The Edge Of Extinction: Travels With Enduring People In Vanishing Lands, by Jules Pretty
This is a difficult book to review because its mixture of good and evil is so complicated and interconnected that few people who can see the book’s rhapsodic poetry are likely to see the tensions and contradictions and heathen aspects clearly, and few who see its hypocrisy and self-serving leftist rhetoric are likely to grant any sort of concession to the book’s poetry and its attempts, however ineffectual, to balance the concerns of man and environment. Even before one gets to the short coda, where the author offers as faux-prophetic dream of a time when all communication is immanent and mankind is in deep connection with the environment in some sort of neo-pagan animism, the general tenor of the work has made itself plain. Everywhere in this book the author is scornful of economic advances, of progress, of business concerns, but at the same time the author longs for the various “native” peoples, minority groups of one kind or another, to have the same sort of lifespan and health as the overweight and lazy Westerners whom he so casually and consistently derides.
In terms of its contents, the book is organized around twelve travel essays where the author has visited various vulnerable environments on the margins of civilization in one way or another, where the people of the land seek to live in harmony with their surroundings despite the problems of extractive businesses like mining and refining, the lack of understanding of many larger political elites on the national level in particular, and the reputation of backwardness that such areas have, as well as internecine fighting over identity given the issue of dividing profits from government entitlement money. These same themes, along with a general hostility to Christianity and a strong bias in favor of various heathen shamanistic belief systems that engage in an older form of the nature worship that the author himself espouses, are continual throughout much of this book. In terms of the locations the book examines, they range from the coats of New Zealand to the mountains of Southern China to the desert coast of Northern Australia to the steppes of Tuva to the snows of northern Finland to the swamps of the Okavango in Botswana to the marshy fens of East Anglia to the coasts of Antrim in Northern Ireland to the farms of Amish country in Ohio to the swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana to the deserts of Death Valley. Although the essays are ostensibly about the people of those lands, whether proud nomads or Amish farmers or Maori or Roma or various indigenous people supposedly endangered or extinct, a great deal of the book’s material is made up of criticism for the elites of business and government, and for a desire of mankind, except perhaps for jet-setting international professors like the author, to use a small carbon footprint and get in touch with their narrow local areas.
Yet this fundamental contradiction between the book’s claim as an ideal and the behavior of the author itself serves as one of the elements that undercuts the thesis of this book and exposes it as a mass of tensions and outright contradictions. The author himself somehow believes that the merit he accrues by his listening and desire to understand the people he meets along his journeys outweighs the cost of his own extensive energy footprint in flying all over the world and driving over vulnerable terrain to reach these remote locations and participate in what amounts to adventure tourism. Over and over again, though, the author notes that the survival of vulnerable regions often depends on the tourists whom the author just as frequently derides. If the Atchafalya basin is threatened, it is in large part because hurricanes like Katrina and Gustav and the aftermath of the Deepwater oil spill in 2010 have driven many tourists away from the region. If Death Valley has been spared from being swallowed up by military bases and testing sites, it is because about a million tourists a year travel there. If the petroglyphs of Northern Australia are to be preserved, it will require the influx of tourists who appreciate such historical sites. Do not bite the hand that feeds. Nor is this the only contradiction, as the author argues for a Christian respect for others and a recognition of the need for the rights of people and not only of a sterile environmental conservation to be taken into consideration by governments, yet at the same time this book continually praises the sort of heathen shamanism that downgrades the importance of humanity because of a false belief in the sacredness of creation itself, apart from a due regard for the Creator. The author argues for ethical means of dealing with creation, but at the same time praises the lying and snobbery and suspicion of minority groups, even while lamenting the fact that any prestige that comes to them on identity grounds leads to fights over who is in and who is out. The book therefore serves as a beautiful series of extended haiku-like travel meditations that end up being a model of the incoherence and contradiction inherent in much of contemporary left-wing causes, where identity politics and an inability to harmonize the concerns of various groups fighting over limited resources lead to beggar thy neighbor policies that fail to serve either the greater good or even the particular good that government action seeks to protect and legitimize. As a result, the book’s dream appears to be mere wishful thinking and daydreaming, without any sort of actual potential for progress.