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The Ragged Edge of the WorldA journey through the world’s lost wildernesses

Review by Susan Jappie

American journalist Eugene Linden’s book is based on forty years of investigating the demise of endangered species and peoples across the globe, beginning with a trip to Vietnam in the early 70s, towards the end of the war. He had become a conscientious objector and went to investigate and write about the phenomenon of ‘fragging’, where disillusioned soldiers conspired to kill their officers! After this, his brief came from US papers like Time and National Geographic, where he had to write for their readership. This book presents his own, more controversial thoughts and experiences. But he notes that in the last century, Vietnam has lost between 20% and 40% of its forest cover, and that process continues now as the country enters the race for profit.

Linden writes that despite all the conferences, declarations and treaties of the past 40 years, no effective action has been taken to prevent climate change and “the ragged edges of the world have shrunk” because of the exponential rate at which wild lands are being cut down and degraded. There has been a “cultural holocaust” as indigenous peoples’ knowledge of ecosystems is lost when they are pushed out of their homes in the race for resources. As early as 1972 the collapse of the economy due to overuse of non-renewable resources was predicted by the Club of Rome and Linden wonders what it is that has made us so stupid, responding that his candidate is capitalism, as practised in the USA, with its emphasis on short-term gains and blindness to long-term threats.

The book begins in the Pacific islands, where Linden notes how once pristine cultures, and the people they belong to, have been corrupted by tourism and are losing their languages. In contrast he cites the example of Cuba, which has been preserved from pollution and the psychological dangers of ‘modernity’ through its political isolation from the powerful USA. He shows how Cubans have made use of their good education and learned resourcefulness to make do without cheap oil, not available to them because of the US trade boycott.

They have also protected 22% of the country from deforestation, and kept the land and water free from chemical fertiliser run-off. Although Linden wonders what will happen when Fidel Castro dies, he is quite hopeful that Cubans have already learnt the lessons the rest of us will need as oil becomes scarce.

From his amazing adventures in both the Arctic and the Antarctic he draws interesting contrasts between the life-denying South Pole, and the North Pole where polar bears and seals thrive on prolific sea food, in the meeting of the warm Pacific and freezing Arctic waters. But he also highlights the dangers of global warming and the melting of the Antarctic ice-sheets, which would swell the oceans by as much as 170 metres.

In Arctic Russia, the melting of the permafrost has released vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming as the reflective ice is lost. Toxic wastes abound where diamonds were mined and forests drowned to build a hydro-electric power plant. The indigenous elders in the far north are glad to be left alone after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as now they are able to be more independent and pursue their indigenous culture of trading by barter and having singing festivals.

Linden’s experiences in the tropical forests of Africa, meeting some of the Aka hunter-gatherers, who still survive there and know the elephant trails and weapon-using habits of male chimps in a way that still eludes Western scientists, were in some ways inspiring to read. One forest he describes is still an example of ‘Eden’, where the animals had never been hunted and so were curious rather than afraid of humans. But in other ways the continuing bloody conflicts and the corruption of the regimes in the Congo and Rwanda make this a very depressing section. The forest itself is suffering from drought, as the dust of the Harmattan winds blows in from the North.

Linden likens the devastation that he has seen, even in the most remote regions and from the polar to the tropical, as “like an asteroid has hit our planet”, only the problem is caused by the system of the global economy. Yet he shies away from calling for transformation of that system and an end to capitalism, and he rejects ideas like socialism or communism. Instead he proposes a regulated market economy, which he hopes would induce countries to work together for their mutual benefit.

28 April 2011

The Ragged Edge of the World: encounters at the frontier where modernity, wild lands and indigenous peoples meet. Eugene Linden, Viking, £16.64

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