Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review of The Fate of Nature, by Charles Wohlforth


On a break from blogging and book-writing about Alaska public corruption, here's a review of another Alaska-centric book I think is worth reading:

Review of The Fate of Nature, by Charles Wohlforth

Can the earth be saved?

Charles Wohlforth asks this question and tries to answer it in his new book The Fate of Nature.

The focus of the Anchorage-based writer is on the human spirit—“heart”—not technology. Wohlforth combines insights from game theory, animal psychology, and the history of Prince William Sound to explore whether mankind can avoid destroying the planet, particularly its oceans.

The Fate of Nature is both fun and enlightening. This has got to be the only book ever that combines discussions of the behavior of killer whales and ravens with examinations of the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aleut baseball. It mixes the lyrical and the wonkish, the pragmatic and the mystical, and it also throws in some nice turns of writing (“Slightly salty bombs of pure freshness explode on the teeth.”)

Wohlforth leveraged his considerable strengths to produce this book:

· There’s deep research. He doesn’t just boat and hike all over coastal Alaska, he gets up before 6 a.m. to call a scientist in Switzerland to talk about altruism, and then manages to end up in the middle of a dispute between a bird expert and an ape specialist that ends with an e-mail reading “All hugs and kisses, Monkeyboy.”

· There are the social skills that allowed him to get close to the daily work of field biologists and into insular Native villages, where he is invited to partake in old traditions like spending hours in a super-hot banya (sauna).

· There’s the substantial background in writing about science, travel, and Alaska politics and history, leavened by lifelong residency on the Last Frontier.

· There’s the experience of the practical politician who has served as an elected municipal government official, giving him a refined understanding of close-to-the-ground decision-making by local communities.

Wohlforth recounts how the conflicts over conservation in the early 1900s shaped the American political system we have today, and also includes a disquieting detour on the historical link between the laudable desire for conservation and the repellent drive for eugenics.

The Fate of Nature is not all heavy history, however: There’s eloquence, passion, and a sense of adventure. One engaging tale previously unknown to me is that of Will Langille, a man from Oregon who first went to Alaska with the Gold Rush. Hired by legendary federal forestry executive Gifford Pinchot, Langille engaged in a one-man reconnaissance of most of the state in 1903 and 1904 and ended up playing a major role in the creation of national forests in Alaska that together are almost as big as Pennsylvania.

Along with a dash of Boy’s Life, the book also contains unflinching discussions of the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill on the otters, birds, and people of Prince William Sound. Wohlforth covered the spill extensively as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, and he has acknowledged elsewhere that the disaster launched his career in free-lance writing.

The book emphasizes simple pleasures enjoyed over the long run as opposed to a short-term focus on money and material things. The Fate of Nature also celebrates cooperation and collaboration by well-motivated individuals working on their own and in small groups to figure out and implement solutions to local problems, including by extension the global issues of pollution and environmental protection.

Given Wohlforth’s progressive sympathies, some observers might be surprised by this latter point. Recently, it’s often been Republicans that have been associated with small-government solutions while Democrats are identified with a national approach—think health care reform, for example.

The author would probably say this sort of analysis misses the point, and he would likely use argumentative jujitsu to come at the issue a whole different way. This book calls for engagement that starts at a level outside of politics: People should reach inside and engage with themselves, and thereby improve their own values while trying to make better and deeper connections with those around them.

Wohlforth gave dozens of talks about his book on climate change, The Whale and the Supercomputer, and is likely to make a similar publicity push for this one. One question he may get at those lectures is whether the book implicitly promotes environments that most people just want to see—or even just imagine—and not actually live around. Most people could not spend all their time in beautiful and pristine surroundings, or they wouldn’t be pristine. Most people would not really want to make the sacrifices it would take to live like the Native villagers he portrays. Although the easy availability of seafood (particularly salmon) has traditionally made Prince William Sound an easier place to follow a subsistence lifestyle than in Interior Alaska, anybody who has ever lived in a small subsistence-oriented village—or spent a lot of time with someone who has—knows that such a way of life is hard work and not just an idyllic Eden. Simply living in a tiny town doesn’t mean that everybody will get along, either: It sometimes seems that the smaller the community, the bigger the feud.

In The Fate of Nature, Wohlforth takes stands unpopular with many more boosterish Alaskans and frames issues in a way outside the mold of conventional thinking. This book gives you nice mental pictures and makes you think, and it will appeal to both Alaskans and those who have never been near the Last Frontier.

Disclosures: I have known Charles Wohlforth for more than 15 years. I worked with him while he was a Member of the Anchorage Assembly and I was an in-house attorney at the Municipality of Anchorage. I own property—and am the vice president and manager of a corporation that sells real estate—at a Prince William Sound location mentioned repeatedly in this book.

Update--You can check out the website for the book at on the Internet.

1 comment:

freeper said...

On the basis of the review, as well as the description of the contents, I'll be ordering this book for my local library.

Now to figure out how to institute a forced reading program for those who seem to have forgotten what books were for....