nonexistent, but current impact of humans shaking the planet and its species inevitably causes accelerated evolution, at least for a while. It is basically healthy process and it is ridiculous trying to stop it.
PART IV Anthropocene Park; Prelude
This part is kind of summation of this book in which author calls to accept change as a natural part of live and instead of trying to restore some stable ecological environment that never really existed in the first place, humans should look ahead and think and act carefully to impact the ways change occurs so it would happen in direction beneficial for humanity.
- The new natural
Here author argues that humans are the part of nature, not something standing outside of it, so human actions are actions of nature therefore changes caused by humans are natural changes.
- Noah’s Earth
This chapter is about conservation or more precisely about futility of attempt to save something as it is by preventing any change. Normal development includes species going extinct and the new species being developed, rare plans becoming widely spread and widely spread becoming rare, and so on and on. We live now in kind of Anthropocene Part and we both inmates and custodians of this part, so the more knowledge and technology we have the more we can consciously do to make this world livable and dynamically modifiable in the direction we want, including creation and/or extinction of species.
Epilogue: One million years AD
This is highly optimistic epilogue that stresses, and quit convincingly at that, that while we do extinguish lots of species and know that, we really do not understand that we created a lot of new ones, even if mostly unconsciously. Moreover, author claims that it is quite possible that on final count the earth diversity increased due to the human impact, rather than decreased and there is plenty of reasons to think that future world of humans will be as diverse as they would want it to be.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I think it is a great approach to human / environment interaction. I think humanity is on its way to create self-contained production system when producing everything that human need would be restricted to full cycle closed systems with no impact on environment whatsoever. As example I would take production of energy when we are moving from primitive generation of heat from open fire in caves through coal fed electrical plants to small-scale thermonuclear devices that would consume miniscule amount of water and produce clean energy. It does not mean that human would ever become isolated from environment. I would expect that human impact on environment would actually increase and quite dramatically, but it would have completely different objective – instead of obtaining energy and material for survival it would be continuing dynamic modification of environment with objective to make it the most enjoyable for humans and other species that humans would like to have in this environment, probably even some species, specifically designed to make environment more enjoyable. Maybe it would even include some genetically modified lions that, when meeting a lamb instead of tearing it apart would start playing with it, distracted only by need to go and do some human designed exercise that would keep them fit and reward them with industrially produced meat of perfect nutritional value.