The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be

once and future world cover image The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be

by J.B. Mackinnon
Reflections on Nature
Random House
Hardcover, 272 pages

This book was a finalist for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.
Having just returned from a visit to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), our earlier reading of J.B. MacKinnon’s meditation on the state of the natural world has resolved to crystal clarity. Rapa Nui is a microcosm of MacKinnon’s worldview. Humans first arrived there in the first millennium AD. By 1722, when the first Europeans arrived, its lush, pristine ecosystem had already been devastated and its Polynesian civilization left in ruins. The Europeans, needless to say, continued and extended that process. 
MacKinnon begins by asking us to, “Picture the first place you thought of as nature.”  He then goes on to show how, by the “shifting baseline syndrome” or “change blindness,” that picture is illusory and the result of a long history of human transformation. By 1492, which we often take as the baseline, every corner of the Americas had been radically changed by its native populations. Each generation comes to assume that the “nature” it grows up with is the normal state. And so it goes like the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water.
MacKinnon claims that what is left is a “10% world” – that the variety of species, their number, and the range that they occupy are 10% of what they used to be. What’s more, the loss of each species results in a “double disappearance” – that is the loss that occurs to us by the extinction or extirpation of a critter with which we have interacted. His prescription is to “…remember, reconnect and rewild." This is a sobering book, but the elegance of its prose is a pleasure to read.