A veteran journalist recalls his travels through the world’s dwindling wild places.
Linden (The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations, 2006, etc.) has spent 30 years chasing environmental stories for Time, National Geographic and the New York Times on the remote frontiers of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, where traditional cultures and modernity meet. “I never imagined that my visits to the ragged edge of the world were a farewell tour,” he writes. Amid tiny glimmers of hope, he chronicles the worldwide loss of ecosystems and cultures. Thousands of indigenous tribes manage to live on in the face of an onslaught by consumer society, but their cultures wither and die. In Polynesia, for instance, modernity has wiped out ways of life that tied Polynesians to the sea and one another. In many societies, indigenous shamans can no longer compete with the technological magic of the consumer society. Perhaps saddest of all, writes Linden, tribes that decide they do not enjoy living in the market economy cannot return to their former life in the wildlands because the forests, animals and rituals that sustained them have disappeared. Each chapter focuses on a specific place, including New Guinea, where modernity arrived after World War II; war- and epidemic-ridden sub-Saharan Africa; and Antarctica, where global warming is unfreezing time and harming creatures. The author notes that modern tourists begin appreciating some cultures just before they disappear—e.g., the continuing flocking of New Age seekers to Machu Picchu, which supposedly sits atop a giant crystal. One day, writes Linden, humankind may wake up to the disastrous consequences of capitalism’s “skewered incentives” to reap short-term profits. In the meantime, some form of traditional culture endures in distant places where tribes hang on and the local ecology retains continuity with the past.
A well-rendered but disheartening tale of a life’s work documenting the “human and animal detritus left behind in the aftermath of the advancing armies of the consumer society.”