Melanie Challenger on Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature

I was lucky enough to interview the lovely (and refreshingly humble) writer, explorer and poet Melanie Challenger on her new book, On Extinction – How We Became Estranged From Nature, at this year’s Durham Book Festival. She is Creative Fellow at the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity at University College London, and Associate Artist at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. She has also received a British Council Darwin Award for her research. This book is about us more than anything – what we do to our environment as a species, why we do it and what the effects are. On her journeys from Antarctica to Cornwall, Melanie explores the often devastating imprint we leave on the world. But this is in no way a depressing book; it ties all the strands together for a hopeful ending, looking towards a future where we can understand ourselves better and reconcile ourselves with nature. Melanie’s ability as a poet pours from the pages; her language and style is at times breathtakingly beautiful. Don’t expect a scientific summary of the natural world, expect a true story. About us.

Do you believe there is a direct link between our increasing alienation from the natural world and our happiness and contentment as human beings?

It’s not a straightforward index I don’t think. On the one hand, theoretically we’re seeing higher levels of depression and local-level violence (rather than global conflicts). And now exploitation of nature has become a huge restorative thing – people go into nature to ‘ease their sick spirit’; that’s a massive industry now. So that would indicate that there is some kind of correlation. But at the same time we are healthier, wealthier, less globally violent (believe it or not) and people have access to more education (in Westernised countries) than ever before. I think there is a relationship between not having any access to nature and being very stressed, but equally I don’t think going back to an environment where we are hard up with nature would make people any happier. We’ve driven this kind of invention because we gain from it, and I think you have to be realistic about that.

You speak often of now extinct industries. What do you think the effect is on a person whose entire livelihood was centered around an industry (for example, mining) and is forced to see it finished in their lifetime?

There’s absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of people, particularly men, don’t suffer the loss of a way of life very well at all. The Inuit have a rate of suicide four times that than the rest of Canada, and the majority are men who are finding it extremely difficult to adapt to the change. It’s not just about their role in life, or even making money, it’s the fact that this is their whole identity, this is their whole knowledge base and it has potentially been in their family for generations. It is not a good strategy – inevitably, as a species, people are going to want to retain their industry in some way and I think the loss is completely harrowing for the majority of people, at an intrinsic level as well as a rational level. Essentially, it’s a form of bereavement. It takes a long time to recover from.

Do you think the destruction we act out on the environment is reflective of how we feel?

No. We have been driving species to near extinction or entire extinction for tens of thousands of years. And I don’t think thirty thousand years ago a Pleistocene hunter was worrying about being in a negative state of mind, they are just exploiting resources to extinction and then moving on to another resource, specialising in something else. This is just a natural behaviour. We are always going to be an exploitative creature and the more weaponry we have, the more skilled we will be at exploiting. The only thing I would say in terms of a modern mentality is that the more estranged you are from the natural world, the less compulsion you will have to safeguard it. Nowadays, if you have an investor miles away from the thing that’s being exploited and not witnessing it on a daily basis, then they’re not going to have anything ringing a bell saying “this isn’t a good idea”. They are just thinking about the money. So yes, in that respect there’s a modern effect at work, for sure.

In your book you describe many wildlife encounters. Is there one that stands out in your memory as being particularly special?

I did manage to see a blue whale. I went to Chile with some researchers and was very close to one – saw its face, heard the noises, smelt its breath… that was absolutely awe-inspiring. You’re not going to get over that.

You say in the last chapter that the efforts of conservationists remain pointless without an understanding of our behaviour as an animal. Are you suggesting conservationists should stop what they are doing?

No, goodness no, I have the greatest respect for people who are compelled to do anything from positive, altruistic motives, which is essentially what it is. But that doesn’t mean that just because you’re doing something for a good reason that it shouldn’t be questioned and driven to its most effective. What I think we often do is find some evidence and follow it with a set of policies or funded research, which are followed through not blindly but perhaps believed in too confidently. It’s the old argument of whether to preserve or not preserve, and whether that’s the right approach. It should be open to considerable question. I guess what I’m arguing is that, with all the best motives in the world, we certainly need a more subtle approach to understanding how we’ve behaved and allowing a larger ecological time frame. So looking beyond several generations, looking back much further than that, before setting up a set of rules of how we are going to behave over a certain time. There are lots of things conservationists have done that have been incredibly effective, bringing many species back from the brink for example. I think that is a wholly positive act.

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