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Back from the dead: Nature's rebound from man-made scars
Book review: Islands of Abandonment a look at how the environment fights back from our worst excesses
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(About the author: John Maxwell Hamilton, the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University, is a longtime journalist and author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — Shortly after the Bosnian War ended in 1996, I arrived in Sarajevo. It had been under attack for more than three years, the longest city siege in modern warfare. The Holiday Inn in the center of the city was an iconic symbol of the conflict. Serbian tanks had ripped off the front side of the blackened building. Journalists and other interlopers hung on in rooms on the other side.
Traveling through the region, I drove past villages and farms dotted with miniature replicates of the charred Holiday Inn. Many homes seemed to be almost smoldering even though all of their occupants had abandoned them long before.
Before the war, Bosnians were struggling to remake their failed communist economy into a modern capitalist one. Now with business and industry destroyed, GDP was 90% off what it had been, and unemployment was roughly the same level. The Bosnian struggle had become one of survival of body and spirit.
An old Bosnian journalist told me that he had made it through one cold one winter by burning a large portion of the library he had lovingly amassed. He no longer cared about possessions. “After you burn books,” he said, “why would you care about a chair?”
Amid the wreckage of things and of lives, I saw a paradox that was, at once, hopeful and in retrospect as depressing as anything I witnessed. With life at a standstill, industrial pollution had decreased. I was surprised to see sparkling water in many streams.
I experienced a similar feeling when reading Cal Flyn’s new book, Islands of Abandonment. Traveling the globe, the journalist takes us to locales that are somehow recovering from the worst kinds of environmental devastation. But then it dawns on us that that recovery comes because people are not doing what they would normally be doing. In fact, in her book, they are mostly not present at all. The clue to this is in the book’s subtitle, Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape.
Here are glimpses of the Phoenix-like resurgence of nonhuman life that Flyn shows us.
In her native Scotland, man-made mountains of slag, the remnants of oil production from shale, are now biodiverse wildlife sanctuaries for both flora and fauna. A similar outcome occurred when a buffer zone was established in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974. The no man’s land dividing Turk and Greek populations became a haven for 358 species of plants, including the rare Cyprus bee orchid, as well as a hundred species of birds.
Chernobyl, Ukraine, site of the nuclear reactor meltdown that forced mass evacuation of an area larger than Rhode Island, is now 70% forest and the animal population has doubled. For the first time in a century, brown bears can be seen there.
Passaic, N.J. was a center for the production of polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs), Agent Orange, and DDT insecticide. Rachel Carson focused on the latter infamous killer in her classic Silent Spring. PCBs don’t go away. But the killifish that swims in the Passaic River genetically adapted to the toxic water. Similar “rapid evolution” has taken place elsewhere, offering a “tiny, hairline crack, through which light glimmers.”
The constant bombardment of Verdun – some 40 million shells made of heavy metals – during World War I transformed one large section into a biological desert. In some places, 17% of the soil is made up of arsenic from gas attacks. But some plants have learned to adapt.
This, too, has happened in other places. “By sucking heavy metals from the earth and hoarding or redistributing them,” Flyn writes, heavy metal-eating plants “might prepare the ground for other, more sensitive organisms. In his way nature begins to heal over her scars.”
In Tanzania, Flyn looks at the introduction of new plants into an ecosystem. This man-made intervention causes disruption, but eventually “novel ecosystems” can become self-sustaining. New forests sometimes hold greater biodiversity than the original ones.
Flyn is looking for signs “that might indicate a fresh dawn of a new wild as, across the world, ever more land falls into abandonment.” In her far-flung search, she combines science with keen first-person journalistic observation. Her descriptions are vivid, if somewhat distracting when she sees butterflies improbably “somersaulting” and rivers “braiding” themselves together.
The net result is an important book that shows what can happen when human beings step back and let the earth right itself. For instance, Flyn finds good news in abandoned collective farms in Estonia that are becoming forests. Here is a potential strategy for carbon sequestration. “More than two thirds of the world’s forest is now considered ‘naturally regenerated,” she writes. “This is Christ-like rebirth, Lazarus-like revival, on land we had left for dead.”
But at the end of her book, she can’t avoid the root problem that people must be involved. She is especially grim on the matter of global warming, which is proceeding rapidly. “It would be remiss of me not to face, head on, the elephant: that of irreversible, catastrophic loss as a result of human actions.”
The complexity of the problem is apparent in the comment of a scientist whom Flyn quotes. He suggests that it might make sense to place small amounts of nuclear waste in selected tropical forests so they will not be plundered “by greedy developers.” Among the various things wrong with the preposterous suggestion is that poverty, as much as avarice, drives tropical forest devastation. Desperately poor and not at liberty to consider long or even medium-term health considerations, dirt poor farmers invade these fragile ecosystems in order to feed their families – and when the lands give out, as they quickly do, the farmers move on to slash and burn new patches elsewhere.
Such dilemmas appear today in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its economy has rebounded. Per capita GDP is more than six times what it was when I was there after the war. Although unemployment is too high, people are mostly back to work. But at the same time the country is now one of the world’s most polluted. Added to that are the environmental hazards brought on by the war. The country is riddled with unexploded landmines that contaminate water and soil, and still are able to kill.