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BOOK REVIEW: ON EXTINCTION

Published: Scotland on Sunday, 9 October 2011

ON EXTINCTION
Melanie Challenger
Granta, £20

A TREND seems to have developed over the last few years for well-meaning literary types concerned about climate change to travel to the Arctic or Antarctica to get a good look at all that portentous melting ice, with the intention of writing screeds of emotive prose about it as soon as they’ve flown home. Some of these jetsetters then completely fail to engage with the inherent contradiction in their actions in the books and articles they end up writing. Thankfully, Melanie Challenger is different.

Yes, she clocked up plenty of air miles while researching this book – indeed, she achieves a rare Acrtic-Antarctic double-whammy – but she does at least show evidence of having wrestled long and hard with the ethical dilemmas posed by all her globetrotting.

Before visiting Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic, for instance, she says she was in two minds about whether to go. “I was trying to limit or avoid flying, and certainly not to take such potentially destructive technology for granted,” she writes.

In the end, she is persuaded to take the trip by a fellow scribe, but only after she has “agonized over the decision for weeks”, and she resolves to do as much of the journey as possible by “slow travelling” across land and water.

I know what you’re thinking: anyone could fly halfway around the world and then say sorry afterwards, but having read this book you couldn’t be in any doubt that the agony she reports is genuine.

Challenger’s theme, extinction, is a huge one, but her specific starting point is the fact that her grandmother had a favourite flower. Challenger realises she doesn’t have a favourite flower herself – in fact, she doesn’t even know the names of more than a handful – and this leads her into an extended meditation on the way we in the industrialised West have come to be “estranged from nature” in the space of a few short generations.

After starting to pursue this train of thought in a cabin on the poetically named Ding Dong Moor in Cornwall – watching spring exploding into life all around her, yet struggling to identify the various organisms putting on the show – Challenger hits the road, looking for examples of man’s inhumanity to pretty much everything else, and pondering the extinctions this behaviour might bring about, both for other species and for our own.

Fittingly perhaps, Challenger’s best writing comes out of her much-debated trip to Iqaluit. Here, she discovers, there are different kinds of extinction. The melting of the ice may be wiping out the polar bears, but the local Inuit are also endangered, facing the loss of their language and their “land ways”. They may not be in any physical danger, but by being assimilated into mainstream society they are disappearing just the same.

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