In Other Words

Arts of Living on a Dam­aged Planet: Ghosts and Mon­sters of the An­thro­pocene

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Arts of Living on a Dam­aged Planet: Ghosts and Mon­sters of the An­thro­pocene, edited by Anna Lowen­haupt Ts­ing, Nils Bubandt, Heather Swan­son, and Elaine Gan; Univer­sity of Min­nesota Press, 368 pages

There is no short­age of books fore­telling the catas­tro­phe to which cli­mate change shall de­liver us. But what about a per­fectly de­cent field guide to the flora and fauna of ris­ing seas and ru­ined forests? Into this vac­uum comes Arts of Living on a

Dam­aged Planet, a vol­ume packed thick with de­scrip­tive es­says of life in the An­thro­pocene — the emer­gent word to de­scribe our own era, in which hu­man hands have re­shaped the planet’s en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate. Penned by a mot­ley mix of my­col­o­gists, lemur bi­ol­o­gists, sci-fi writ­ers, an­thro­pol­o­gists, and zo­ol­o­gists among oth­ers, these 18 pieces jaunt across the world, try­ing to make sense of plants and an­i­mals in­ter­act­ing with each other in a pol­luted land­scape.

There is the pro­file of a Rus­sian sci­en­tist who covertly spelunks the hol­lowed-out re­ac­tors of Ch­er­nobyl, an ac­count of the vast pseudo-marine ecolo­gies re­quired to sup­port salmon farming, an eco­log­i­cal study of Ti­juana-San Diego canyons that are fer­til­ized by raw sewage, and thought pieces that con­sider the en­tan­gled lives of lichen and ants, mam­mal life and mi­crobes, hu­mans and wolves. It should be noted that Arts of Living on a Dam­aged

Planet is ac­tu­ally two books. Flipped one way, half the vol­ume is sub­ti­tled Ghosts, with es­says devoted to re­cently ex­tinct species and land­scapes de­stroyed by hu­man er­ror and avarice. Flipped the other way, the book’s sub­ti­tle is ap­pended as

Mon­sters, a se­cond vol­ume that starkly con­sid­ers how a hot, pol­luted planet is quickly reshuf­fling the dom­i­nance of species in front of our own eyes.

The Mon­sters half in­tro­duces it­self with “Bod­ies Tum­bled Into Bod­ies,” where the book’s four coed­i­tors, writ­ing jointly, con­sider how comb jel­ly­fish — ca­pa­ble of eat­ing 10 times their weight in a sin­gle day — have over­taken the Black Sea since the 1980s. “The ocean turns mon­strous. Fill­ing the seas with slosh­ing goo, jel­ly­fish are night­mare crea­tures of a fu­ture in which only mon­sters can sur­vive,” write the ed­i­tors. “Un­der other con­di­tions, jel­lies are ca­pa­ble of play­ing well with other species. If jel­ly­fish are mon­sters, it is be­cause of their en­tan­gle­ments — with us. Jel­lies be­come bul­lies through mod­ern hu­man ship­ping, over­fish­ing, pol­lu­tion and global warm­ing.” It’s a style of writ­ing and in­quiry that re­mains consistent through­out the es­says, the mix­ing of sci­en­tific acu­men and hard fact, all while flirt­ing with some of the more rad­i­cal the­o­ries cur­rently be­ing put forth by ecol­o­gists — namely that ev­ery living thing is sym­bi­otic, thor­oughly co-evolved and ut­terly code­pen­dent on other species. In the case of hu­mans, our evo­lu­tion is sim­ply not con­ceiv­able with­out the bac­te­ria re­sid­ing in our in­testines nor the wolves we tamed into dogs, dur­ing our long march through hunter-gath­er­ing and agri­cul­tural do­mes­ti­ca­tion.

A few of the au­thors even con­cede the oc­ca­sional sil­ver lin­ing to life in the An­thro­pocene. For in­stance, Jens-Chris­tian Sven­ning, a bi­ol­o­gist who spe­cial­izes in the ecol­ogy of megafauna (an­i­mals larger than 100 pounds), in­vites the reader to con­sider the re­cent resur­gence of gi­ant beasts on the very con­ti­nents to which they were nearly driven to ex­tinc­tion — Europe and North Amer­ica. In Europe, where one mil­lion hectares of agri­cul­tural land are aban­doned each year to ur­ban­iza­tion, wild boar, brown bear, Eurasian elk, and even the com­mon beaver have made strong re-ex­pan­sions across the Con­ti­nent.

Arts of Living on a Dam­aged Planet has its ori­gins in a 2014 Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia - Santa Cruz con­fer­ence of the same name. It was an event that com­min­gled sci­en­tists with hu­man­ists in the name of in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary un­der­stand­ing to an­swer the ques­tion of whether hu­mans and other species will re­ally be able to go on co­ex­ist­ing in the fu­ture. But un­for­tu­nately, as far as this book is con­cerned, the sci­en­tists have the greater writ­ing strength. For ex­am­ple, Les­ley Stern, a film the­o­rist and his­to­rian who is also known for her ex­per­i­men­tal fu­sions of film crit­i­cism and fic­tion, con­trib­utes a piece called “A Gar­den or a Grave? The Cany­onic Land­scape of the Ti­juana-San Diego Re­gion” that is lit­tle more than a jour­nal­is­tic ac­count of the Ti­juana River wa­ter­shed and the bat­tle be­tween shan­ty­town res­i­dents, tire dump pro­pri­etors, politi­cians and con­ser­va­tion­ists to re­make the land­scape.

Con­trast that with the con­tri­bu­tion of In­grid Parker, an ecol­ogy pro­fes­sor whose work blends nat­u­ral his­tory with math­e­mat­i­cal botany mod­els. She col­lects, quan­ti­fies, and an­a­lyzes plants in a Cal­i­for­nia meadow to un­der­stand how much of the flora are in­va­sive trans­plants that ar­rived with Span­ish colo­nial­ists. Ex­trap­o­lat­ing back to na­tive species, she re­veals the pre-set­tler Cal­i­for­nia to be a poly­chro­matic, flo­ral Eden. “At the time of Euro­pean con­tact, spring in Cal­i­for­nia was a riot of color. Spec­tac­u­lar fields of shim­mer­ing blue lupines and baby blue-eyes, pink owl’s clover, prickly yel­low fid­dle­necks, scar­let paint­brushes, and un­count­able pop­pies like or­ange dots in a pointil­list paint­ing would have stretched from San Diego to San Fran­cisco and be­yond.”

There’s a po­etry in facts. And as this book re­veals, there is an in­creas­ing amount of courage and ac­cep­tance to be found in un­der­stand­ing even the most de­struc­tive changes in plant and wildlife that the over­heated An­thro­pocene will bring us.

— Casey Sanchez

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